How to Teach Your Dog to Bite Softly
The Importance of Teaching a Dog to Bite Softly
Among the plethora of commands, tricks and behaviors your dog will ever learn in life, learning to bite softly is the most important. This cannot be emphasized enough. It can literally make the difference between life and death. "Pet deaths caused by infectious, neoplastic and metabolic disease don't touch the number of pets killed because of behavior problems," claims Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist Karen Overall, Diplomat of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists.
And when it comes to serious behavioral problems in dogs, biting will have a primary role in the dog's assessment and prognosis. Does the dog have a bite history? And if so, under what level of bite does this dog's biting categorize? Most dog trainers and behavior consultants rely on some sort of bite scale that determines the severity of the bite. I like the official authorized version of Ian Dunbar's bite scale, released for professionals by the Association of Pet Dog Trainers.
If we look at this scale, we will notice that the severity of the bite ranges from level 1 to level 6. Fortunately, according to this scale, over 99 percent of dog bites fall under the category of level 1 and level 2. But things get quite iffy and quite dangerous when dealing with bites past level 3 and quite cirtical at level 4. Dogs who bite at level 5 and 6 are at great risk for being put to sleep. So what can be done to prevent such distressing outcomes? For a good part, problems for a great extent can be prevented by teaching dogs good bite inhibition from early puppy hood. All puppies are born with teeth, yes, they are sharp, yes, they can hurt, but you can teach your puppy to gauge his bite so that when he grows, should he ever bite, he will do so in a way that doesn't cause major harm.
*Note: Back in 2011, I published the hub, "How to Curb Biting in Puppies". This article discussed bite inhibition, how it was taught in the litter and how owners could take over the task. Today's article is meant to be a much more comprehensive guide.
A great read for new puppy owners
Understanding Bite Inhibition in Puppies
What exactly is bite inhibition? Bite inhibition is the dog's ability to gauge the pressure of his jaws when biting. You may be surprised to learn that the first bite inhibition lessons start quite early, when the puppy is still in the litter with his litter mates and mom. Between the ages of 5 and 8 weeks, puppies are learning important social skills and among these is bite inhibition. To allow these important life lessons to seep in, it's very important to to not remove puppies from the litter before they are 8 weeks. Often, when people call me about rowdy puppies that bite too hard, I find out that the pup was removed from the litter too early and failed to learn this important skill. For more on this read my hub" the risks of removing puppies too early from the litter"
How Puppies Learn Bite Inhibition in the Litter
So what happens exactly in the litter during this time? If you watch the pups play, you may notice a pup bite too hard, causing the victim puppy to squeal and give a time-out, suddenly withdrawing from playing. It's almost as if the puppy was saying " I won't play with you anymore, you're too rough for my taste". For learning theory junkies, this method is based on negative punishment; basically removing something the dog likes (negative) to stop a behavior (punishment) Withdrawal after withdrawal, the pup learns that in order to play, he must play more gently. These rules are further enforced by mother dog; just watch what happens when a pup bites too hard when he's nursing! She'll likely get up and leave, which is how puppies are weaned, but this is a different story...
How to Continue Training Bite Inhibition
Once your puppy is in your home at 8 weeks, you must take over the task and continue training bite inhibition. An important note: you don't want to forbid your puppy from biting altogether. Doing so can be quite dangerous because the puppy will never learn how to gauge the pressure of his jaw. This means, the day he will bite, whether because frightened or provoked, the bite will be painful and may potentially result in an injury.
To help your puppy generalize the behavior he learned in the litter and apply it at home with you, continue doing what his litter mates did. Only, in this case, because human skin is extra sensitive, your puppy will need to learn how to further refine his biting. So let's say your puppy is playing with you and then suddenly you feel his teeth put pressure on your skin hurting you, mimic the squeal the pups did in the litter by vocalizing your pain with the human equivalent of a yelp. Then withdraw, giving the same time-out the pups did. Your puppy should stop in his tracks at this point. If your puppy doesn't stop biting, vocalize your pain again and leave the room. Your puppy will soon realize that biting hard makes him lose his favorite play mate. Repeat, repeat, repeat. Puppies need consistency.
