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A Dalmation nibbling a man‘s hand

The essentials

  • Most dogs nibble at least a little bit — They explore the world with their mouths, which makes nibbling a perfectly natural behavior.
  • Your dog may nibble for several reasons — Some do it to play with you or show affection, while others may be demanding attention.
  • Most trainers discourage nibbling — Puppies or adult dogs who nibble too often should be trained not to nibble, as it may lead to biting or more aggressive behaviors

Nibbling or “mouthing” is a very common behavior in dogs, especially puppies. It’s important to note that nibbling is an entirely separate behavior from biting. “Nibbling” or “mouthing” occurs when a dog uses their mouth to explore their surroundings, without causing injury to another person or animal.

Puppies especially like to explore the world with their mouths, and nibbling is how they first learn to socialize and play. But we know this behavior can be, at the very least, troubling, and at most, a little destructive.

So let’s take a look at why dogs nibble and the ways you might be able to deter that behavior.

Reasons why your dog might be nibbling you

Typically when your pooch is being mouthy, they are attempting to play and interact with other dogs or their humans. However, there are other reasons why your pup might be nibbling.

They’re teething and exploring

Like human babies, all puppies go through a teething process. Typically, dog parents get their pups around eight weeks of age when they come from a breeder. At this point, your pup’s baby teeth should have all come in. As your puppy grows, you may start finding tiny rice-sized teeth around the house as your pooch starts to lose their baby teeth.

When your pup is teething, they really start to nibble and show mouthing behavior. Puppies first learned this mannerism in their litters, exploring and playing with their mouths to discover the world around them. As their adult teeth come in, puppies are typically uncomfortable; nibbling and chewing helps soothe their sore gums.

They’re showing affection

When pups are born, the first way they sense the world around them is with their mouths. With their littermates and mother dogs, pups show affection and play with each other by mouthing and nibbling. When your dog moves into her forever home with you, she transfers those learned behaviors to how she interacts with her new family.

Gentle, playful nibbles are often a sign your dog is showing their love and affection for you. Sometimes a dog might exhibit playful mouthing behavior without actually nibbling or making contact with what they’re mouthing. This is a good sign a dog is doing so as a sign of affection.

They’re anxious

Not all nibbles are playful, however. Sometimes a dog might be using their mouths as a way to warn other dogs or humans that they don’t like something and want space. Dog anxiety may manifest for a number of reasons, including a change in environment, the presence of new people or animals in their space, or a sudden shift that makes your dog feel insecure or unsafe

An anxious, nibbling dog can become a biting dog . There are typically other signs a pet parent can look out for to stop anxious nibbling from happening. If you notice your dog has tense or curled lips, a tucked tail, slicked back ears, and a tense body posture, avoid petting or having your hand near their mouth. Dog owners may need to identify and remove the cause of stress, or simply wait for their dog to relax before you give them attention again.

Also, be careful not to over pet your dog, or try to calm them down by petting them. Petting your pup signals to him that you are encouraging his behavior. Over petting can also cause your dog to become over stimulated and can make aggressive behavior worse.

They’re grooming

It’s not uncommon to see our dogs grooming themselves by nibbling. This is also called “corn cobbing” or “cobbing”, when a dog gently bites at their paws, legs or tummy with their front teeth. If you catch your pup doing this, it’s most likely a sign they are grooming themselves. Your pup may be trying to fight off an itch or even remove bugs from their skin.

In the wild, animals often groom each other. Social grooming is a normal behavior present in many species. Visit the zoo, and you’ll probably see a line of monkeys grooming each other on a branch. Dogs may be domesticated, but they still have the instinctual need to groom members of their “pack.” If your pup nibbles or excessively licks you, this could be their way of grooming and trying to bond with you.

They want attention

Having a dog is sort of like having a forever toddler. Like toddlers, your dog will often do whatever they can to get your attention. Tactics may include barking, whimpering, and yes, nibbling. Feeling your pup nipping at your hands or feet could be their way of saying “hey, play with me!”

Aside from just wanting to get your attention, dogs also need mental stimulation just as much as they need physical exercise. Dogs who aren’t getting enough of it may resort to nibbling on you out of boredom and frustration.

