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Even the casual observer can tell that dogs use their mouths in much the same way humans use hands. It can be confusing and uncomfortable when a dog wraps its mouth around your arms and hands. It makes sense to be wary about getting up close and personal with those teeth.
Why do some dogs mouth people’s arms and hands so much, and what does it mean? Should we be worried about it?
Playful mouthing is normal dog behavior and not the same as aggressive biting. It’s overwhelmingly a trademark of puppy teething or a sign that a dog is eager to see you and play. It can become a problem or indicate an anxious dog, but careful observation will help get to the bottom of it.
For example, this puppy means no harm, contentedly using its mouth during playtime:
Shenanigans like this aren’t a huge cause for concern. But it’s important to know reasons for mouthing, where and how to draw the line with it.
What is Mouthing?
Every puppy and dog’s mouth is the main tool for exploring and interacting with the world. Have you ever spent time with an infant or toddler who put everything in their mouth? Maybe you’ve hung out with a little kid who would grasp your hand or arm, pulling you over to play or show you something? Children who do this are teething, playing, or enthusiastic about connecting with you.
“Puppies learn about social interactions… through object play involving their teeth and paws.” Just like with children, puppies and dogs putting their mouth around arms, hands, or legs usually means ‘welcome home,’ ‘play with me,’ ‘come over here,’ ‘pet me, please,’ ‘I love you,’ or ‘I want attention!’
How Is Mouthing Different from Biting?
Most people use the words ‘biting’ and ‘nipping’ when they mean mouthing. To be fair, mouthing is best described as a softer version of biting. It can potentially escalate into rougher, more painful and dangerous biting over time. The communication behind dogs’ mouthing is vastly different from true, aggressive biting.
Mouthing on hands and arms can certainly get out of control at the point of hurting, bruising, or breaking skin. At this point, the behavior absolutely needs intervention.
But how can we tell the difference between affection, poor manners, obnoxiousness, and aggression?
Take the level of pressure into account. Monitor the dog’s body language and facial expression when they put their mouth on someone. Are you seeing a lot of jumping, tail wagging, relaxed and loose muscles in the body and face? This is an over-excited dog that’s mouthing.
Conversely, “a bite is at the far end of a long line of behaviors a dog uses to communicate displeasure.” Are you witnessing a serious growl, crouching with tucked tail, baring teeth, tensed body and face? Those are serious and unmistakable signals that mean ‘I’m upset- stay away.’
What Does It Mean When My Dog Mouths Arms and Hands?
Decoding what your buddy is saying by putting his or her mouth on your arm and hand is key to keeping it under control.
Luckily, translating a dog’s mouthiness can be as easy as recognizing a few basic factors. How old is the dog? When is your dog grabbing your arm or hand? What happens before and after he or she mouths your limbs? How are you normally reacting to it?
The absolute biggest predictors of mouthing are puppyhood, playtime, and greetings. Chances are one of these is your answer. In one study, 40 percent of dogs “frequently or always put their mouth on a person’s body” when the owner played with them or came home.
That means the best explanation for a pup’s mouthiness is usually just excitement but let’s look at the possibilities.
In another study, “mouthing was significantly more prevalent in younger dogs than older dogs, and over 80% of dogs under one year old mouthed.” Researchers aren’t completely sure that teething is the definitive cause of prevalent mouthiness in the puppy population. But it sure sounds like a reasonable explanation, since two to seven months is the age at which puppies teethe.
Their permanent teeth are growing in and breaking through the gums. This can be a painful, irritating experience for puppies like it is for babies- gnawing on everything in reach is soothing. If you have a puppy under one year old, give him or her a variety of chewy, teething-friendly toys.
Their mouth will feel better, and so will your hands.
2. Mouthy Playing
Mouthing and nipping is how puppies first learn to play with littermates. If they don’t learn young not to bite people during play, young dogs naturally grow up to continue playing with people using mouths and teeth. If a pup excitedly anticipates playtime by putting its mouth around you, this might be why.
