Since dogs don’t have thumbs, they often explore the world using their mouths. While many dogs learn that people don’t like having their wrists nibbled or their clothes pulled on, some dogs continue mouthing people throughout their lives.
When your dog mouths you, is he being affectionate or aggressive — or something else entirely?
Let’s explore what dog mouthing means.
As with most “why does my dog…” questions, we can’t really be 100% sure why your dog mouths you. But we can make some good guesses based on the circumstances around your dog’s behavior.
In other words, we might be able to figure out why your dog mouths you if we look at what happens right before and right after your dog mouths you.
Either something in the environment causes your dog to mouth you, or something that happens after your dog mouths you rewards his behavior — or both.
When people say their dog is mouthing them, they generally mean that their dog is putting his mouth and teeth on their body with very little (or no) pressure. Mouthing generally doesn’t hurt and generally isn’t considered aggressive.
There are generally two different “types” of dog mouthing:
This type of mouthing is the most common. When a dog greets someone, is excited about playtime, or is amped up about something else, he may mouth at your hands, wrists, or clothing.
Generally, these dogs will jump and wag their tails. You might feel their canines or molars when they mouth you.
This mouthing is somewhat similar to the common “jaw wrestling” play style that many dogs enjoy. Mouthing in this case may be considered a stress release or a game. This is more common in dogs that are easily excited and don’t seem to know what to do with that excitement.
Play mouthing can get out of hand when a dog does it incessantly or increases pressure as he gets more excited.
When I worked at Denver Dumb Friends League, an animal shelter, we often struggled with young dogs that got very excited about their daily walk and mouthed the volunteers. Sometimes, these playful pups accidentally broke skin on their handlers. Not good!
Far less common is the “grooming nibble.” Some dogs will attempt to groom other animals, their toys, or even you by gently nibbling with their incisors. This is generally considered to be an affectionate behavior that a dog does towards someone that he trusts.
You won’t feel a dog’s molars or canines when he’s doing a grooming nibble. These dogs are generally relaxed, not jumping and wagging their tails like the excited play-mouthers.
Most dogs mouth you because they’re simply too excited about something. They don’t have great manners or good impulse control. They know that mouthing you gets attention, so they keep it up.
As I said above, the majority of dogs fall into the first category of play mouthing. While this behavior is entirely normal and is generally not aggressive, it can still be quite annoying! Let’s look at how to deal with it.
The answer to this question is really up to you. If your dog only mouths you gently and at specific times, you might not mind this behavior. It can be quite endearing for some owners.
However, if your dog is big and slobbery and mouths you all the time, I bet you aren’t a fan of this behavior!
Let’s be clear here: mouthing is not a dominance behavior. Dominance is related to a dog’s access to a resource in a given situation. Mouthing you has little or nothing to do with acquiring a resource, so dominance is a pretty irrelevant subject here.
If your dog is not mouthing you in a playful way, but is actually fixated on putting his mouth on you or is putting hard pressure on you, he might not be play mouthing. He could be giving you a warning bite — and just because it doesn’t break skin doesn’t mean “he didn’t mean it.”
If you believe that your dog might be actually warning you that he’s uncomfortable rather than playing with you in a rude way, it’s time to get help. You can read all about aggressive dogs here, and it’s best to get help from a certified dog behavior consultant if you’re truly worried.
While some moderate mouthing might not bother some of you, for others, dog mouthing can be a real problem. It can be painful, gross, or even scary — especially for guests or kids.
Teaching your dog not to do something can be a bit tricky if we don’t want to scare, startle, or hurt our dogs, since there’s no way to suppress behavior without being a bit unpleasant for our dogs.
Instead, most trainers like to focus on teaching a dog to do something else instead, and making that new behavior more rewarding to do than the original unwanted behavior.
My favorite solution for dog mouthing is to teach the dog to greet someone and play with people while holding a squeaky toy.
You can do this by simply giving the dog a toy before he starts to mouth people, then playing with the toy (some tugging is a great start) to remind your dog that he should chomp the toy, not you!
This works wonders for most dogs. They quickly learn that the squeaky toy is much more fun than people’s arms.
You may also want to read our article on puppy play biting, which overlaps somewhat with mouthing affection, with puppies exhibiting even less mouthing control than adult dogs!
What if my dog is already mouthing me? And what if he doesn’t like toys? The squeaky toy approach works well if your dog hasn’t started mouthing you yet as a preventative measure.
But what if you’re not fast enough to get a toy to your dog, he begins mouthing at your arm, and you don’t want to reward your pup for biting (even if it’s playful) by giving him a toy?
In this case, you’ve got two main options:
As always, try to be calm and consistent. If something isn’t working, don’t keep repeating it — try to add something else that makes it easier for your dog. Don’t just ignore your dog, either. That’s likely to make you an easy target!
Treat scatters (simply tossing treats on the floor) are a great way to help calm a dog down and reduce mouthing. It’s best to do this before the dog starts mouthing you so that he doesn’t learn to mouth you to “ask for” treats!
Does your dog mouth you? Do you like it or wish it would stop? Share your dog’s mouthing stories in the comments!
Kayla Fratt is an Associate Certified Dog Behavior Consultant through the IAABC and works as a professional dog trainer through the use of positive reinforcement methods. She also has experience working as a Behavior Technician at Denver Dumb Friends League rehabilitating fearful and reactive dogs.