Dog Training – Biting and Bite Thresholds

OBJECTIVE: To teach your dog to have a gentle bite that does not hurt, if he ever makes mouth contact with you or any other person.

No matter how much training you do and how gentle your dog is, under certain circumstances any dog can be provoked to bite. Biting is an act of defense for a dog; it is often an instinctual response to specific situations. There are a variety of reasons that a dog may bite and contrary to popular belief, few bites are committed by “aggressive” dogs.

All dogs have what is referred to as a bite threshold. A bite threshold can be either low, high or anywhere in between and is individual for every dog and will be variable depending on what else is happening in the dog’s environment at that particular time. The best way to think of this threshold is to equate it to the “snapping point” in people. Some individuals are more tense and quicker to react in a situation than others. Virtually everything going on in the world around them will contribute to where a dog is at that given moment in time in relation to their bite threshold.

Hypothetically, a dog with a very high threshold (less reactive) who is well socialized, well fed, well rested and just kicking back around the house playing a bit and being petted will typically be unlikely to bite the mailman, unless the simple presence of the mailman puts this dog over threshold. The same dog, that is hungry, tired from all of the company that has been visiting, sore from the extra exercise and whose routine has been completely thrown out of whack would be more likely to bite that same mailman. All of these factors play into where the individual dog is at on the continuum. As humans, this should be pretty easy to understand; if we have had a bad day and have a headache, we tend to be grumpier than usual. With this in mind, we believe that it is important to first help a dog learn to inhibit their bites before we work on teaching them to not bite at all. The ultimate goal is that if your dog is ever put in a situation where he/she feels a need to defend itself, it will inflict only a minimal amount of damage.

Bite Inhibition

We strongly discourage the use of traditional methods to teach puppies to not bite. These include, but are not limited to scruff shakes, cuffing the puppy under the chin, pinching their lips against their teeth and even the infamous “alpha wolf rollover.” Often people find that when using these methods the puppy bites harder, becomes fearful of hands around its mouth and head and damages the trust the puppy has in its guardian. Aggression on our part results in more aggression from the puppy. The method we describe below works very differently. With this method you can minimize biting and any damage if your dog should ever be placed in a situation where it feels it has no choice but to bite.

Your puppy, even at its young age, has strong jaws and sharp teeth. As your puppy matures, its jaws will only become more powerful. An adult dog has jaws and teeth that are fully capable of ripping apart a carcass and cracking bones. Dogs developed such well-built apparatus because they needed them to survive in the wild.

Dogs are very social animals and because their jaws are such an incredible and potentially dangerous weapon, they have created a ritualized form of aggression to prevent serious injury to one another during altercations. Every puppy is born knowing how to bite; yet they do not automatically know how to bite softly. They can however learn to bite softly through their interactions with other puppies, dogs and us. However, learning how to control their bite with other dogs helps them with other dogs. If you want them to learn how to control their bite with people, you need to teach them.

When we see a litter of puppies playing, we see them exploring one another with their paws and their mouths. This play is fun for the puppies, but it is also an important part of learning. Much of their play involves biting one another. This play is part of how they acquire the skills necessary for ritualized aggression.

While puppies are playing with one another, they are also learning bite inhibition – how to control the strength of their bite. When two puppies are wrestling and one bites the other too hard, the puppy that has been bitten will yelp or snark and stop playing. The puppy that did the biting has just learned that if he bites too hard, his littermate stops playing with him. Eventually the one that was bitten too hard will return to play and the biting puppy will have learned to have a softer mouth. When we take a puppy away from its litter, we also are removing it from a school where it learns much about bite inhibition. If taken into a home without other dogs, and if its new people do not allow play biting, the puppy will no longer have opportunities to learn how to inhibit its bite. This is a huge issue for puppies that are taken from mom and the litter prior to reaching eight weeks of age.

