When a 12-week-old puppy is nipping your ankles or gnawing on your fingers with little razor teeth, most of us understand that these are behaviors that are undesirable but normal for a dog so young. Puppies use their mouths as they explore the world and learn how to interact with humans, other dogs and everything they might encounter in their lives.
Some puppies will outgrow nipping with consistent training. Others carry mouthing issues into adolescence and even adulthood. One intense form of this is what is often called “arousal biting,” and it is a challenging and sometimes dangerous behavior.
“Arousal” in this context simply means that the dog is in a heightened state – for example, he might be excited, anxious, hyper or stressed. When a dog has reached this point, they are often no longer in their “thinking” brain or considering what they are doing. Instead, they are just reacting to their environment in a way that feels natural to them but can be harmful to any people who might be within their reach.
When I adopted my dog, Percy, I expected some nipping. He was an adolescent herding dog, after all, and that seemed perfectly normal. But I realized that Percy’s nipping became more intense and frantic when he was in any kind of heightened state, and he definitely wasn’t outgrowing it.
For Percy, a few things got him into this state – being able to run free off-leash, chasing a ball, getting overtired, seeing another dog. I first noticed it when we were out on walks and he would start to jump around, occasionally directing his body toward me and his mouth onto my arm. At the park, he would race around in large circles, coming back toward me and leaping through the air to make contact. While he never broke skin or drew blood, and he was never intentionally acting with aggression, these nips were hard and painful, and in no way appropriate.
There are some simple steps you can take to improve arousal biting. Generally, this is not an issue that disappears right away, as the biting is self-reinforcing for a lot of dogs. But it is not a hopeless problem.
First, reward calm. This sounds simple, and it is. Whenever your dog is calmly laying by your feet, walking by your side, or sitting next to you in a situation where he might get wound up, reinforce that calm with a treat, petting, praise, or whatever your dog finds rewarding. Be careful not to use rewards that will get your dog too excited so you don’t break their calm. I recommend Dr. Karen Overall’s relaxation protocol to help your dog learn to relax if they find it tough to offer calm on their own. (I plan on discussing this protocol in greater detail in a later post, but you can also find a lot of information on it online.)
Second, protect yourself. If your dog nips hard when you are playing outside, throw the ball from behind a gate or fence, or stand near a door so you can escape quickly if needed. Removing yourself from the situation can also be an effective consequence for many dogs – you nip me, I stop playing and leave.
Third, stay calm. For many dogs with this issue, the more frustrated, upset or frantic you get, the more wound up they become. Standing still and staying quiet is going to be far safer and more effective then waving your arms around or shouting at your dog.
Fourth, work on impulse control. Teaching your dog to exercise restraint when they want something is vital, especially to situations like this. In my situation, to play ball, Percy is now required to sit until I tell him “free,” and he has to drop the ball at my feet to have it thrown again. If he doesn’t sit, the ball stays in my hand. If he gets too jumpy or mouthy, playtime ends for a few minutes. If he gets more intense, I leave the yard until he calms down and then we try again. But if he can demonstrate enough control to hold still while I am holding one of his favorite things, I’ll let him go crazy for a moment chasing it.
Fifth, make sure your dog’s needs are being met. Is he getting enough appropriate exercise, both physical and mental? Are you putting enough time and effort into training? Is he bored? I love teaching behaviors and tricks that require calm and a closed mouth to dogs who try to overuse theirs – hand touches and chin rests are both fabulous options. You can also try wearing your dog out with calmer games like nosework, which tends to be tiring and doesn't amp them up in the way that exercise like running or playing ball might. For dogs with arousal biting issues, more intense exercise can be a trigger, so calmer games and training are great options.
Using these techniques and ongoing training, Percy has made a lot of progress. He still occasionally forgets himself, especially when gets tired, but his level of restraint and calm has improved drastically. Maturity has certainly helped, but without the work we put into the issue he most likely would still be leaping at me as we walked, frantically trying to grab onto my arm. If your dog’s issue seems more severe or dangerous, please contact a qualified trainer to get help. But for many dogs, a bit of extra patience and training can make a world of difference.
Sarah is a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant and Certified Professional Dog Trainer - Knowledge and Skills Assessed. She lives in the Texas Hill Country near Austin with her two dogs, Percy, a cattle dog mix, and Clara, a lab/German Shepherd.