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If you have multiple dogs or have taken yours to a dog park or other doggy socializing areas, you may have noticed a rather peculiar behavior from time to time – nibbling. Whether it be a nibble on an ear, the legs, or neck, there are many situations where we can catch our canine companions seemingly taking small, repetitive chomps of each other. This behavior can be endearing, but it can also be alarming and confusing to owners who do not understand where it is coming from!
So why do dogs nibble on each other?
While the most likely explanation can change based on the relationship between the dogs and their age, nibbling is usually a well-intentioned, friendly display of affection or an attempt to goad a friend into play. In some instances, however, the behavior may point towards anxiety, jealousy, or feelings of stress.
That’s the quick answer but we’ll take a closer look at each reason!
Isn’t Nibbling Just A Puppy Thing?
Before moving on, it’s important to address that many owners expect their puppies to be mouthy, but are taught that age and training will bring an end to that behavior. So is nibbling just a puppy thing? Should you be concerned to see this behavior in older dogs?
The short answer is, not at all! While teething and that youthful energy lead to puppies’ infamous toothy behavior (along with some other unusual habits), dogs of all ages are known to communicate using their mouths – and that includes nibbling!
Nibbling in particular has been studied as a form of non-verbal communication in dogs, and while it was observed to have originated from maternal behavior, it has since been seen as a useful form of conveying emotions in dogs of all ages.
Now let’s take a look at some of the most likely motivations behind your dog’s nibbling behavior, and how to spot the differences!
Reason 1: Affection
It may come as a relief to learn that nibbling has been shown to be almost exclusively an expression of positive emotions between a dog and its doggie pal(s); the nibbler and the nibblees, if you will. In fact, researchers believe that nibbling can actually serve to strengthen the bonds between dogs and is generally an expression of positive emotions and affection!*
Mother dogs tend to nibble their puppies in a caring way, and it seems that the behavior carries over as the puppies grow, evolving into a recognized way to convey their acceptance of others and their levels of relaxation.
While using teeth on one another may seem confusing to us as humans, it’s important to remember that dogs experience the world snout-first, so it’s hardly surprising to find out many of their forms of communication involve their mouth – teeth and all.
Besides, what human sibling or friend hasn’t occasionally leaned over to affectionately smack your shoulder? Just because something might look a bit violent or painful at first, doesn’t mean that’s always the case.
Reason 2: Grooming
Tied closely in with affection, grooming is a relaxed and caring behavior observed in our canine companions. Seeing your dog nibble another, particularly if it is paired with the occasional lick (sometimes of the ears or even the eyes), can very well be a well-meaning cleaning session between bonded friends.
Grooming displays are another way dogs can express affection for one another, so it makes sense that nibbling can be a natural extension of this behavior. Grooming nibbles are usually easy to spot since they involve short, quick nibbles with the front teeth. You can see what a grooming nibble looks like here:
Besides your dog, you may even see your dog nibble your cat from time to time and it’s often a part of the grooming process!
Reason 3: Play
We’ve covered the type of nibbles you’re most likely to see in a quieter home setting, but what about the more rambunctious behavior it is sometimes paired with? If you are an owner of multiple dogs, particularly younger ones, you may have noticed them nibbling on each other’s ears or legs – often to the apparent annoyance of the recipient.
Nibbling can be seen as a way for your dog to get the attention of another dog. The most common depiction of this is when an energetic puppy is trying to get the attention of another dog or goad them into playing with them. Oftentimes they’ll nibble on ears, legs, tails – wherever they’re most likely to get a reaction!
This behavior can be amusing to watch, but keep an eye out for any signs of distress or mounting irritation in the nibblee in case you need to step in and call for a break. This can often happen when a younger dog or puppy decides to nibble an older dog in order to encourage them to play. Often times the young pup doesn’t want to take no for an answer and turns to some nibbles to encourage a play session.