Unfortunately, many outdated dog-training books actively discourage play biting. They infer that if the dog is allowed to play bite it will think of you as a littermate and will try to dominate you. In reality, play biting is an important part of your puppy’s development and something that should be worked with, not against, if you want your puppy to develop a soft mouth. Our goal is to teach the puppy to inhibit this natural canine behavior before they are adults and can cause serious injury.

It is also important to understand that “play biting” is a very different behavior than “chewing” While you dog uses their teeth as part of both behaviors one involves mouthing a living, breathing playmate that will react and interact while the other involves gnawing on an inanimate object that does not interact. This is why giving the dog a toy when they are play biting does not typically stop the play biting behavior.

Teaching Bite Inhibition

It is important to setup opportunities to teach your puppy bite inhibition instead of just trying to teach them when a bite happens. Pick times when the puppy is not all wound up but is more relaxed. If the puppy is in the midst of “the puppy zoomies*” when you try to teach this they are likely to bite harder and are less likely to learn.

*Puppy Zoomies – those times during the day, usually early morning and early evening, when your puppy runs around with great gusto and enthusiasm, almost as if they are possessed.

When teaching bite inhibition, you want to initially target the hard bites. Setup a play area for yourself and the puppy. Make sure that there is absolutely NOTHING in this area that the puppy can play with other than you. No other people, dogs, toys or anything they can mouth. Play with your puppy allowing him to mouth your hands while monitoring the pressure of his bites.

  1. When the puppy bites too hard, say “ouch” as if he really hurt you. This word will become the conditioned stimulus which the puppy learns to mean “playtime ends.” Note: you want to use the same word every time, as does everyone else in the family. Some puppies may be overly stimulated by a “yelp” so you may need to tone down the volume.
  2. Immediately stop play and get up and leave the area for 30 seconds. You must completely ignore the puppy. Do NOT look at, touch or speak to the puppy, just walk away. Make sure the puppy has no toys or other people they can interact with. We are teaching the puppy that when they bite too hard their friends leave and ALL of the fun in the universe comes to a screeching halt.
  3. After 30 seconds return and resume play. When the puppy eventually bites too hard again (and he most likely will), repeat steps 2 and 3.

The above cycle will need to be repeated several times for the puppy to learn. Every day or so you will reduce the amount of pressure you tolerate so that in time your puppy learns that you have very soft skin and he can only mouth you very gently. Think of this like the 1 to 10 pain scale used by doctors. On day one you yelp at 10, day two at 9, and so on. Be careful of moving to a soft pressure too quickly. If your criteria are too high, you are setting your puppy up to fail.

If you try teaching bite inhibition and it turns into the “puppy zoomies,” quietly and with much positive energy, pop your puppy in their crate for a brief timeout.

Some puppies will follow you and nip at your heels and clothes when you stop play. If this is the case, the bite inhibition exercises should be done with the puppy on a leash that is tethered to something like a table so the puppy cannot follow you.

The amount of time it takes your dog to learn how much pressure is okay will vary from dog to dog. The retrieving breeds generally pick this up quite quickly as they have been bred to have very soft mouths. Who wants to have their duck brought back all full of holesJ. On the flip side, it may take a bit more time to help your terrier become soft-mouthed.

Children should not participate in the bite inhibition training. While children and dogs often become the best of friends, young children frequently send dogs all the wrong signals. They scream, flail their limbs, run and fall down. All of these behaviors trigger your dogs hard-wired prey drive as they are essentially the same thing wounded prey would do. If the puppy gets too revved up, a timeout is necessary for both the puppy and the kids.

NOTE: If bite inhibition training was not started when your dog was a puppy (between 8 and 12 weeks), it may not work as well as you would like. If this is the case, please talk with one of the instructors for other ideas on handling biting issues.

Related Podcasts

Available as a podcast at: http://traffic.libsyn.com/woofmeowshow/WoofMeowShow-2013-01-12-TYDM_Playbiting_Chewing.mp3

 

©2015, Donald J. Hanson, All Rights Reserved <Click for Copyright and Use Policy>