What Does It Mean if a Dog Nips at You but Doesn't Actually Bite?

by Brandy Burgess
Many dogs nip to encourage play.

Many dogs nip to encourage play.

Thinkstock/Comstock/Getty Images

Many people mistake nipping during harmless play with aggression in dogs. While some dogs nip out of fear or anger, others do it for the sheer enjoyment. While nipping is far more common in young puppies, adult dogs that were never taught in puppyhood not to nip may engage in this annoying, and sometimes painful, behavior. It’s important to determine why your dog is nipping before the behavior can be corrected.

Dealing with Playful Nipping

Puppies often use their mouths to explore the world around them. Puppy mouthing is normal, and most dogs tend to grow out of this phase when discouraged from nipping at a young age. Adult dogs have significantly stronger jaws, making playful nipping a more serious problem. Due to their size and sensitivity to human reactions, it’s usually more difficult to curb playful nipping in adult dogs. It’s vital to stop all forms of mouthing, nipping, and biting immediately before more serious nips or bites occur.

Spotting Signs of Aggression

Dogs that nip but don’t bite may be giving you a warning. When dogs nip out of fear or frustration, this behavior can quickly escalate to aggression. Dogs that are showing aggression tend to stay stiff and rigid, while dogs who simply want to play usually display happy, relaxed body language. An aggressive dog may also wrinkle his muzzle and pull back his lips to growl or expose teeth. If your pet’s nipping is associated with any type of aggression, it’s crucial to stop what you’re doing and leave the area once the dog has settled or walked away. Turning your back to a fearful dog could cause him to come up behind you and bite or nip.

Promoting Positive Playtime

Some dogs may mouth your hands, limbs or clothing out of boredom. Ensuring that your pet receives plenty of exercise and playtime can help control nipping behavior due to playfulness. All dogs, especially puppies, need room to run and explore. Avoid playing games with your dog that promote “mouthy” type behaviors, such as tug of war. Use firm commands when playing with toys, such as “drop it,” to avoid having to put your hands near the dog’s mouth. Never use your hands to roughhouse with your pet.

Ceasing Nipping Behavior

Both puppies and adult dogs should be taught to control all forms of mouthing and nipping. Discourage this behavior by letting out a sharp, short “Ouch!” when nipped, then walk away. Soon your dog will learn that nipping means no more attention from you. Mouthing and nipping should be avoided, while licking and other good behaviors should be rewarded. Deter your dog from nipping by directing his mouth to a toy when he becomes too rambunctious. If these methods don’t work, many adolescent and adult dogs respond well to time-outs in 10- to 20-second intervals. If nipping behavior continues or worsens, it's crucial to seek the help of your vet or a behavior specialist.

Photo Credits

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About the Author

Based in northern New York, Brandy Burgess has been writing on pets, technical documentation and health resources since 2007. She also writes on personal development for YourFreelanceWritingCareer.com. Burgess' work also has appeared on various online publications, including eHow.com. Burgess holds a Bachelor of Arts in computer information systems from DeVry University and her certified nurses aid certification.

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