I intentionally named this article teething, chewing, and biting. I use these terms since they are the most common words people use to describe the act of a puppy or in some cases adult dogs putting their mouth on skin, clothing, furniture, leashes, rugs, etc. The goal of this article is to help promote awareness of what these behaviors actually mean and how to address them.
Why do Dogs use their Mouths?
A dogs mouth is the most important part of its body. Not only do they use their mouths to eat and hunt, but it also acts as their hands, means of communicating, and way to modulate the energy of other members of their pack in efforts to remain order and balance. Because of the numerous contexts a dog or puppy can use their mouths it is very important to recognize the motivation behind the action before we are quick to write it off as “puppy teething” or “just what our dog likes to do when playing…” Unfortunately I hear dog owners report that their veterinarian explained how their puppy is” biting on their hands and clothing because they are simply teething.” This is not true. Since the mouthing is directed towards humans at times when the puppy becomes over stimulated, it is based more on communication, sensory modulation, and the actual relationship we share with our dogs. Whereas true puppy teething is actually something directed towards inanimate objects like bones, toys, and at times your furniture when the need to seethe their new and growing teeth arises. Although these behaviors can seem identical when taken out of context, it is very clear that when a dog directs their mouthiness towards us, there is a lot more meaning behind it than just random chewing as a pastime.
Hands and Pant legs?
We usually do not think about these two items in the same sentence. So why do dogs who have a gusto for mouthing seem to direct it mostly towards our hands and ankles? This comes back to how dogs naturally communicate. If you ever see dogs playing they are constantly nipping at each other’s ears and hindquarters. There is a distinct reason for this. They are not randomly biting at each other without purpose. They are doing a dance of sorts in efforts to modulate one another’s energy in a way that ensures the collective energy of all members of the pack are in order and not one member or interaction over-stimulates the environment. If these imbalances were to occur, it could potentially affect all parties involved and put their ability to operate as unit at stake. Let’s now re-enter the home environment where a puppy can feel the same potentials for imbalance and overstimulation as they would when interacting with other dogs. An example would be an arrival home, playtime, specific times of day, and general movement around the house. We see these things as a basic greeting, activities, playing, etc. To our dog or puppy who is highly sensitive and could potentially get over stimulated by this new event, they instantly begin to feel an onslaught of information that begins to disorganize their sensory input system. All of a sudden their ability to process information becomes flooded and now they are in the mode of trying to restore order and balance in the environment while all we are seeing is the wonderful cute puppy we just want to hug and kiss. This mismatch causes a dog to scramble in an attempt at creating some calm in this situation to help bring their sensory system back to a baseline state. As mentioned in the last paragraph, dogs use their mouths to communicate with one another as a means to keep order non-erratic energy in a pack setting. When a dog feels we are not even close to recognizing how we are over stimulating them and causing discontent, they are left with no choice but to take matters into their own hands in a last ditch effort to get some control. This is acted out in the form of nipping at our hands, feet, and clothing. Since no dog in history can handle the undertaking of feeling responsible for the human conditions we share with them, they get even more frustrated as we encourage the mouthing and nipping to continue due to ineffective dog training techniques and from not understanding its actual root context. Deep down a dog realizes it is our job to be aware of all this to create a less stimulating environment preventatively so they would not have become overwhelmed with the responsibility of maintaining order in the first place…If we can achieve this, the biting will stop immediately.
Don’t Dogs Just Like to Chew?
Of course they do! Like I had mentioned, puppies and adult dogs do need an outlet for chewing. It is important though to help your dog approach chewing more like a pastime that they enjoy every now and then versus a necessity of life or seether for their anxiety which has a much deeper meaning to its basis. If your puppy is seeking out inanimate objects to chew on it is a good idea to supply them with appropriate chew toys, safe bones, and other items that can provide a healthy outlet for this behavior. You can also begin to correct the inappropriate chewing to encourage your dog to make the right decisions when it comes to chew items. Again, if your dog is directing their chewing towards you, replacing the action with a bone or toy to discourage them will be minimally effective since this type of chewing is based on the human dog relationship and not your puppy’s sore gums. It is at these times we must be proactive in our communication to demonstrate our abilities to provide balance and sensory modulation for our dogs before they potentially become overwhelmed in a way that triggers the nipping behavior.
Modulating Sensory Input:
Since we now understand that a dog or puppy who is willing to mouth on us does so with a clear intention and is not just randomly biting or teething for no reason. That intention is to restore order in the pack and the sensory processing systems of all its members. If we can simulate this intention as they understand another dog who is better at guiding the rest of the pack would we will instantly begin to address the root causality of why they have been nipping at us in the first place and naturally removes the impulse to do so completely. In other articles I describe techniques on how to use basic dog training commands to guide a dog’s mind to a place of focus and contentment. Applying these techniques helps organize their sensory system and removes the feelings of discontent that creates the impulse to bite to try to do it on their own and for us. In actuality we are just communicating the exact same thing they are trying to do towards us. What happens though when we do it is that a dog’s natural instinct to feel guided by and take direction from humans in a shared situation is tapped into. Giving a dog who previously had questions and insecurities driving their actions a clear job and feelings of sensory integration which removes the cause of the teething, chewing, and biting in a preventative way that establishes the foundation for harmonious relationship between dogs and humans.