Question: My dog sometimes pulls on pants and sleeves. I think she’s playing, because we let her do this as a puppy, but she doesn’t stop. What can I do to end this behavior?
Puppies will often mouth and tug at clothes. These antics may appear amusing and adorable, but as the puppy grows into a bigger, stronger and more focused adult dog, they can become worrisome or even dangerous. Prevention is always the best strategy — keep play directed toward toys instead of human skin, hair, or clothing.
Fortunately for you, old dogs can learn new tricks — and unlearn unwanted habits. To effectively resolve your dog’s mouthing behavior, it’s helpful to understand where the behavior comes from and how to offer alternative replacement behaviors that satisfy both you and your canine.
Why Puppy Mouthing Is Not Ok
One of the many things a puppy needs to learn is to be careful with his bite — but allowing a puppy to mouth human hands or people’s clothes will not teach this. Encouraging a dog to play by biting at human hands, skin, hair or clothes is not recommended. This type of play teaches your dog that people and their clothes make acceptable chew and tug toys.
Any and all mouthing of hands, skin or clothing should result in immediate removal of the hand or body part and a minute or two of no social interaction with the puppy. This teaches the puppy that putting teeth on a person is the end of playtime.
Dog owners often assume that a dog can discriminate between a situation where roughhousing or mouthing is acceptable and one where it’s not. This is too much to ask of most dogs. Instead, your dog is likely to instigate such play at inappropriate times, such as during a walk or with people for whom it’s especially concerning, like children. It’s easier for everyone, especially the dog, if the guesswork and confusion are removed by having consistent guidelines for how play and interactions occur.
Put a Stop to Puppy Mouthing
Consistency is the key to preventing any undesirable behavior. If a bad habit has already developed, you will need to limit your dog’s options for practicing the behavior in the future and offer desirable alternatives for him instead.
Here are 4 simple ways to put a stop to mouthing clothes in a puppy or adult dog:
Do not react to the mouthing. Part of the joy for dogs when they jump up is experiencing the person’s reaction. Pulling back and away from the dog creates resistance for a tug-toy type experience if the dog’s grabbing onto clothing. Screaming, shrieking or pushing the dog down or away are other reactions that feed energy into the already excitable dog. Instead, freezing in place and avoiding a reaction as much as is possible (standing still, looking down and away from the dog, remaining motionless and tucking hands under in a cross armed position) is more likely to cause loss of interest.
Teach “leave it” and “drop it.” Training your dog to refocus his attention before he picks something up with his teeth (“leave it”) or to let go of something he should not have in his mouth (“drop it”) can help put a stop to mouthing inappropriate objects. For both commands, start training with items that are low in value to your dog — something he will willingly leave or drop — and work up to more desirable items (in this case, clothing).
Reward success with a high value treat and follow up by redirecting to another activity, like a down stay or a fetching another toy. When he has mastered the “leave it” or “drop it” command, shift the reward so that it comes after the replacement behavior. That helps to reinforce the desired behavior and fade the mouthing behavior.
Replace mouthing with something more acceptable. I worked with a Pit Bull who greeted her family when they returned home by enthusiastically grabbing at their clothes. To defuse this behavior, her humans initiated an acceptable replacement activity as soon as they stepped in the door. These included playing “find it” with tossed treats, fast repetitions of sit and touch and asking the dog to go to her bed for a chew or to fetch a favorite toy.
Keep your dog busy. Many unwanted behaviors like mouthiness are a sign of an under-challenged dog. Use enrichment tools like food puzzles and focused games to channel mental and physical energy into acceptable outlets.
In some situations mouthing can be caused by other emotional situations like separation anxiety or a noise phobia. If you are concerned that your dog’s mouthing is more than just play and may relate to anxiety or aggression, seek help, starting with your veterinarian.