Dog mouthing and biting: One problem – three solutions

If you check the internet for advice about any dog behaviour problem you’ll find a selection of conflicting dog behaviour advice. It can’t all be right, can it? With dog mouthing and biting you’ll find the most common pieces of advice are ignoring and more enrichment. Let’s see how that might work with three different variations of this very common problem. Meet Teddy, Lola and Codi…

Addressing Needs and Goals

Before solving any problem I look at the individual dog and figure out their individual needs and goals. The need is the underlying cause of the problem, and the goal is what the behaviour is trying to achieve. We’ll need to make sure we address both those in order to properly solve the problem. So, let’s first look at each dog, and their different reasons for mouthing.

Teddy

Teddy is a four month old, mixed breed pup. He mostly mouths when he gets over excited and in rough play. Unlike other types of mouthing; Teddy doesn’t just mouth his own family. He’ll happily mouth on family, visitors, or any dog he meets. Teddy also grabs at hair, sleeves, dressing gowns and flappy coats, especially in the morning.

For Teddy, typical triggers include getting the lead on, reuniting with his family in the morning, after spending the night alone, front door greetings, and at playtime. Teddy is 4 months old and the problem has been exacerbated by teething, but it isn’t the main cause. His teething is one reason his family have not addressed the problem previously though. They expected that the problem would go away as he grew up. But, over excitement can be the underlying cause at any age, so it’s unlikely this will happen in this case. So, for Teddy, the underlying cause is over excitement, and socialisation is the need.

a black and tan puppy is biting down on a knotted rope toy
Teddy is teething which is exacerbating his over excitement mouthing

Lola

Lola is a 9 month old cockapoo, and she is suffering with frustration. Inconsistency throughout her day means her expectations are not always met and this causes frustration. She hates being trapped behind stair gates, or in her crate, and frequently grabs and bites at the bars when she is confined. Lola’s family struggle because they can’t see a specific trigger for her mouthing, but they know she mostly takes it out on the adult female in the house. The problem has been made worse by (previously undiagnosed) joint pain.

For Lola, the need is health (pain) and safety (feeling out of control), and the goal is to relieve the pressure that has built up.

Codi

Codi is a 2 year old collie. He is over tired and over stimulated. His mouthing gets worse as the day goes on until he finally crashes out at bedtime. He never sleeps during the day. Codi appears to be looking for mischief a lot of the time and his family are worried he is bored and now have a huge selection of enrichment toys and feeders to keep him occupied.

In between they are walking him three or four times a day and have been increasing since he was a year old. The mouthing can feel quite aggressive, but they don’t believe he is an aggressive dog. They have been struggling with him for as long as they can remember, but nothing they have tried has helped. If anything, the situation seems to be getting worse. His mouthing is targeted mostly anyone available. It occasionally appears to be triggered by attention seeking behaviour that is ignored, but it escalates so quickly sometimes that it doesn’t feel like there has been any trigger. He often tries to bite people on the belly, hands, back and occasionally in the face.

For Codi, the needs are sleep and exercise, and the goal is to relieve tension.

The Solution

Now we know what has gone wrong for Teddy, Lola and Codi we can make a plan around that. When you fix the needs, and create new ways to achieve the same goals, the problem solve itself.

Teddy

To help Teddy we first needed to manage his excitement levels. The more excited he got the worse the problem became. So, if he can stay under threshold the excitement mouthing will stop by itself. We introduced lots of fun games where you stop playing as soon as over excitement starts to build up. He’ll learn how to manage his own excitement through these types of games, plus they will use up some extra puppy energy. We made greetings as boring as possible too. Just five minutes a day was spent coming in and out repeatedly and he soon got bored of watching his family coming and going. We also introduced a calming routine for door answering to help him when visitors arrived.

It’ll also help to find some doggy friends to play rough with. Just like us, our dogs all have different ways to play and we can’t change their preferences. Teddy is a rough player, so we found him a friend for him to play rough with. If a need gets repressed, it’ll spill out in an inappropriate way, and with the wrong person/dog. Once teddy had an outlet he improved pretty fast!

And finally, plenty of chew toys will help with the teething pain until that phase passes.

Lola

For Lola, we needed to remove common frustraters. It was not easy to spot specific triggers as frustration builds up until the dog gets overwhelmed by it. So, we took away her slow feeder and puzzle toys, also we ditched the extendable lead, and changed her enrichment games to low frustration games such as “find the treat” and recall games.

We taught her to walk loosely on a fixed length lead rather than the extendable which are common frustraters. Having a consistent length lead meant the lead boundary never changed, plus consistent training improved her expectations and rewards. Teaching her a recall also meant she could get off her lead for the first time. This allowed her to explore and socialise more naturally and freely which reduces frustration dramatically. All this gave her the feeling of making choices and having a more predictable day and ultimately this stopped the build up so she no longer needed a pressure release.

We ditched the crate too. She had it since a pup and it had helped with house training. But, she no longer needed it for that. Sleeping unconfined also helped with her joint pain, so that was a double win for her. The joint pain will be monitored separately.

Codi

Codi simply needs more rest. On average, dogs need around 16 hours of sleep each day, plus time to just chill and be bored. He was getting less than half that. So, we set up his crate in a separate room so he could take quiet naps throughout the day. Between toys, balls, puzzles, and kongs, his brain was constantly fizzing. These kinds of activities are addictive, so the more the dog gets, the more they need. We tidied them all away and only used them at set times.

We also stopped using the slow feeder and scheduled regular feeding times to make that less frustrating and more predictable. Slow feeders can also trigger fight or flight mode, which can cause reactive behaviour and sudden mood swings, especially in already sleep deprived and over stimulated dogs. Finally, we substituted some of the enrichment activities with searching games. These are calming and can tire out a busy brain quite quickly so we started some scent training and taught him to find different items.

Finally, we cut down on the exercise. Meeting a need doesn’t always mean getting more of it, too much can be a problem too.

So basically…

So we can see how one piece of advice would definitely not have worked for all, even though they all appeared to have the same problem. Codi was mouthing because he was over tired. He benefitted hugely by the use of a crate. But the crate would have made the problem much worse for Lola, who was mouthing out of frustration. Teddy’s teeth won’t hurt forever, but he was in danger of getting into a very bad habit and learning to play roughly. He needed to learn to be calm and extra stimulation will help Teddy, but poor Codi was already at the limit and any more might have made him an impossible dog to live with. Some members of the household were already scared of Codi, and it wouldn’t have taken much for things to have escalated to the point of no return.


Are you struggling with your dog?

Private Dog Behaviour Consultations are currently available in the greater Dundee area. If you are looking for help solving your dogs behaviour and training problems, then please get in touch!

Caroline
Caroline

I have more than 15 years experience solving all kinds of canine behaviour problems, at home and in rescue. A bad experience with a old fashioned dog trainer inspired me to learn more about dog behaviour, and it is because of him, that I wall never use harsh methods when training and rehabilitating dogs.

I work privately with clients in Dundee and the surrounding area with dogs of all ages, breeds and issues including anxiety, aggression and hyperactivity.

In 2009 I was proud to publish a book about dog behaviour and training. How to be the Perfect Pack Leader (by Caroline Jenkins) remains popular today and a follow up is expected very shortly.

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