I want to start by saying that, it is rare that this behaviour is good or leads to anything good.
Now I am sure there are readers out there saying “oh no my dog only does this to say ….” but really there are many other ways to say that same thing.
I am also not talking about dogs that are learning or rehearsing bite work, I’m not talking about Service dogs that have been taught to lead people by the hand either.
I am specifically talking about dogs that have learned that putting parts of your body (or your clothes), in their mouths and applying pressure, can and will motivate you to do something or stop doing something.
It is very common that dogs start mouthing as puppies, often when they are teething or trying to get our attention. Harmless really at this age but it can easily escalate in the next develop period known as rank and shaping.
Recently, I had a client come to see me with a large breed dog, they had been working with a trainer to train their puppy over the past 6 months.
Their dog was now 11 months of age and was communicating, controlling and disciplining the family with her mouth.
Because there were no punctures, the previous trainer considered this only mouthing. They were told not to chastise their puppy in any way as she lacked confidence.
The “puppy” was 42 kilograms and the lady owner showed me her legs which were black, blue and half a dozen shades of purple.
There were similar marks on her arms and the male owners too.
If the owners went to go inside the house and leave the dog in the back yard, the dog would grab a limb and squeeze until they turned to her and gave attention. There were a dozen plus scenarios where the dog would control them this way.
There was literally no other way to stop this dog painfully biting them than give in.
She would also start “playing” with their clothes, turning this into a tug game and ripping and tearing clothes.
The advice given was to “carry food with them and throw the food on the ground to divert him away from mouthing and tearing clothing.“
They were willing to follow all of the advice given which included: –
- Ignore it
- Distract the dog with food
- Wear thicker clothing and gloves
- Carry a toy and see if she would rather play with this than bite them
- Find a food that she loves more than biting and give her that for letting go.
Both of these adults had been asked by friends and work colleagues if they are ok, based on the serious bruising and scarring on their arms and legs.
Believe it or not, this puts us in a tricky position with the owner. The dog has come to expect that she can manipulate her owners with this behaviour.
The dog finds this behaviour reinforcing and each time the owners have tried to stop this behaviour, thus preventing the dog from accessing her reinforcement, the dog escalated the intensity and frequency of the behaviour through an extinction burst and the pain got so intense, they had to give in.
A dog like this can escalate to a full attack if we are not very careful on how we handle this.
I have been working with this dog now for just over 2 weeks and the biting has almost completely stopped. I have concerns though that it will return when more maturity arrives around 18 or so months.
I have another client that has had her dog medicated for the same mouthing behaviours for almost a year. The behaviour has not improved in any way and the answer is that it takes time and strategies like above were offered or euthanise the dog.
The very best way to deal with these problems are to work with them initially when the dog is actually a puppy and likely teething. It is very hard, probably impossible actually to ignore sharp puppy teeth on your skin, so you will likely need a more direct and assertive approach.
Whilst it may not be a big problem at 4 months of age it can certainly turn into one before you know it.
A dog biting a person is not something that should be advised upon over the internet, if you have a problem like this, get professional help.
Bites like these are not something any owner should be ignoring or trying to distract the dog away from. The behaviour itself must be extinguished.
Help will see intervention applied and an improvement gained very quickly, rehearsal of this behaviour is dangerous and can escalate, even if it seems playful at times.