When puppies are still with their littermates, they use each other’s bodies as toys. Therefore, it is hardly surprising that they use their mouths on us—most frequently on our arms, hands, and clothes. Though this is natural dog behavior, dogs must learn to interact in ways that are appropriate in the human world. Since mouthing people is not acceptable, what can be done to stop this behavior and teach our dogs that this is unacceptable behavior?
One useful method is to startle and then redirect the puppy, which is an ethologically useful technique, because it is based on puppies’ natural behavior when interacting with littermates. When littermates play together, they use their mouths to tug or gnaw on ears, tails, paws, and loose skin anywhere. If one puppy mouths too hard, the puppy that got hurt will yelp and move away from the puppy who was too rough. The puppy who was too rough has to go find someone else to play with, but has started to learn that mouthing too hard results in playtime being interrupted.
To simulate this behavior with a puppy, if a puppy mouths too hard, simply yelp with a puppy-like sound (Aaarp! is the closest description of this sound that can be spelled), and then, when the puppy releases its mouth from the person, immediately put something that the puppy can chew into its mouth. Possible objects for redirection include bones, rawhides, Kongs®, Goodie Balls®, squeakie toys, and stuffed animals.
A common mistake when using this method is making the yelping Aaarp! sound and then failing to redirect the puppy’s mouth to something appropriate. In most cases, the sound will startle the puppy, who will stop mouthing the person, but then will go right back to the inappropriate behavior unless given another, more appropriate object to chew on.
Over 90 percent of puppies respond to this method to stop puppy mouthing if it is used consistently over several weeks, but the remaining few dogs seem to get worse in response to those high-pitched yelps and are not responsive to attempts to redirect them. If after three or so attempts with this method, it becomes apparent that the dog is responding to the yelps by getting even mouthier and more revved up, don’t keep trying it. If it doesn’t work right away, it is not going to work at a later point, and it’s time to try something else.
Some dogs respond to being startled and redirected as long as the startling sound is not a high-pitched “Aaarp!” but rather a deep-voiced sound such as “Hey!” or “Stop!” Otherwise, the technique of interrupting the behavior and then redirecting the dog’s mouth to an appropriate object is the same. If the yelp does not work, this deeper-pitched startling vocalization followed by a redirection is the very next thing to try.
There are many suggestions for stopping puppy mouthing that I would never recommended either because they are inhumane, ineffective, or both. For example, do not hold the muzzle closed, yell at the dog, jam fingers into the inside of the dog’s mouth, or swat the dog. Basically, this comes down to one piece of general advice: Don’t do anything that involves any kind of physical punishment, pain or frightening the dog.
--Karen B. London