When puppies play with each other, they use their mouths a lot. When they play with you or when they are petted, they usually want to bite or “mouth”, too. This behaviour is not frankly aggressive at this stage — though it may be pre-aggressive.
When pups are raised by their mothers, there comes a time when mum starts to set limits. Demanding youngsters often want to nurse whenever they feel like it, but a good mum starts to rebuff some of their efforts from the tender age of about three weeks.
Nipping is also addressed, not just by mum but by the pup’s littermates as well. Too hard a nip might result in a physical admonishment from mother, or the nipped littermate may cry out and stop playing. These natural checks and balances help to develop a puppy’s good manners and eventual understanding of their impact of certain behaviours on others.
When a puppy is raised by a well-meaning human caregiver, however, proper limit setting is sometimes neglected. Some new puppy owners do not realise that nipping is not acceptable behaviour and that they should discourage it.
However, a certain amount of puppy mouthing is acceptable, even desirable, in the very early stage of a pup’s life. If a pup doesn’t engage in any oral behaviours toward its minders, it can never be taught when enough is enough. To emphasise this point, consider improper rearing of usually inscrutable chow pups as an example of what can go wrong. As cute as they are, chow puppies are often too serious for their own good, don’t play much, and may be reluctant to interact. If not coaxed out of this indifference, the first time they lay teeth on skin may not be until they’re 18 months old and the message they deliver at this stage is likely to be overkill — sometimes with disastrous results.
Instead, permit and even encourage mouthiness, even nipping — up to a point. But when mouthing becomes annoying, or the pup’s needle teeth start to make an unforgettable impression, it’s time to curtail the behaviour.
If things turn out as they should, your pup will adore you, respect you, and understand that, even in extreme situations, humans do not need to be punctured in order to send them an intense signal.
Adult nipping and mouthiness
Adult dogs that exhibit excess grabby oral behaviours do so because they have not been properly schooled as youngsters. They may nip you or grab people by the arm to indicate their wishes . Being nipped and grabbed by your dog against your will is a fairly distressing consequence for an owner.
As for adult nipping, avoid circumstances that can lead to nipping. If nipping or grabbing occurs do not shout, try to wave your arms around, or pull away. Instead, “turn to stone” and reward the dog when it lets go and stops nipping. A refinement of this approach to management of the mouthy dog is to arm yourself with a clicker and/or delicious food treats and ignore it when it engages in any rude and rough nipping behaviour.