If you tease with hands and fingers in their face, using hand movements to instigate play, you’re just asking a pup to go after those with their mouth. Also, if you give in and play with your puppy or dog after mouthing, that’s teaching your dog to tell you when it’s playtime by gnawing limbs.
3. Mouthy Greeting
The third top mouthing predictor is when the pet parent returns home from somewhere. If this is when your dog mouths your hands, he or she is ecstatic to see you again and welcome you. They missed you while you were away.
This is inarguably a loving motive. Regardless, an overzealous, impatient, or relentless pup grabbing at you is irksome after a long day of work or while you’re hauling groceries inside.
4. Affection and Attention-Seeking
Maybe using the mouth is how your dog has learned to ask for attention. A pup trying to get ahold of your hand or arm for attention or pets can be disruptive if you’re trying to focus on something else.
This kind of dog is likely getting rewarded with attention or affection, or may genuinely not get enough quality time with its master. Could you be unintentionally enabling mouthing with attention (including negative attention like scolding)?
Does your canine companion simply need a little more quality time with you? These are good places to start.
5. Mouthing from Excess Energy
You already know that dogs need exercise and some more so than others. Imagine yourself going days on end with nowhere to go, no way to move around, nothing to do, or no one to interact with. Most of us would end up bored out of our minds or even downright manic.
If a dog is deprived of physical and mental stimulation (play, exercise, walks, or general attention), they might mouth hands or arms out of desperation.
6. Breed-Specific Mouthing Tendencies
Certain breeds are more high-strung or mouthy due to breeding intended for specific tasks. Herding dogs include all types of sheepdogs, shepherds, collies, even corgis, and more. They tend to be highly intelligent and tenacious. They can turn a little neurotic or hyper without deliberate training and ample activity. Many herding dogs have an instinct to nip as a cue to livestock. All this can compound into mouthing people’s extremities.
Retrievers are a class of gundogs- hunting partners. The beloved golden and labrador retrievers, the chesapeake bay, curly-coated, flat-coated, and Nova Scotia duck tolling retrievers belong to this category. Their role in hunting is to locate “birds or other game and [bring] them back undamaged.” This requires strength, stamina, smarts and a ‘soft,’ gentle mouth for carrying prey. It’s no wonder why retrievers can be inclined to mouthing hands and arms as well.
7. Mouthing to Groom
A slightly different kind of mouthiness, grooming nibbles communicate a pup’s affection and trust. Grooming nibbles involve quick, little pinches between the front teeth instead of the back molars and canine teeth dogs use to play and gnaw.
8. Pain or Anxiety
Perhaps your dog mouths when they know you’re leaving. Maybe the arm/hand clutching seems out of character. Perhaps it appears to accompany frightened, sheepish, or insecure body language. Investigate further. Pain, fear, and anxiety are common precursors to real aggression.
Look for freezing, cowering, pinned ears, and tucked tail if you suspect mouthing due to pain, separation anxiety, or something scary (like loud, percussive noises). Do your best to figure out what is bothering your pal, and make sure there are no signs of injury or illness.
Should I Be Worried About My Dog Grabbing Arms and Hands with its Mouth?
Don’t confound aggressive biting or bullying with common mouthing. And refrain from operating based on the common misconception of dominance behavior, which doesn’t work the way most people assume. Mere teething, warm welcomes, and lively play are the hands-down most plausible explanations for mouthing.
Not all dog parents find it bothersome for their pooch to grab hands, arms, and legs gently and in small doses. However, some dogs quickly get out of control from the excitement of play, meeting new people, or when guests come to the home, especially children. Remember, children are small and can often interpret all mouthiness as ‘biting.’ It’s more alarming and dangerous for them when a dog tries to greet or play too rough.
No one wants friends, family, acquaintances, or strangers to feel uneasy or intimidated around a gung-ho, mouthy dog. Address problematic hand and arm chomping through consistent training.