Progressive Bite Inhibition for Puppies
As your puppy learns to inhibit the stronger bites, raise the criteria and start working on the less strong bites. Even if they don't hurt much, just pretend they do. They'll help the puppy further refine his bite inhibition skills, so he' ll go from learning to biting softly to learning to decrease the frequency of mouthing and finally to not mouth at all. Remember to praise when your puppy doesn't put pressure.
Goals: It's never too early to learn bite inhibition, start it as soon as those teeth start hurting and get it down by the time his adult canines erupt and definitively before the jaw develops it's full potential. By 5 months, you should see progress in the dog softening its mouth, and by 8 months he should no longer be putting his teeth on human skin.
*Note: setbacks are normal when you are training bite inhibition. You may notice that when your puppy is over aroused and over threshold, he may bite harder. Don't be discouraged; keep working on the issue, and if he's too aroused, redirect his energy by giving him a toy. This will teach your dog that biting you is no fun and that the toy instead is, explains animal behaviorist Patricia McConnell.
Did you miss the train and now you own an adult dog that has little bite inhibition? In the next section, we will look at how to teach bite inhibition in an older dog.
Understanding Bite Inhibition in Adult Dogs
So you bypassed the puppy stage or got an older dog with an unknown history, and are now stuck with an adult dog with little bite inhibition. Things get tricky at this point. The dog is no longer a clean slate as the puppy, and now may have a history of reinforcement derived from biting this way. It could also be he is genetically predisposed to bite harder.
While the adult dog can be taught how to gauge his bite to some extent, the problem is that when the dog is over aroused by emotions such as excitement, fear, play, defense or stress he may not remember to bite gently and may revert to biting hard versus a puppy who has been taught to be soft mouthed from the get-go. This can sometimes get problematic; especially in households with children.
If your dog is quite young, he may still learn some ABC's of bite inhibition when he plays with other dogs. The same thing happens as when the pup was in the litter, the young dog may bite a bit too hard which may result in the playmate yelping and withdrawing. Of course, use common sense; don't just risk other dogs getting hurt, have a dog behavior professional assess your dog before allowing him to play with other dogs. Of course though,the drawback is the fact that dogs have a much tougher skin than humans. That's why we have a bite scale for dog-dog bites and one for dog/human bites.
Same goes with the dog's interactions with you. If he plays and then nips you, try saying something like " too bad" and stopping the game abruptly ignoring your dog. Yelping as if in pain, as done with puppies, may not work too well in some adult dogs and it may even arouse some adult dogs even more. Repeat several times.
Don't assume that bite inhibition stops once the puppy grows; it 's a life time process that you must keep reminding your dog. If your dog doesn't mouth much but takes treats roughly, read my hub on how to train a dog to take treats gently.
What not to do when dealing with poor bite inhibition:
- Don't move your hand away quickly and start yelling; this may raise your dog's arousal and your fast hand movement will further excite him.
- The only form of punishment you should use when your puppy bites, is negative punishment (removing yourself from play). Other forms of punishment such as grabbing the pup's muzzle, giving an alpha roll or yelling at the pup is counterproductive, may increase arousal levels and may lead to defensive aggression.
- Don't suppress the growl with punishment. If your puppy happens to ever growl at you, don't scold it; doing so may lead to biting without warning. For more on this read "risks of punishing growling."
- Don't wrestle, touch the dog on the face or push him to elicit play and don't use your hands or feet as toys to grab during play. I have to sometimes remind men who love to elicit rough play to not wrestle with their dogs as this often reinforces the biting. I really would hate for them to get hurt!
* Disclaimer: if you believe your dog's biting stems from fearful or aggressive behavior don't try any strategies suggested above, but play it safe and consult with a dog behavior professional. In these cases, you will need a different approach tackling the underlying causes for the fear and aggression. By reading this article, you accept this disclaimer.
Ian Dunbar Explains Puppy Bite Inhibition
For further reading
- Understanding Dog Displacement Behaviors
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- Puppy Stages: 12-Week Puppy Behavior and Development
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- Secret Strategies for Potty Training your Puppy
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