Nibbling vs. biting

Nibbling/mouthing behavior in dogs is completely normal,  instinctive behavior. Dogs learn mouthing from the moment they’re born, and dogs mouthing other dogs to play or communicate is not a bad thing. But when your dog starts to engage in excessive nibbling on humans, or their nibbling behavior is coupled with overexcitement, the mouthing may become an issue.

There is a distinct difference between nibbling and biting, and it’s important for dog owners to be able to distinguish between the two. Dogs who are nibbling each other or even their humans don’t mean any harm. But if a dog is attempting to bite, this is aggressive behavior that must be addressed immediately.

When a dog is engaging in nibbling, their posture and face are typically relaxed. Their facial muscles are not tense and the mouthing itself is not generally painful.

When a dog is poised to bite, however, they will often stiffen. Their muzzle may be stiff and wrinkled and their teeth typically exposed. Aggressive biting is also usually quick, with a dog lunging into action for a sudden attack. Dogs who are playfully mouthing, however, will be slower and more casual.

Ways to discourage nibbling

Despite mouthing behaviors being instinctual for dogs, it’s not a great idea to encourage your dog to nibble on you or other humans. This behavior can accidentally lead to injuries if not kept under control. If your pup is a problem nibbler, consult your veterinarian on methods to help with training your dog.

Identify your dog’s triggers

One of the first things to do when trying to combat mouthing behavior in your dog is to determine why they may be doing it. Look for the specific trigger events that lead to nibbling. Do they nibble most during playtime? Or are they more likely to corncob when they’re winding down and grooming themselves (and then perhaps you)? Maybe your pup starts to nibble when they seem restless and bored. If you can identify the specific activity that is leading to nibbling, it will be easier to determine the best way to help train your dog.

Give them an alternative task or redirect the behavior

When a dog’s nibbling becomes a problematic behavior, one of the best training tools for dog owners is to redirect your pup. One of the most effective strategies for training pups not to nibble is to use cues. When a dog starts to nibble, redirect with a specific and consistent cue. A dog owner could direct their dog to their crate by saying “crate,” which refocuses their attention and guides them to an activity that is incompatible with mouthing.

Pet owners who are away from home might cue their dog with a trick such as “nose to hand;” then reward your pup with a treat for successfully performing the trick. One strategy to not engage in is punishing your dog for mouthing behavior. Yelling or physically grabbing your dog when they mouth or nibble could actually make the behavior worse and make your dog afraid of you.

Give them the attention and exercise they need

When a dog gets enough physical and mental stimulation in a day, they aren’t prone to potentially harmful behaviors such as mouthing out of boredom. The amount of exercise your dog needs per day depends on her breed, age, size, and temperament. Consult with your veterinarian or a dog trainer on how much exercise your dog should get daily.

Combining physical and mental stimulation is a great way to really tire out your pup and keep them entertained. Enrichment and stimulation toys and feeders are great tools for pet owners. Taking your dog for a long walk and allowing them to sniff as much as they like will also help stimulate your pooch’s mental state.

Play or instinctual behavior, affectionate dog cobbing to groom themselves and their humans, or boredom and anxiety are the most common reasons for mouthing. Although dogs mouthing each other is perfectly normal, pet owners should not encourage their dogs to nibble on humans. Injuries can occur, accidentally or through a dog getting too overstimulated. It’s always best to consult your veterinarian or an animal behaviorist for training strategies when your dog exhibits any troubling mannerisms.

Frequently asked questions

Why does my dog nibble on me with his front teeth?

This behavior is called cobbing. Named after the way humans eat corn on the cob, dogs do this to show affection or seek attention from their humans.

Should you let your dog nibble on you?

Gentle nibbling out of affection or grooming is an innocent, natural dog behavior. However, nibbling can turn to biting if not controlled. It’s best to encourage your dog not to excessively nibble on humans.

Can nibbling lead to biting or injury?

While nibbling may start off as innocent dog behaviors, it can turn into harder bites which can cause injuries. It’s important as a pet parent to ensure your dog’s nibbling is properly controlled and that they are well trained.

How can I discourage my dog from nibbling on me or my clothes?

Offer your dog an alternative toy, such as a favorite chew toy to nibble on and deter them from nibbling you or your clothes. Use positive reinforcement and plenty of praise when they stop unwanted nibbling. For really persistent nibblers, pet parents may want to look into working with a dog trainer or a qualified dog behaviorist.