If arm mouthing comes alongside signs of distress or aggression, or if it’s too rough (causing pain, bruises, or broken skin) it is time to get it under control. The situation might cause a hand or arm injury if things escalate further.
How Can I Stop My Dog from Mouthing?
After stopping to think, most people notice themselves responding to their dog’s arm and hand chomps by giving some kind of attention. There is research on breaking a mouthing habit. It demonstrates that when owners reflect on the circumstances around mouthing, they can usefully target training attempts.
Bite Inhibition to Prevent Excessive Mouthing
Ideally, a puppy learns bite inhibition during youth, based on littermates’ reactions to varying levels of bite pressure. If a play bite or mouth grab around a limb is too hard and hurts, a playmate will yelp in pain, retaliate, or stop playing altogether. That’s how dogs know how hard is too hard to bite or mouth.
A puppy who does not get enough time with other puppies might not properly learn bite inhibition. Halt the interaction calmly but abruptly every time a dog or puppy crosses the line by biting or mouthing hands and arms too hard.
Make it Boring
When owners diligently “implemented” training to eliminate reinforcers, it “resulted in the reduction of mouthing.” Once you figure out what encourages your dog to mouth, be vigilant to avoid unwittingly rewarding it.
This translates to ‘timeout!’ Disengage. Ignore your dog completely when they mouth your arms and hands. Stop whatever you’re doing with the dog, calmly remove your body from the dog’s reach, turn your back, or even leave the room. Only reengage once the pup has gotten him or herself back under control.
The absence of attention, affection, play, or other stimulation is the last thing a dog is looking for through mouthing. Taking away that desired response or stimulus is the best way to teach a dog that grabbing arms and hands does not achieve what they want. So, it will probably make them stop doing it and self-regulate instead.
Only Reinforce Good Behavior
Training protocols like the Say Please Program, Nothing in Life is Free (NLIF), and other training resources will help. You and your dog can learn the discipline to communicate well, improve trust, and bond. Give your dog positive reinforcements (attention) including praise, pets, treats, and toys exclusively when obedient and polite. Maintain consistent rules and boundaries through commands.
Stimulate and Redirect
Start with a foundation of sufficient stimulation. The appropriate amount of play, exercise, and toys sets yourself and doggo up for success. Dogs of all ages need constructive outlets for energy and chewing instincts. Chew toys, long-lasting gnaw treats, and games of tug are healthy ways to keep chompers busy and get inevitable mouthing out of their system.
Playology’s toys make good alternatives that redirect mouthing away from your arms and hands. They’re durable, bouncy, fetchable, and scented for safe multisensory play. Your dog should enjoy munching on a good toy over fingers.
What Not to Do
While it’s pivotal to redirect pup’s mouth away from body parts onto toys and chews, watch the timing of presenting those toys and chews. Make sure offering fun objects is not an immediate, knee-jerk reaction to mouthing your arm. Because then it becomes a reward for mouthing.
Challenge the urge to scold, run away, suddenly jerk or yank hands and arms away from the offending mouth. Dogs and puppies interpret this as playful behavior. Abrupt movements, loud noises, and tense moods rub off on canines, amping them up even more. Therefore, disregard the all-too-common advice to make yelps mimicking a hurt puppy when working on bite inhibition.
Likewise, yelling and confrontation intensifies the atmosphere, scaring dogs- not calming. Physical punishment is counterproductive, instilling fear and heightening stress. There is always a better way that won’t generate fear, anxiety, aggression, and volatility.
Let’s Shake on It
Our four-legged friends love us unconditionally. For them nothing is more fulfilling than our company, companionship, approval, and affection. With teeth in the picture, it’s easy for the message to get lost in translation. Keep in mind that a mouthy dog is almost always trying to hold onto hands or arms out of adoration or innocent puppy impulses.
When mouthing goes too far, excessively gregarious dogs can interfere with tasks and unnerve people. Commit to meeting your dog’s basic needs. Patience, self-reflection, and discipline will guide your devoted pooch towards positive ways to connect.