Information sheet : Mouthing

Do you have a puppy who would rather use your arm than a bone as a chew toy? While it is normal for puppies to use their mouths when playing with each other, this behaviour becomes a problem when it carries over into their interactions with us.

Many breeds are genetically inclined to use their mouths to do a job. The sporting breeds are the retrievers and the carriers of items. The Rottweiler will use their mouths to control the movements of humans or other animals. Understanding these tendencies in your own puppy, can help in dealing with mouthing.

At a very young age, puppies begin to learn how much pressure is too much from the reactions of their mothers and litter mates. When puppies play, they chomp on each other's ears and chew each other's necks until one of them bites down too hard. At that point, the bitten puppy will let out a piercing "yelp" (referred to as the hurt puppy noise),the yelping puppy will then get up and walk away. This teaches the biting puppy that when he is too rough, play ends. Since dogs are social animals, this in itself is a correction. Puppies learn bite inhibition through these play fighting sessions if they are allowed to remain with their litter until the age of 8 weeks. This is one of the most important lessons they carry into adulthood.

As a new puppy owner, it is necessary to establish what is and isn't acceptable behaviour from the very first day. Most puppies will do anything to please you and will benefit from expectations that are consistently displayed. Puppies teethe from 4 to 6 months of age, so mouthing is quite common at that stage. If it is not gotten under control by the time the puppy enters adolescence, not only will you have a less cooperative teenager to handle, but also a larger, stronger jaw with which to contend. Mouthing can become a way for your puppy to try to control you. The following techniques are recommended for most puppies up to 4 months of age, depending upon their size:

Initially, a puppy will use his mouth to investigate his environment. It gives a puppy relief to chew on all manner of items, soft and hard, while he is teething. Providing appropriate items for your puppy to focus his attentions on can sometimes be a simple way of solving a mouthing problem. Indestructible chew toys like large nylon bones or hard rubber Kong's can provide a positive outlet, although a Rottweiler will soon be able to chew it into pieces. We usually prefer large rawhide bones and carrots can be placed in the freezer and given to a teething puppy.

If your puppy is chewing on you, the moment the pressure increases, use your "hurt puppy" noise. Be sure to leave your hand in his mouth. Once the pressure is released, slowly remove your hand. You may wish to offer the back of your hand for your puppy to lick. By doing this, not only are you teaching him that your skin is tender, but also that you expect a sign of deference (licking your hand). Praise your puppy in a calm manner if his cooperation is immediate and offer him an appropriate chew toy. Do not offer a toy while your hand is still in his mouth, or you will be rewarding the wrong behaviour. You may also choose to assign a command like "no bite" or "no mouth" so your puppy will associate his behaviour with your correction. This method should work with the average, eager-to-please pup.

Does your puppy start mouthing you if you don't play when he wants to? Is he constantly tripping you up or trying to play Tug-O-War with the leash when you're walking in the direction you want to go? Is he uncooperative when you ask him to do something like get off the couch or wait for you to go through the doorway first? If your answer is yes to any of these questions, you may have a bossy or dominant puppy. With this type of dog, you may need to exercise a little more discipline.

Discipline does not involve punishment. It involves correcting an unwanted behaviour and teaching a new, more desirable one. The goal is to have the puppy understand that his behaviour is unacceptable. Since he may not look for much guidance from you, he may need to learn to accept you as a leader. The first step in letting a bossy puppy know you are in charge is to handle him in a variety of ways. Touching the paws and tail of a confident puppy often stimulates a mouthing response. Rather than forcing a pup to accept being handled, you should increase his comfort with it. Touch a toe and give a treat if the puppy has not already mouthed you. If he has, use your "no mouth" or similar command and try again. Your goal is to be able to gently squeeze the pup's paws in a non-threatening manner. This will help with nail trimming later.

As a prelude to good dental care, your puppy should also get used to having your fingers in his mouth. Begin by sliding your finger, coated in tuna fish oil or one of the commercially prepared dog toothpastes, into the pouch created by the pup's jowls on the side of his muzzle. Try to briefly massage his gums, praising all the while. If this presents no problem, slip back towards the molars, and let your finger run over the surface of the teeth. If, at this point, your puppy bites down too hard, use one of the corrections previously mentioned and then offer the back of your hand for him to lick.

With a puppy that is really being obnoxious, a more direct approach may be needed. For this method, your puppy should be wearing a well-fitted buckle collar. Should he begin to mouth you, slip your fingers under his collar, just under the jaw on either side. Then look directly into his eyes and say "no mouth" or something similar in a growly voice. Wait for him to look away or put his ears back slightly as a sign of submission. Then release him and walk away or briefly close him in another room for a few minutes as a "time out." There is no need to shake the pup or overdo this type of correction. He will get the message.

Remember that movement encourages a lunging, snapping puppy. With this type of dog, you need to be aware of how you may be motivating him to mouth. Never encourage games involving your hands or feet as targets. Hold your lead so that there is never any part of it dangling. Until you have started to retrain your puppy, it is a good idea to avoid wearing loose, flowing garments. It is natural for a person to raise his arms when he feels physically threatened, but this may lure a lunging puppy closer to an individual's face.

Instead of pulling your hand away when your puppy mouths you, try to push it further into his mouth. This creates a bit of discomfort and thus causes the pup to "spit" you out. You regain control of the situation by reversing his action. Once your hand has been released, praise. Spraying your hands and leash (cotton web preferably) with a commercially prepared, bitter-tasting spray can act as a deterrent. Diluted lemon juice can be used in a pinch.

If the above methods don't work, you may need to become a "statue." Instead of having your puppy play "tag, you're it," cross your arms across your chest, turn your back to him and become motionless. When you do not respond, your puppy gets no reward for his behaviour. When done consistently, this should extinguish the "game." This method also works for a puppy that tries to initiate games of Tug-O-War. If the leash goes slack instead of pulling back, the fun goes out of it.

If you are having a serious biting problem, especially with an older puppy, consult your veterinarian and consider bringing in a private trainer. To find a trainer, ask your vet for a referral or call a local obedience club or humane society. Ask what methods the trainer uses and speak to previous clients if possible. Rule out any trainer that advocates harsh corrections because they can have a long-lasting negative effect on your relationship with your puppy. They often make matters worse. Guidance and consistency are key when training, even when those needle-sharp teeth are gnawing away at your patience.

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