Reason 4: Stress and Anxiety
Nibbling is primarily a display of positive emotions in dogs, but that’s not to say that is always the case. While you’re more likely to see your dogs nibbling as a sign of comradery or relaxation, it is possible for dogs to take out any anxiety they may be feeling in the form of nibbling themselves or others.
A good comparison for us humans might be someone biting their nails, a behavior often observed in bored and/or anxious persons. Now, you may not be out there biting your friend’s nails, but dogs don’t exactly have the same personal space boundaries that we do!
It’s Probably Nothing To Do With Submission or Dominance
While there are many who speculate otherwise, studies indicate that nibbling actually has nothing to do with your dog’s, or the others’, status within their social group. This behavior has been observed in and between dogs of all ages, sizes, breeds, and general dispositions; by more dominant dogs towards more submissive dogs and vice versa!
As we learn more about canine behavior and expression, the outdated theories that try to tie everything back to a black-and-white notion of dominance vs submission often disregard what has since been observed in recent years.
How Do I Know Which is Which?
So is it an affectionate nuzzle, a cleanup job, a teasing rouse, or a sign of anxiety? Luckily for us, dogs have many ways of showing us how they’re feeling – we just need to pay attention.
Take the time to observe and learn your dog’s body language. A happy pup will look more visibly relaxed with a neutral body position. Their eyes will be soft and their tail may be relaxed or wagging. An anxious dog is more likely to appear stiff, maybe even slightly arched due to tucking their tail. Wide, flitting eyes are also generally indicative of anxiety or fear.
Affectionate nibbles can linger but are typically short, passing interactions, whereas grooming can appear more focused and concentrated on a particular area. If the dog is trying to instigate play, you’ll most likely see the nibbling behavior paired with bouncy movements, play bows, and even play growls.
The situation and timing is also an important consideration. Did this nibbling behavior begin only recently? Ask yourself what other changes have occurred around the same time. Did you recently move or introduce a new member to the family? Have you had any changes in your daily schedule or routines? If your dog never exhibited this behavior before now, it may be a sign of some sort of stress they are experiencing.
Does the behavior seem obsessive? Going back to the nail biting metaphor, most of us have met someone who just couldn’t seem to stop biting their nails – even when they wanted to! You can see this same tendency in dogs with behavior like obsessive licking or nibbling.
Should I Be Worried About My Dog’s Nibbling?
As a loving owner, you’re probably very knowledgeable on what “normal” looks like in your dog. No one knows your dog better than you! If your dog has begun nibbling in a way that appears driven from a place of fear, stress, or anxiety, it can certainly be time to take a deeper look at what’s going on.
If the behavior fades within a short amount of time, there may be nothing to worry about. However, if the behavior persists after several days it may be time to analyze your situation. Seeing if you can determine the source of your dog’s discomfort is very important; you may find that it is easily remedied. Maybe you left the vacuum out the last time you cleaned and, while you forgot, your dog has been staring down their nemesis all day!
If you cannot determine the cause of your dog’s stress and you’re still seeing the troubling behavior, it may be time to take a visit to the veterinarian. A thorough exam can help rule out any underlying physical pains or ailments that are affecting your pet. If it isn’t a physical health related issue, veterinarians often know trusted canine behavior specialists to refer you to for further assistance.
If you are in a situation where your dog is nibbling another dog that is unhappy about receiving the attention, you can attempt to use redirection training to teach your dog a different way of expressing themselves. Don’t feel bad if you feel like you’re struggling – consulting experienced dog trainers is a great option when you need more guidance!
Putting It All Together
Like with most things, there is no one right answer to why dogs nibble on each other. Studies tell us that most of the time the behavior is a display of positive feelings! That said, there are situations where nibbling can indicate stress or anxiety in our pets, so take care to be observant and take action if you feel your dog is unhappy.
At the end of the day, dogs communicate differently than we do, but there’s a lot we can relate to. While you may not run out to nibble on your friends anytime soon, there are plenty of new things we can learn from our pups if we give ourselves the chance.