Mouthing Behavior In Puppies

By Jennie K. Willis, PhD as published in the Coloradoan in November 2012

Puppies explore their world with their mouths so it’s only natural that they play that way too.  During their development with their littermates, puppies teach each other how hard to bite during play.  From three to five weeks of age, one of the first social acts they learn is how to keep a playmate engaged.  Sometimes, for a variety of reasons, puppies don’t learn this and mouth their owners uncomfortably hard.  If this is a problem for you, consider these ideas.

  1. Engage your puppy in play that is cooperative not competitive.  Think about fetch, find it or hide and go seek.   By eliminating high arousal games you can avoid situations that could be especially provoking for your puppy.
  2. When you are playing respond to mouthing immediately.  The first time your puppy’s teeth touch your skin, react in the following way.
  3. Give a verbal marker, like “ouch!” to let them know the moment the play changed.
  4. Stand up and walk immediately away from your puppy.  Keep your back to them, even if they are trying to initiate contact with you.  Don’t look at them or talk to them, since anything you do or say may be inadvertently rewarding.
  5. Give a short break to your puppy.  Count to 15 or 20.  This short break is tremendously important, because it lets them get the information about the consequence of their behavior.  When they mouth you, they lose the ability to keep playing with you, something they desperately want to do.
  6. After the short break, go back and initiate play with your puppy.  If mouthing begins again, repeat this procedure.  Be careful not to take too long a break, or the puppy may not connect their behavior with the outcome.
  7. Repeat as needed.  It may take several repetitions before it makes sense to your puppy.  Patiently continue until the light bulb comes on.
  8. Reward your puppy’s good behavior by continuing play with them when they are not mouthing.
  9. For older people and young children who can’t engage in the timing of withdrawing their attention, help them by making problem areas like pant legs and the backs of hands taste bad with a harmless bitter pet product.

Training puppies at a young age is shaping their minds for all they can learn later.  It is never too early to start teaching them how to learn.  Like a bank account with compound interest, the more good things we can fill their heads with early, the better the payoff in the end.  It is really important that we focus on the bad behavior and not the bad puppy.  Losing our temper, getting emotional and being physical in our punishment won’t help their minds develop in the right way.  Research indicates that puppies raised with calm limits and withdrawal of attention for misbehavior grow up to be successful and adaptive adults.  Happy training!


Dr. Jennie Willis is an instructor of animal behavior at Colorado State University and owns a private consulting business, which provides counseling for problem pets and their people. For more information about consultation, seminars and classes please visit



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