Nibbling, mouthing and gentle chewing can all be signs of affection in dogs. As puppies, dogs communicate and explore with their mouths. While it can be cute and ultimately harmless when delivered softly by a puppy, it's important to monitor and correct this behavior where necessary. Left unchecked, your dog could develop a habit for nibbling that is entirely inappropriate when he's fully grown. This habit is particularly common in dogs with soft mouths bred for carrying, such as Labradors and golden retrievers.
Dogs learn to use their mouths during play with their littermates. In the litter, dogs use their mouths to learn about their environment. They do this even before they open their eyes. Puppies typically tell their siblings that a nibble was too hard by yelping or whining. Once they're out of their litter, dogs direct their affection and love toward you and the family. If they can't give you a little nibble of affection, they may well begin nibbling items that remind them of you, such as clothes and shoes.
Affectionate nibbling takes many forms. Some dogs can't resist nibbling your hands and feet. While this is a learned habit, dog owners often reinforce the behavior by playing with the dog or stroking him when he begins to nibble. Other dogs nibble when they get excited. If you're playing with your dog and suddenly he's got his mouth wrapped around your hand or arm, it's because the excitement of play and affection got the better of him.
As well as potentially hurting or injuring a person, a nibbling dog may cause damage around the house. The nibbling habit might seem cute in a puppy, but when a dog with a full set of teeth directs this behavior toward your favorite bag, you've got problems. Affectionate nibbling is not an inherently bad behavior; the drivers behind it are quite benign. But like many natural instincts, it's best to curb them early on to help your dog to live harmoniously in the domestic environment.
The best way to discourage affectionate nibbling is to think like a dog. If your dog nips your toe, say "ouch!" That's what his siblings would have done. The sudden, alarmed sound is often enough to show your dog that his affectionate nibble is not appropriate. If your dog nibbles you during play, stop the play session. This shows him that nibbling has a negative outcome. Introduce chew toys to playtime, too, so he can direct his nibbling to an appropriate outlet for nibbling. When he starts to nibble the toy, give him lots of praise and fuss so he makes a positive association between his behavior and the target object.
By Simon Foden
About the Author
Simon Foden has been a freelance writer and editor since 1999. He began his writing career after graduating with a Bachelors of Arts degree in music from Salford University. He has contributed to and written for various magazines including "K9 Magazine" and "Pet Friendly Magazine." He has also written for Dogmagazine.net.