Ask Crystal: Bitey Puppy

Welcome to “Ask Crystal,” where you can ask your pet behavior questions! You can submit your question for Crystal at the bottom of the page!

Dear Crystal,

I have a 6-month old lab mix puppy. He is quite the hand full. He has so much energy and just never seems to stop. The biggest issue we are having with him right now is his mouthing our hands. It seems to happen every night and sometimes it is painful. We tried telling him “no” but he just gets more worked up. In the morning, he is so snugly and sweet. I wish he could be that way all the time. Is there anything we can do?


Mouthy Puppy Problems

Dear Mouthy,

Welcome to the joys of raising a puppy! Your puppy is in full on adolescence which is the absolute worst time for a dog and its family. Just like a teenage, they are testing their limits and you. To make the situation more difficult, they have sharp teeth, don’t speak English and have a lot more energy than a human. Dogs use their mouth to explore and play so it is natural behavior. Dogs are hardwired to bite and chew on things. It is not something that they can just stop. There are ways that we can redirect their behavior and teach them to use their mouth more gently and then eventually to not put their mouth on us at all.

It is critical that we provide appropriate chew toys to satisfy their need to chew. Surprising most people don’t really understand what a chew toy is. A chew toy is not a stuffed toy, squeaky toy or tennis ball. A chew toy needs to be hard to satisfy that need to chew, work their jaws and soothe painful gums. A frozen kong is a fabulous way to entertain a puppy and get them to use their mouth on something besides you. You need to have a variety and figure out what kinds of chew toys your dog prefers. I suggest rotating toys so that they will be less likely to get bored than if they have access to all of the toys all of the time. You are still going to need those stuffed toys to redirect them onto when they start mouthing you so don’t get rid of those.

Redirection can be helpful tactic for those times when your puppy is trying to play with your hand like a tug toy. When he goes to mouth your hand, grab one of his toys and wiggly it around enticingly or toss a ball for him to run after. I suggest having a variety of types of toys on hand until you figure out what works for him. Fleece tug toys, soft stuffed toys and balls are all great places to start.

There are going to be different activities which get your dog over aroused which will make them more likely to become mouthy. Dogs have little control over their mouth when they are in this very excited state and any interaction with them may get them more excited. You mentioned that he gets especially worked up at night. Dogs are corpuscular which means they are most active at dawn and dusk.  Trainers lovingly refer to this as the puppy witching hour. It is usually around 8pm and puppies start going nuts. They may run around the house doing the zoomies and then jump all over you while mouthing anything they can reach. If you feel like that matches up with what is going on with your puppy, I suggest try playing a game or taking a walk prior to the time when it seems to be happening most days. The type of activity that you do will depend on your puppy. I would suggest that you avoid wrestling around or playing with their mouths as this can often get them way too worked up. Fetch is personally my favorite if your dog likes it because it is a no contact game. Tug or using a flirt pole are great games that teach self-control, but your puppy needs to know some cues first. I suggest teaching them take it, drop it, wait and sit before playing these games so that we can teach them to take breaks and wait rather than get them too worked up by playing too long without breaks. If you find that he gets mouthy when being petted, you may try feeding him small treats while you pet him. If that doesn’t work, you may only be able to pet him when he is calm and sleepy for now.

You may want to practice time outs any time that your puppy puts his mouth on your skin. He is at the age where you need to start weaning him from this behavior completely. I like to let the puppy drag a light lead for a variety of reasons, but it especially helps when they start to get very mouthy. The act of grabbing a collar is usually something that will make them go after your hands, so a leash is a safe and easy way to walk them to a time out spot or tether them to a piece of furniture for a minute to calm down. I will usually say “too bad” but it doesn’t matter what you say, just remember to be calm and don’t yell. I walk them to the time out spot, tether them and walk away for a minute or however long it takes for them to calm down.

I know there are a lot of tips that people give about grabbing the dog’s mouth and holding it closed. Or maybe your neighbor told you to roll their lips over their teeth. Or your uncle suggests holding down their tongue. I am going to strongly caution you against using physical punishment in this situation. First, understand that this is a natural species-specific behavior and your dog can’t just stop it. They have to grow out of it. Second, there may be times when you need to remove something from your dog’s mouth. What if you need to remove a chicken bone from their mouth? If your dog associates your hand coming towards their mouth as punishment, then they may not be likely

to let you safely handle their mouth. He should feel safe when you handle him, not scared.

So, when does this end? In general, this behavior tends to start to decrease at around 8-10 months old and usually most dogs don’t use their mouth at all this way by 2 or 3 years of age.  All dogs are individuals, and some may take more or less time for the behavior to stop. There is a light at the end of the tunnel. Hold fast and when you reach the end you will have a great friend and lot less holes in your shirts.

Until next time,



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