by Dr. Chris Roth, DVM
Dogs use their mouths as tools, crunching on kibble, gnawing on bones, tearing up squeaky toys and fetching sticks. It’s also common for overexcited puppies or friendly adult pooches to mouth your hand—but nipping has the potential to cause harm.
Nipping can be an annoying and potentially dangerous habit in dogs. While most dogs nip as part of play, some do it to send a loud message. Whether your dog is nipping out of playfulness or aggression, you shouldn’t ignore this unpleasant habit.
In the United States, more than 4.5 million people are bitten by dogs each year, and 800,000 of those dog bites require medical attention.1 Dealing with nippy dogs (and teaching your canine companion about friendlier forms of play) can help you avoid a trip to the emergency room and ensure that your dog learns safe, appropriate ways of interacting.
Why do dogs nip?
Nipping can be accidental or intentional, and it can happen for several reasons, including:
If your dog is a puppy, it’s likely he’s nipping because he wants to engage you in a game (puppies nip each other for fun), or because he’s teething. Puppies often nip playfully, to ease teething pain or explore their environment.
Certain dog breeds, including Corgis, Collies and German Shepherds, might be especially nippy because they were bred to nip at livestock to move herds.3
Not all dogs nip in all situations. Some dogs nip at people out of aggression, fear, guarding behaviors or playfulness.7 Some dogs are aggressive toward other dogs. Their “reactive” behavior can be due to things like lack of socialization and training, fear, pain, frustration, or even a strong prey drive.8
The good news is, with patience and consistency, there are many ways you can help your dog with this common bad dog behavior and get your dog to stop nipping.
Steps to prevent dog nipping
The best way to deal with nipping is to prevent the behavior before it starts. Try these strategies to prevent your dog from nipping:
- Avoid high-risk situations Some dogs are more prone to nipping in certain situations, including when they are startled or fearful. You can reduce the odds that your dog will nip if you avoid petting them when they’re sleeping, eating, sick, injured, growling, barking or seeking alone time.1
- Provide lots of exercise: Nipping might be your dog’s way of trying to burn off excess energy. Walks, games of fetch, trips to the dog park and other forms of regular exercise can help make your dog feel calm, which could reduce mouthy behaviors.4
- Offer appropriate chew toys: Dogs explore the world with their mouths, and offering bones and chew toys gives them positive opportunities to engage in this behavior. These toys can also be used to redirect their behavior—if your dog starts to get mouthy with you, offer them a chew toy instead.4
- Use positive reinforcement: Punishing your dog can provoke aggression and make nipping behavior worse. Instead of yelling at your dog or using a physical punishment for nipping, offer them a chew toy or bone and praise them for chewing on that instead.
- Socialize your dog: Dogs that feel uncomfortable in unfamiliar situations might nip out of fear. Socializing your dog by introducing them to new people, places and other dogs will help them feel more at ease and reduce the likelihood of fear nipping.1
What to do when a dog nips or bites
Sometimes, strategies to prevent nipping aren’t enough to stop the behavior. If your dog is nipping, follow these steps:
- Show your dog it hurts you: Dogs might not realize that nipping is painful. When your dog nips, let out a high-pitched yelp—it should surprise the dog and cause them to stop nipping. Offer a hard “no” if your dog fails to react to the yelp. Once your dog stops nipping, praise the behavior.5
- Stop playing: When a dog nips during a game like fetch or tug-of-war, stop the game. The same goes for dogs that use their mouths to get attention. Don’t reinforce the behavior; ignore your dog if they start nipping to get you to interact.4
- Take a time-out: Gently put your dog in their crate or another “time-out” area, and bring them out when they are calm.4
What to do when a dog nips or bites children
A dog nipping or biting a child is a major cause for concern. If it happens, take immediate action.
- Separate the dog and child. Put the dog in a separate room or in their crate so you can tend to your child. Examine the area for bites or scratches and seek medical attention, if needed.1
- Examine the cause. Was the nip or bite unprovoked or did the dog nip at a child because the child was being disrespectful (pulling their tail or ears; chasing, hitting or climbing the dog)? Children must be taught how to treat dogs with respect. Play time between dogs and young children should always be supervised.2
- Call a trainer. Unprovoked biting or nipping is not okay. Call a trainer to schedule sessions to address the behavior and keep children separated from the dog until a solid training plan is established.2
- Consider alternatives. A family with active children isn’t the best environment for all dogs. For everyone’s safety, you may need to consider rehoming a nippy dog—but be sure to tell the rescue group the reason you’re looking for a new home so they can find a child-free home for your dog.9
When to get help for nipping
While there are several strategies you can use at home to prevent nipping or address it when it happens, you might want to call in the pros to make sure you’re doing everything you can to banish the behavior.
Find a trainer who uses positive reinforcement training to work with you and your dog to learn the reasons your dog is nipping and the best ways to stop it.2 Signing up for obedience classes can also help your dog learn appropriate behaviors and provide you with the tools you need to prevent dog nipping.6 With a little effort, consistent training and positive reinforcement, you can prevent dog nipping and have a happy, well-behaved dog.