Most puppies play-bite, nip or mouth when they’re young and learning about appropriate play. But have you noticed that your dog likes to nibble on you?
Sometimes described as flea biting, baby biting, nibbling with the front teeth or nibbling like corn on the cob! Whatever you call it, this behavior can be confusing to pet parents. So, if you’ve ever wondered why your dog is nibbling on you like you have fleas, then read on!
Reasons your dog may be nibbling on you
The most important point here is to distinguish between nibbling or playful biting and pre-aggression biting. With harmless nibbling your dog’s face and body should look relaxed and they will stop if you ask them to.
If your dog’s face is tense, their ears are back, their mouth is closed, they are lip smacking, yawning or showing their teeth then you may actually be dealing with pre-aggression. You should never ignore this warning sign, since this may escalate to a proper bite. If you are concerned this may be the case, you should seek advice from a veterinarian or veterinary behaviorist straight away.
So, let’s talk about harmless nibbling. Why does my dog nibble me?
There have been a few studies which suggest nibbling is a show of positive emotion from dog to dog, or dog to human. It is thought that its origins lie in natural canine maternal behavior.
Nibbling is considered a special means of non-verbal communication, which serves to create a special bond, regardless of status in the pack. Basically, your dog is letting you know that they love you!
Puppies explore the world with their mouths, as well as their sense of smell and vision. Some dogs never grow out of this habit! Your dog may be curious. Curious about the salty taste of your skin, curious as to how you will respond, or curious about how you feel.
Your dog is teething
Puppies teeth in a very similar way to human babies. Chewing or nibbling can be very comforting for sore gums. Similarly, they may find their display of affection and the physical contact with you comforting.
Your dog has fleas
A dog’s natural response to fleas is to nibble at their skin. This serves to attempt to nibble the fleas off, while also gently scratching that itch! Some dogs with fleas will become so itchy that they nibble at everything, not just their own skin.
Nibbling has become a habit
If your dog went through a period of nibbling, for example due to fleas or teething, then the nibbling may well become habit. Some dogs enjoy the sensation, so carry on even after the initial trigger has resolved.
Sometimes nibbling becomes a habit out of boredom or frustration. For example, if a dog isn’t getting as many walks as usual or is suffering with separation anxiety.
How to manage this behavior
To re-iterate, it is so important that you are sure the behavior is happy nibbling, not warning nipping. Either way, you should never verbally or physically punish your dog, as this will almost certainly lead to worsening of the behavior. Instead, or if you aren’t sure which it is, then seek professional advice from your veterinarian straight away.
Some pet parents don’t mind the nibbling, or rather enjoy it! However, as adults dogs can sometimes get over-zealous and that harmless nibble may turn to a nip. So, it’s important to try to teach your pup more appropriate means of expression.
If the behavior is new, it’s important to rule out medical causes first, such as fleas. It’s a good idea to have your dog checked over by a veterinarian if they start exhibiting any new behavior. It would also be sensible to use a flea treatment, if they are due. If there is no medical cause, then here’s some tips for preventing your dog from nibbling you.
Give your dog a chew toy
If your dog wants to nibble or chew on something, it can be a hard habit to discourage. Instead of trying to prevent it, try offering your pup something they are allowed to chew on, such as a dog-safe chew toy. If they are more of a nibbler, you could try a blanket to nibble on.
As soon as they try to nibble on you, offer the toy or blanket and they should quickly learn what it’s for. Remember you should always supervise your dog with any chew toys and remove them if they become damaged.
Consider when this behavior started
Try to think back to when the behavior started. Did a stressful event take place? Did they have fleas, and the behavior has continued? Was it when their adult teeth started coming through? Getting to the root cause of the behavior will help you make an effective plan for redirecting it.
Give your dog the attention they are craving
If your dog isn’t getting enough physical or mental exercise, then correcting this should help with the unwanted behavior. Try taking them on more, or different, walks. Invest in some puzzle food games or toys to keep them occupied.
Similarly, your dog may be craving your attention by nibbling at you. Teach them the command ‘leave’ or ‘no’, by saying it until they stop and then rewarding them when they do. Once they have stopped, give them the attention they are asking for. Play some games!
While your dog nibbling on you may seem cute and may well be a display of affection, it’s a behavior best not encouraged! Harmless nibbles can easily become nips, even if they aren’t meant as such.
If your dog’s nibbling persists despite trying our tips, then it’s a good idea to seek professional advice from your veterinarian or veterinary behaviorist.