While we humans use our hands to communicate and grab objects, a dog doesn’t have that option with their paws. Instead, they often use their mouths to do what we normally do with our hands.
To a dog, grabbing a person’s arm with his mouth may not seem that concerning. But to the person whose arm he has in his mouth, it can be confusing and even uncomfortable.
When dogs mouth or gently hold a person’s arms and hands with their mouth, it’s usually a form of communication or playful interaction, not aggression. This behavior, known as ‘mouthing,’ is common in puppies but can persist into adulthood.
Common reasons include teething discomfort, playfulness, excitement upon greeting, and attention-seeking. Mouthing differs from biting; it’s less forceful and not intended to harm. It can be a concern if it becomes too hard or frequent, particularly around vulnerable individuals like children or the elderly.
To discourage excessive mouthing, avoid engaging or rewarding the behavior. Instead, turn away to signal disinterest. Providing appropriate toys for teething puppies, encouraging alternative behaviors during play, and ensuring regular exercise can help manage mouthing.
In cases of persistent or aggressive mouthing, consulting a professional dog trainer for guidance is advisable. Remember, understanding and patience are key in teaching dogs better ways to interact.
Let’s take a closer look at what mouthing is (and isn’t), and why dogs tend to mouth and grab at our arms and hands.
What Is Mouthing?
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 are very similar in this respect! A dog’s mouth is one of their main tools for exploring and interacting with the world around them. Their mouthing is often a sign of teething or because they want attention or playtime.
Mouthing is something every puppy will do and is part of their socialization process. This is how they learn how to control their bite pressure, and it allows them to receive feedback from their mom, littermates, and their owners as to how hard they are gripping.
Mouthing may also also be the result of teething pain as their deciduous (baby) teeth are erupting and then falling out and as new adult teeth take their place.
Mouthing can continue into adolescence and even adulthood if the puppy is not taught an alternative behavior or if the mouthing is encouraged in some way.
How Is Mouthing Different From Biting?
Most people use the words ‘biting’ and ‘nipping’ when they mean mouthing, especially if they have a puppy or young adolescent. However, biting with the intent to harm and mouthing as a form of communication are two entirely different things.
As I discussed above, mouthing is a normal part of the learning process for puppies, and can even be seen in adolescent or adult dogs who have not yet learned proper boundaries.
Mouthing is generally accompanied by loose, playful body movements, playful vocalizations (including play growls and barks), occasionally grabbing and shaking, but never with enough pressure to intentionally cause harm.
Actual bites are when a dog uses their mouth to warn or cause harm to something or someone that is threatening them in some way.
Dogs with good bite inhibition (which is the ability to control the pressure they are exerting with their jaws) may grab and hold and not break skin, but the warning is still clear based on the rest of their body language.
Dogs with poor bite inhibition or those who intend to harm with their bite will use much more force. These bites often result in injury, and are frequently a result of dogs who are put into situations in which they feel afraid, anxious, or feel the need to defend themselves.
While mouthing is generally not something a dog does to cause harm, it can get out of hand if your puppy is not developing good bite inhibition or if you are unknowingly reinforcing the biting behavior. This type of mouthing can lead to bruising and breaking of the skin, and create additional training and behavioral issues in your pup.
Is It Mouthing Or Is Biting: How To Tell
But how do you determine whether your dog grabbing your arm is due to mouthiness or something more problematic?
The key is found in your dog’s body language, and the situation in which the grab occurred.
Did you just arrive home to your excited puppy, and they are bouncing up and down and grabbing at your arms and hands? It’s likely they are just mouthing due to their excitement to see you, and because they have not been taught an alternative behavior for the energetic outburst yet.
But if you are approaching your dog as they are eating their food, and their body stiffens and they make and maintain direct eye contact at you before grabbing onto your arm with your mouth, then it’s more likely the grab is a warning signal that they do not want you near their food. This is a problematic behavior, and one that needs attention from a reputable dog trainer or behaviorist.
What Does It Mean When My Dog Mouths My 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% 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 or young age, but let’s look closer at the possibilities so you can get a better idea of why your pup may be grabbing parts of your body with his mouth:
Teething is a normal process in puppies where their puppy teeth fall out as their new, permanent adult teeth grow in. Like human children, there can be a bit of pain in the puppy’s mouth as this process happens, and they’ll seek ways to reduce that pain and get those baby teeth out.
Researchers found in one study that “mouthing was significantly more prevalent in younger dogs than older dogs, and over 80% of dogs under one year old mouthed.”
While mouthiness may not always be attributed to teething in puppies, research shows that it’s likely one of the most common reasons. Offering young puppies plenty of cold toys and teething toys can help them deflect this biting behavior and focus on the appropriate resources to bite on instead of arms, fingers, and toes
Mouthing and nipping is how puppies first learn to play with littermates. Their littermates are able to give them feedback about their bite pressure: if they bite too hard, their siblings will yelp and cry, but if they grab gently the play will continue.
While this is normal play (and a necessary part of the learning process) in puppies, they will often attempt the same mouthing and nipping with their human owners.
It’s up to us to help teach them that mouthing and nipping is not appropriate play with people, and give them an alternative behavior.
Some dogs can develop odd habits, especially when they are excited.
One of the odder (but not uncommon) habits that I’ve seen with client’s dogs is that of grabbing an owner’s hand or arm when they return home.
Your pup is excited to see you after you’ve been gone all day, and sometimes that excitement is just too much and they need a physical outlet for the energy.
Grabbing objects (including parts of our bodies) is a common way in which an excited or overstimulated dog can help displace some of that excessive energy. It can be very similar to needing a safety blanket or something familiar to help when they are anxious.
