why does my dog mouth my hands? and what can I do about it?

I have a canine client, Quincy,* whom I love to pieces. He's fun and sweet, and I've been caring for him for quite a few years, now. Last week when I was hanging with him, I gave some thought to one aspect of his behavior that I've not seen in other adult dogs very often. He mouths. Mouthing, or play-biting, is more commonly seen in puppies, but Quincy, an adult dog, does it frequently. It doesn't bother me at all because he's quite gentle, but it got me to thinking about why he does it, so I did some research.

Why does my dog mouth my hands? And what can I do about it?

Why does my dog mouth my hands? And what can I do about it?

what is "mouthing?"

"Mouthing," a.k.a. "play-biting" is a natural, instinctive way dogs play with each other. They explore the world with their mouths like we do with our hands. Mouthing is not aggressive, but can be irritating to humans, especially guests in the home of a dog that mouths. It can be misinterpreted as aggression.

why do dogs mouth?

Puppies learn how to play by mouthing their littermates and their parents. They explore with their mouths, and they use their mouths to play with each other. The ASPCA outlines that

Young dogs usually learn bite inhibition during play with other dogs. If you watch a group of dogs playing, you'll see plenty of chasing, pouncing and wrestling. Dogs also bite each other all over. Every now and then, a dog will bite his playmate too hard. The victim of the painful bite yelps and usually stops playing. The offender is often taken aback by the yelp and also stops playing for a moment. However, pretty soon both playmates are back in the game. Through this kind of interaction, dogs learn to control the intensity of their bites so that no one gets hurt and the play can continue without interruption. 

In contrast to aggressive biting, mouthing is playful and not ill-intended. It can, however, be an unwanted behavior as far as humans are concerned.

Puppies typically learn to control the intensity of their play bites by their littermates, but puppies taken from their littermates too soon may need to learn this from their human families. Typically, humans teach their puppies that no form of mouthing is acceptable, but that is not always the case, as is the situation with Quincy. It's likely that since his mouthing is so gentle, he was never taught to behave otherwise. 

playful mouthing vs. aggressive behavior

There is a huge difference between playful mouthing and aggressive behavior. While you may or may not train your dog to quit mouthing you, no degree of aggressive behavior should be tolerated. How can you tell the difference?


• playful stance

• relaxed body and face

• slower and gentler

• does not inflict pain


• aggressive or fearful stance

• tension in the body and face

• quick and hard

• inflicts pain

how can I teach my puppy or dog not to mouth? 

You can teach your puppy or dog not to mouth just like his littermates would. Note that it is much more difficult to teach an adult dog not to mouth, as they are not as sensitive to our reactions as puppies are. Teaching your pooch not to mouth is a process.

1. Teach your puppy about bite intensity by yelping and pausing play when he bites too hard. Praise him when he stops, and repeat this a few times per play period. Your puppy will learn that you have a negative reaction when he bites too hard.

2. Mouthing is natural, so you want to teach your dog what is appropriate to mouth and what is not. If you wish (as most humans do), teach your puppy that no mouthing of you is acceptable. Once your puppy has eased up on the intensity, practice the same steps whenever the puppy mouths your hand (or ankle...or whatever his favored body part is). Provide him with an alternative, such as a chew toy or ball. Your puppy will learn to mouth appropriate items rather then your hands or the hands of your visitors.

additional tips

• Avoid wiggling your fingers in front of your dog's face, and avoid play-slapping his muzzle. These actions will likely encourage your dog to mouth and play more aggressively.

• Don't discourage play and mouthing all together, as it's a great way to bond and it provides your pooch with mental and physical stimulation. Allow your dog to mouth a toy you are holding rather than your hand.

• Don't physically punish your dog for mouthing–or for anything–as it will likely cause more aggression, and your dog may become fearful of you.

• If your puppy or dog mouths you, don't pull away. Pulling away will be considered a game by your dog and will encourage him to play harder. Kind-of like tug-of-war.

