Puppy mouthing, play biting, there are a lot of names for what amounts to the same thing. Especially with smaller or young dogs, this might not seem like a big deal, but it can quickly get out of hand and it becomes annoying and problematic.
If you watch dogs play, many of them use their mouths to wrestle with each other. This is perfectly normal so long as it stays within the boundaries of play and doesn’t escalate to actual injury. Dogs are very good at biting with only the amount of force that they want. This is what allows them to use soft biting during play with each other, but still bite down hard on toys or tugs. Puppies learn bite inhibition from their mother and littermates. When they are still learning and bit too hard, other puppies will yelp or snip back at them to let them know that was inappropriate. Their mother will also correct them for biting too hard, and through these experiences, they learn appropriate levels of play. This type of play can transfer over to how your dog interacts with humans. There can be some confusion for them about how to go about playing with people, so we need to teach them how to play in an appropriate manner.
To start, just play with your dog like you normally would. If you don’t normally use them, a tug toy can be a great option to use for this situation. As long as your dog has teeth on the toy, continue to play and engage. As soon as your dog starts to put his mouth on you instead of the toy (most often biting hands), completely disengage and stop playing. It is important to do this as soon as the undesired behavior starts. This will help your dog to understand exactly what causes play to stop. Once his mouth is off of you, go right back to playing. His mouth being on or off of you acts like an on/off switch for fun. Taking away the fun that they desire will discourage this behavior from happening in the future. Remember that this is not an instant fix, and consistency is key. If only half of the people in the household are taking away play for biting, but the other half is not, it is going to cause confusion for your dog because he will be working with different rules for different people.
If your dog’s biting habit isn’t limited to play or excitement, some other steps can help when it seems to be random behavior. A normal reaction to a dog biting your hand is to pull it away (because it hurts). If you can, when your dog bites down on your hand, push it into the back of his mouth. This will be uncomfortable enough that your dog will want to get his mouth away, and once your dog pulls back and their mouth isn’t on you, you can go right back to what you were doing. You don’t need to say anything or scold your dog, we want the connection to be only between biting and discomfort.
Some dogs can be much more stubborn about biting than others. Biting in this context and aggression (biting with intent to hurt) are very different issues. If you are having a lot of trouble, or the biting is into the range of being a safety issue (especially around small children or elderly people), don’t be afraid to contact a professional for help. KC Dawgz goes over this issue with a lot of owners, and it is even included in our Puppy 101 class if you want to start off on the right foot.