All dogs go through some stage of being mouthy, whether that is nibbling, chewing, or more intense biting.
This behavior can be somewhat confusing to owners when it comes to figuring out if you should stop the habits or not. Luckily, dog nibbling is a common occurrence that is not too difficult to address.
Dogs nibble for various reasons, including grooming, seeking affection, playtime tendencies, anxiety, excess energy, or lingering puppy behaviors. While the nibbling may be cute when your puppy is young, it may become a nuisance or even a harmful activity as he matures. For that reason, he must learn proper bite inhibition.
Identifying the root cause of the nibbling will determine if and how you should address the behavior. So, let’s explore the reasons in more detail.
Dogs innately turn to nibbling since it is a behavior they learn when they are just puppies. Many dogs work out of their nibbling tendencies as they get older, but some never quite outgrow the habits.
When puppies are still with the rest of their littermates, they learn to play with each other by nibbling.
They may even nibble on their mother until she warns them to stop. Throughout this playtime, puppies learn the limits of what is an acceptable level of mouthing.
Puppies will nibble on each other, and a puppy that is bitten too hard will yelp as a way to let the other puppy know that the action hurt.
The hurt puppy will stop playing for a little while, which teaches the nipping puppy that biting too hard hurts other puppies and makes playtime stop.
With warnings from littermates and the mother, a puppy will learn proper bite inhibition. That’s part of the reason why young puppies (younger than 8 weeks) must stay with their littermates and mother.
When puppies and older dogs learn that certain biting levels are counterproductive (play stops, no fun), they will refrain from nibbling too hard.
Puppies get their baby teeth within their first two months of life, and they do not get their adult teeth for another few months after that. Just as with humans, the teething process can be uncomfortable or even painful.
To alleviate their discomfort, puppies naturally seek things to chew on. During this stage of a puppy’s life, it helps to provide chewing toys specifically made for teething.
By providing toys for teething, the puppy will not have to seek out other items to chew on, such as shoes or your fingers.
For some dogs, nibbling is a behavior they turn to when they are stressed or anxious. The nibbling can provide them with some relief.
For that reason, it is advised to provide them with some chew toys or other toys they like when you are away.
If you think your dog’s nibbling is a stress response, do your best to identify the source of the stress and help them learn to manage it.
There may be some environmental stressors around your home. These may include loud noises, storms (or other bad weather), visitors, or new animals in your home.
With nibbling being a natural behavior for dogs, it is not surprising that they use the behavior to gain the forms of attention they seek.
Much of this goes back to the idea that dogs associate nibbling with their memories of being a puppy.
If your dog gently uses its front teeth to nibble on you, it may be a form of grooming. Dogs groom each other to show affection, so a dog that nibbles on you gently is trying to carry out the same behavior.
It is a sign that your dog cares about you and wants to be affectionate. You can reciprocate the behavior by gently scratching your dog’s neck and ears, which is where other dogs will groom each other.
If you have multiple dogs, you might see your dogs even nibbling on each other. Grooming each other through nibbling is a very affectionate behavior.
Just as puppies do, any time one of the dogs gets too aggressive with the nibbling, the other will yelp as a sign to stop the behavior.
Dogs might nibble on you or on other dogs as a way to signal that they want to play. You might notice this, mostly when you have been preoccupied with things other than your dog.
Nibbling is a way for dogs to gain attention to initiate playtime.
When your dog nibbles and indicates a desire to play, try to take some time to engage in a little bit of playtime with your dog.
If you cannot personally play with your dog at that point, try giving your dog a few toys to play with.
For dogs that seem to want to play all the time and nibble a lot, consider providing toys that are designed to keep your dog occupied.
Puzzle toys or toys that you can put treats and peanut butter in are a great way to keep your dog entertained.
Most of the time, nibbling is not a harmful behavior. It can be a sign of affection even, so there are plenty of reasons that you might decide to let your dog continue the behavior.
If the nibbling is becoming more of a biting behavior, though, you might want to discourage it.
A helpful way to discourage nibbling on your items or your body is to redirect your dog’s behavior to acceptable items. This is a great practice to start when your dog is still a puppy, if possible.
To redirect your dog’s nibbling behavior:
Toys with ropes or other tugging elements are a great way to keep your dog engaged with you without harmful contact.
As I mentioned earlier, dogs learn bite inhibition as puppies. When one puppy is bitten too hard, it yelps as a way to signal to the other dog that the bite was hurtful.
To counteract nibbling on you that you do not want, you should respond similarly.
If your dog or puppy nibbles excessively or too hard on you should:
Ignoring your dog after these behaviors teaches the idea that the level of biting or nibbling was too high.