• Always provide appropriate chew toys for your dog.

• Provide your dog with plenty of exercise and entertainment. Excessive mouthing can be a sign of boredom. 

• If your dog is biting aggressively, seek the help of a certified, professional dog trainer immediately.

Does your dog mouth? Have you taught your dog not to mouth? Please share your experience!

*All names have been changed in the interest of privacy.

10 dogs who should not attend a pet expo

The littles and I had a fantastic time at the Phoenix Pet Expo yesterday. I spoke to several companies I was really excited about. Overall, I'm so happy to see the pet industry taking a more natural route. I learned more about products I'd seen before and got to speak to knowledgeable entrepreneurs about brand-new concepts. And, of course, we got to "dog watch," which is one of the best parts of going to the expo. There were majestic horse-like creatures (one we saw even had a saddle), scroungy little rat-like cuties, and everything in between. Some exhibited how well-trained they could be in such a chaotic environment. And some others...not so much. 

I know you can bring your dog to the pet expo, but that doesn't necessarily mean you should. I left N.A.S.H.A. home because it would have been selfish to bring her. She's gets pretty nervous in crowds, so she seems to attract dominant dogs, which only makes her more nervous. Sure, it would have been a blast to bring her and let her sample the new natural treats and try on tu-tus, but that would have been for us, not for her. She was much happier taking her siesta at home on the couch. I hate to dwell on the negative, but here are ten other dogs I saw at the expo that should have stayed home.

10 dogs who should not attend a pet expo. slogan source: Phoenix Pet Expo

10 dogs who should not attend a pet expo. slogan source: Phoenix Pet Expo

the darter on a long leash–I didn't come here to get clotheslined. Rein it in.

the guy who was pissing on everything–And I mean everything. I've manned booths at pet-friendly events, and I always wonder why you allow your dog to lift his leg on the table cloth upon which I am displaying my information. Or worse, yet, on someone's leg. Yes, that happened yesterday.

the one who attacked another dog–The mobile veterinarian told me about this one. She attended the event to provide information and show off her complete office-on-wheels. She didn't bargain for severe wound care, but thank goodness she was there.

the one taking all the samples–It's simple sample etiquette. One sample per person. Not all dogs get that. Shame on the pet parent who thought it was cute to allow your pooch to devour the entire bowl of samples.

the one splashing all of the water out of the bowls–It was 104º yesterday. Sure, we were indoors enjoying the AC, but some of those pooches needed a drink. Don't let your dog be an a-hole and knock over all of the beverages.

the two in the stroller who would. not. stop. barking.–I don't like to stereotype based on breed, but you know the type. Little Napoleons brave within the confines of their screened-in box on wheels. I mean, seriously. I'm trying to have a conversation with someone, and there they are...yap, yip, yap, yip, yap, yip, yap, yip, and so on. I don't even know how they kept up their oxygen levels. And the owner did nothing. Perhaps he was deaf. 

the one who was jumping on all the kids–To be fair, he was probably jumping on everyone, but I noticed the kids because I saw two of them go down.

the one who was cowering–It's just cruel. Why don't you leave the poor dear home where she's comfortable?

the one who was aggressively lunging at every other dog–There were a couple of these, actually. I realize that not all dogs get along, and a couple of squabbles are to be expected in such an intense environment, but when there's one that's not getting along with anyone at all...well...perhaps there should be a bouncer at the pet expo. 

the one with diarrhea–Sure, maybe it caught you by surprise upon arrival, but maybe it's time to go. Like, now.

I blame the pet parent in each and every case. If you're going to bring your dog into this type of situation, you need to be able to control him, and he should be comfortable. Not all dogs are meant to be placed in a large crowd with lots of other dogs, people, noises, and temptations. It's a shame that so many people are too selfish to recognize that in their own animal.

At any rate, there were still plenty of well-behaved animals to interact with. And I swear I saw a few of them roll their eyes at the dogs that should not have attended the pet expo.