Why Does My Dog Nibble On Me?

Just as your darling baby nephew grabs and yanks your hair with his chubby little fists, your darling pup loves to pounce upon you and seize your fingers and toes with his teeth. Babies and dogs love to explore their worlds and that's how they do it. Nibbling, mouthing and gentle chewing can all be signs of play and affection in dogs. As puppies, dogs communicate and investigate 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 nibbling habit that is entirely inappropriate when he's fully grown. This habit is particularly common in dogs with soft mouths bred for carrying, such as Labrador and golden retrievers.

A cheerful Jack Russell terrier.
A jack Russell terrier puppy affectionately nips her owner's thumb.
credit: castenoid/iStock/GettyImages

What causes biting?

Dogs learn to use their mouths during play with their litter mates. In the litter, puppies 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've left their litter mates behind and moved into their new home, dogs direct their affection and love toward you and the rest of their new 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.

Is nibbling different than biting?

Affectionate or playful nibbling takes many forms. Some dogs can't resist nibbling your hands and feet. As puppies, they spend a lot of time investigating objects, nipping at one another, and exploring their environment. Like human babies use their hands to do these things, puppies use their mouths. So, while nipping is a natural behavior, 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 he's suddenly got his mouth wrapped around your hand or arm, it's because the excitement of play and affection got the better of him.

Is nibbling a bad habit?

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 purse, you've got problems. Affectionate nibbling is not an inherently bad behavior; the instinct behind it is quite benign. But like many natural instincts, it's best to curb them early on to help your dog to live harmoniously in her domestic environment.

How to help a dog to stop biting.

The best way to discourage affectionate nibbling is to think like a dog. If your dog nips your toe, say, "Ouch!" That's what her siblings would have done. The sudden, alarming yelp reinforces your dog's natural bite inhibition and is often enough to show your dog that her affectionate nibble is not appropriate. Many dog behaviorists believe that if a dog possesses sound bite inhibition during play, she will also be inclined to exercise this instinct in non-play situations such as when she is frightened or in pain.

If your dog nibbles you during play, stop the play session. This shows her that nibbling results in a negative outcome. Introduce chew toys to playtime, too, so she can direct her nibbling to an appropriate outlet. When she starts to nibble the toy, give her lots of praise and fuss so she makes a positive association between her behavior and the target object. You might also try simply getting up and walking away from the play session. This will teach your dog that when she engages in inappropriate behavior, the fun is take away from her.