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Nibbling vs. Biting
Reasons Dogs Nibble
How To Stop Nibbling
My! What big, sharp teeth your dog has. All the better to … nibble you with?
If your dog treats your hand like a chew toy from time to time, you probably have several questions on your mind (as well as some slobber on your fingers). Behavior expert Sherrie Yuschak, RVT, VTS (Behavior), KPA-CTP, is here to help—with the questions, not the slobber. In addition to parsing out the difference between nibbling and biting, she explains the reasons why your dog might be nibbling and what you can do to discourage the behavior.
What's the Difference Between Nibbling and Biting?
Before we get any further, it's important to distinguish what nibbling is and isn't. According to Yuschak, a nibble is when your dog's teeth make contact with your skin without biting down. She refers to this minimal teeth pressure as mouthing and says it can involve the dog's entire mouth or just the front teeth (or teef, as they're affectionately called). A dog who's nibbling will also be devoid of body language associated with aggression and its common precursors, fear and stress. The signs can vary from dog to dog, but generally speaking, a dog with a low, stiff body posture, flat ears, raised hackles, and a tucked tail isn't playing.
Teeth pressure that is more intense (more like a painful pinch) coupled with the body language described above doesn't fit the definition of nibbling. In such cases, Yuschak recommends seeking help from your veterinarian or from a board certified veterinary behaviorist.
5 Reasons Dogs Nibble
Yuschak breaks down the reasons why your dog might be nibbling your fingers into five main categories that aren't mutually exclusive:
1. Developmental Stage (Puppy Teething and Exploring)
If the nibbler in question is a puppy, Yuschak says the behavior may be related to your pet's age and what's currently happening in their mouths and brains. Perhaps most relevant to this developmental discussion is the fact that puppies go through a teething period. At around 4 to 6 months of age, puppies begin trading their first set of 28 razor-sharp teeth for 42 permanent adult teeth—a process that prompts a whole lot of chewing. Add to this the fact that puppies use their mouths to explore and learn about their environment, and you have a recipe for nibbled digits.
2. Breed-Typical Behavior
It's possible instinct is at least partly to blame for your dog's toothy tendencies, Yuschak explains. Some dogs have been bred for hundreds of years to use their mouths for specific sporting and working tasks. For example, true to their name, Labrador retrievers were traditionally trained to retrieve ducks and fish from icy waters in and around Newfoundland. And many herding dogs, like the Australian cattle dog, utilize nipping to move cows along. Thus, this fondness for fanging your fingers may be tied to instinct.
Take note of when your dog is most likely to gnaw on your hand. If it's when you're playing, Yuschak says the behavior may simply be the result of arousal. In other words, your dog is using their chompers to express their excitement. Yuschak adds that what begins as a natural outpouring of playfulness can become a learned, attention-seeking behavior. When your pet sees that nibbling gets your eyes on them, they may be positively reinforced to try it again in the future.
4. Fear/Conflicted Emotions
To adapt a quote from Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, it is a truth universally acknowledged that a dog in possession of an exposed belly must be in want of a belly rub. Or is it? "Dogs roll onto their backs because they've learned it gains attention and petting from human friends," Yuschak explains. "But dogs also roll onto their backs when they're fearful and trying to be submissive."
Now, imagine you excitedly stroll over to a scared, nervous dog and start giving their underside a good scratch. What you intended as a one-way ticket to Cloud 9 can instead make the dog uncomfortable and anxious. In addition to nibbling, Yuschak says to look for a tucked tail, dilated pupils, tense lips, a closed mouth, ears that are pulled back, and a tense body posture. "If you observe these signs," she continues, "encourage the dog to get up and resume petting them if and when they solicit attention from a less vulnerable body posture."
5. Grooming Behavior
Have you ever caught your pup corncobbing their own digits? Yuschak says it's a natural grooming behavior dogs employ to combat itchiness and even remove bugs like fleas and ticks. Thus, it's possible that if your dog applies their front teeth to you in this way, they're merely sharing a part of their hair and skin care regimen. Moreover, it's possible this sharing is a sign of caring, as Yuschak notes that social grooming can be an affiliative (i.e. bonding) behavior in animals.
3 Things To Do When Your Dog Nibbles on You
Your dog has better things to do than treat your cuticles like corn on the cob, but they may need your help to ditch the habit.
1. Identify Your Dog's Triggers
Yuschak recommends observing your dog to identify their particular triggers. "What does the mouth contact look like? When does the behavior occur? How often? Answering these questions can help you get to the next step: removing triggers whenever possible," she explains. For example, if your dog tends to target a particular person, you may want to put your pet in their crate, outside, or in a closed-off area when that guest arrives. Or, you may need to keep playtime more calm and even put it on pause if your dog gets wound up.
2. Redirect to Desired Behaviors
Yuschak says it can also be helpful to learn your dog's body language signs that arousal or excitement is increasing so you can prevent the behavior with early redirection. One redirection tool is to use cues. "Teach desired behaviors incompatible with nibbling, such as 'go to crate,' 'grab and hold a toy,' or 'nose to hand,'" she advises. "Then you can give your pet the proper cue to stop the behavior before it begins." Stocking trigger areas with treats and toys so that they're always within reach can help shift your pet's attention, as well.
But redirection is more than just a preventative tool, Yuschak says. Cues, treats, and toys are also helpful for stopping the behavior after it begins. Punishment, on the other hand, is not. "Avoid saying 'no,' pulling away, or grabbing your dog's muzzle," she continues. "Doing so could escalate the behavior and cause your pet to become fearful."
3. Fulfill Your Dog's Mental and Physical Exercise Needs
One other preventative method is to ensure your dog is getting adequate physical and mental exercise each day, Yuschak says. She lists walks, sniff walks, treat searches in the house or yard, puzzle feeder toys, play, and training as activities that work your dog's body and mind. And if you're ever unsure or want help with redirection ideas, reach out to your veterinary team or to a credentialed positive-reinforcement trainer. Your fingers will thank you.