As we are often the object of their excitement and affection, it’s only natural that they’d opt to grab a part of us in their enthusiasm!
Dogs learn primarily through association (a process called classical conditioning), and sometimes we may unknowingly teach them that a certain behavior results in something good.
When our dogs grab at our arms and hands with their mouths in an attempt to play with us, we usually instinctively try to push them away. This actually has the opposite effect, and is an invitation to play.
Then, we usually get upset when our pups try to continue the game. This miscommunication is common, and if your dog is consistently “rewarded” for grabbing at your arm with his mouth, he’ll continue to do so as an attention-seeking behavior.
Certain dogs tend to become more overstimulated than other dogs, and the result is usually a high energy pup that doesn’t know what to do with himself.
Overstimulation can occur due to an exciting event, high anxiety, or a lack of socialization.
No matter the reason, when your dog becomes overstimulated they’ll often resort to behaviors they don’t otherwise display, and many times it can involve their mouths.
When that energy becomes too much, they’ll grab with their mouths, and may also jump up, bark, or spin in circles. Unless they are given something else to do, they’ll usually continue to mouth at your hands, arms, or even your face.
6. Breed-Specific Mouthing Tendencies
Certain breeds can be more mouthy due to breeding intended for specific tasks. Herding dogs, such as Australian Shepherds and German Shepherd Dogs, tend to use their mouths more than any other breed of dog.
This is because they were bred to herd livestock, and their mouth is one of the primary ways in which they do that job. Young herding dogs tend to instinctively use their mouths to grab onto their human owners in an attempt to “herd” them in a certain direction.
Retrievers, like the Golden Retriever or Labrador Retriever, are another group of dogs that tend to be mouthy.
These dogs were bred to hunt and retrieve game animals like ducks, and are expected to have a mouth soft enough to carry even eggs.
Like the herding dogs, young retrievers may grab onto their owner’s arms or hands with their mouth to “retrieve” them and guide them towards something.
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.
While it may not result in much cleaning, your dog may be nibbling your hands and arms as a way to show he is comfortable and relaxed in your presence.
Rarely, your dog may be mouthing at you as a result of pain.
This is more likely if your dog only grabs at your hands or arms after you touch a particular part of their body, and they’ll usually let go rather quickly.
This is similar to a warning bite, but often it’s more of a surprised reaction from the dog because they (and you) did not know that the area you just touched was painful.
It is often accompanied by a yelp or cry, and the source of the suspected injury should be investigated immediately.
Should I Be Worried About My Dog Grabbing Arms And Hands With His Mouth?
It’s important to first make the distinction between mouthing and biting before determining if your dog grabbing at your arms and hands is worrisome or not.
While mouthing can be annoying, it’s often a normal part of puppyhood and adolescence, and owners can take steps to help redirect their dogs to stop the mouthing.
If the mouthing issue becomes a hazard to certain members of the household (such as young children or elderly people), or if your dog’s behavior escalates, it’s important to reach out to a reputable trainer who can help you address the issue.
However, if your dog is displaying threatening body language and the grabbing is occurring with more force than expected, this may be a warning sign of aggression issues and a trainer should be consulted immediately.
How Can I Stop My Dog From Mouthing?
The most important thing to remember when trying to stop a mouthy dog is to not engage with them in the first place. This includes trying to push them away, grabbing them back, or even yelling at them. Here are a few ways in which you can help teach your pup better mouth manners:
Don’t Reward The Behavior
Crossing your arms and turning away is a very big signal to a dog that you have no interest in what they are doing.
Whenever your puppy or dog goes to grab at your hands or mouth, you will immediately turn away. As soon as they stop, you can turn right back around and give them the attention they were seeking.
You’ll likely need to repeat this several times, and with particularly mouthy pups you may also need to leave the room completely or put another physical barrier between you and your dog.
If your pup is grabbing at you due to excitement, teaching them to seek out a toy rather than grab at your arm is a great way to curb the mouthy behavior. This is an example of training them with a displacement behavior. Rather than saying no and swatting them away, distracting them with something else to focus on can avoid negative reinforcement.
This method also works with dogs who are anxious, who become overstimulated easily, or for breeds that tend to have a reputation for being mouthy.
You can either have a toy box next to your front door, or you can go through the process of teaching your dog to find a specific toy to grab whenever someone comes through the door.
For teething puppies, it’s especially important that you provide them with ample age-appropriate toys to help curb this behavior.
Exercise Your Dog
A well-exercised dog is less likely to engage in mouthiness, even in states of excitement or anxiety.
This doesn’t just mean physical exercise, either! Dogs require both physical and mental exercise to prevent boredom and excessive energy.
Taking your dog on walks and allowing them to sniff things is a great physical/mental exercise combination, but if you don’t have time for those kinds of walks you can also set up structured play time with your pup, or provide them with puzzle toys.
Reach Out To A Trainer
Mouthiness can sometimes be a frustrating and time-consuming issue, especially if you have a large dog or have someone in the home that is at risk from being knocked over or injured by a mouthy pup.
Never be afraid to reach out to a trainer! Seek out a trainer who specializes in science-based training methods and who utilizes reward-based training methods. They’ll be able to assist you in setting up your pup for success.
It’s important to remember that dogs communicate differently than we do, and grabbing at our arms and hands with their mouths is a normal way for them to “talk” to us.
Mouthiness, while normal in puppies and dogs, can be a challenging issue to deal with. It can also escalate into more concerning behaviors if left unchecked.
Being patient, consistent, and providing a solid training foundation can help our pups find better ways to communicate with us.
As responsible pet parents, we must take the initiative to ensure that we are teaching our pups good manners right from the start.