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My dog bites me. A lot. Scooter, the ten-pound Pomeranian we adopted from the shelter after he failed his behavior assessment for serious resource guarding, has bitten me more times than I can count. Most of the time I don’t even feel his teeth. He has never broken skin, and the few times I have felt pressure it’s been because I’ve persisted in what I was doing despite his clear request to stop. Scooter has excellent bite inhibition.
In the dog training world, bite inhibition is defined as a dog’s ability to control the pressure of his mouth when biting, to cause little or no damage to the subject of the bite. We know that all dogs have the potential to bite, given the wrong set of circumstances. Some dogs readily bite with little apparent provocation, but even the most saintly dog, in pain, or under great stress, can be induced to bite. When a bite happens, whether frequently or rarely, bite inhibition makes the difference between a moment of stunned silence versus a trip to the nearest emergency room for the victim, and perhaps the euthanasia room, for the dog.
A bite is at the far end of a long line of behaviors a dog uses to communicate to dogs, humans, and other species. The biting dog often starts with body tension, hard eye contact, a freeze, pulling forward of the commissure (corners of the lips), and escalates to a growl, snarl (showing teeth), offensive barking, an air-snap (not making contact) and only finally an actual bite, to stop what he perceives to be an inappropriate or threatening behavior on behalf of the bitee. The dog who does any or all of these things is saying, “Please don’t make me hurt you!”
Some foolish humans punish their dogs for these important canine communications. “Bad dog, how dare you growl at my child!” Punishing warning signals can suppress them – the dog learns it’s not safe to let you know he’s not comfortable with what you’re doing – and then bites can happen without warning. (See The Gift of Growling, October 2005)
Others ignore the signals and proceed anyway with whatever was making the dog uncomfortable. This is also foolish, and can prompt the dog to express his feelings more strongly, with a less inhibited bite that might break skin and do serious damage.
The wise dog owner recognizes the early signals, and takes steps to reduce or remove the stimulus that is causing the dog to be tense, to avoid having her dog escalate to a bite. She then manages the environment to prevent the dog from constant exposure to the stressful stimulus, and modifies her dog’s behavior to help him become comfortable with it. Sometimes, however, even the best efforts of the wisest dog owners can’t always prevent a bite from happening. If and when it does, one hopes and prays for good bite inhibition.
Installing Bite Inhibition
In the best of all worlds, puppies initially learn bite inhibition while still with their mom and littermates, through negative punishment: the pup’s behavior makes a good thing go away. If a
pup bites too hard while nursing, the milk bar is likely to get up and leave. Pups learn to use their teeth softly, if at all, if they want the good stuff to keep coming. As pups begin to play with each other, negative punishment also plays a role in bite inhibition. Bite your playmate too hard, and he might pack up his toys and go away.
For these reasons, orphan and singleton pups, as well as those removed from their litters too early, are more likely to have a “hard bite” (lack of bite inhibition) than are pups who have appropriate interactions for 7-8 weeks with their mom and siblings. Not only have they missed out on important opportunities to learn the consequences of biting too hard, but singletons especially may have less “tolerance for frustration” since they didn’t have to compete with littermates for resources and may be quicker to anger – and to bite (without bite inhibition) if you thwart their desires.
Your dog may never bite you in anger, but if he doesn’t have good bite inhibition you’re still likely to feel a hard bite when your dog takes treats from your fingers – and removes skin as well as the tasty tidbit. Even a pup raised with his litter can come with a hard mouth, probably because he had a genetic propensity to find hard biting (and the consequences thereof) to be reinforcing, and has had opportunity to practice and be reinforced for biting hard.
If you find yourself with a puppy who, for whatever reason, tends to bite down harder than he should with those nasty-sharp puppy teeth, you can’t start soon enough convincing him that self-restraint is a desirable quality when it comes to putting canine teeth on human skin and clothes. Ideally, you want to teach your pup not to exert pressure when mouthing by the time he’s five months old, just as his adult canine teeth are coming in, and before he develops adult-dog jaw strength. Here’s how:
The Four R’s of Teaching Puppy Bite Inhibition
Remove: When your puppy bites hard enough to cause you pain, say “Ouch” in a calm voice, gently remove your body part from his mouth, and take your attention away from him for two to five seconds. You’re using negative punishment – just like the pup’s mom and littermates. If he continues to jump and grab at you when you remove your attention, put yourself on the other side of a baby gate or exercise pen. When he is calm, re-engage with him.
Repeat: Puppies (and adult dogs, and humans) learn through repetition. It will take time – and many repetitions of Step #1 above, for your pup to learn to voluntarily control the pressure of his bite. Puppies do have a very strong need to bite and chew, so at first you’ll “Ouch and Remove” only if he bites down hard enough to hurt you. Softer bites are acceptable – for now. If you try to stop all puppy biting at once, both of you will become frustrated. This is a shaping process (See “The Shape of Things to Come”, March 2006). You are just looking for a small decrease in the pressure of his teeth at first. When he is voluntarily inhibiting his bite a little – enough that it’s not hurting you, you can then start doing your “Ouch and Remove” for slightly softer bites, until you have eventually shaped him not to bite at all. By the time he’s eight months old he should have learned not to put his mouth on humans, unless you decide to teach him to mouth gently on cue.
Reinforce: Like all dogs (and humans), your pup wants good stuff to stick around. When he discovers that biting hard makes you (good stuff) go away, he will decrease the pressure of his bite, and eventually stop biting hard. This works especially well if you remember
to reinforce him with your attention when he bites less-hard. It works even better if you use a reward marker when he’s using appropriate mouth pressure. Given that my hands are probably full of puppy at that particular moment, I’d use a verbal marker followed by praise to let him know he’s doing well. “Yes!” makes the soft-mouth moment, followed by “Good puppy!” praise to let him know he’s wonderful.
Redirect: You probably are well aware that there are times when your pup is calmer and softer, and times when he’s more aroused and more likely to bite hard. It’s always a good idea to have soft toys handy to occupy your pup’s teeth when he’s in a persistent biting mood. If you know even before he makes contact with you that he’s in high-energy hard-bite mode arm yourself with a few soft toys and offer them before your hand is puppy-punctured. If he’s already made contact, or you’re working on repetitions of Step #1, reinforce appropriate softer bites occasionally with a favorite squeaky toy play moment. If there are children in the home with a mouthy puppy, it’s imperative that you arm them with soft toys and have toys easily available in every room of the house, so they can protect themselves by redirecting puppy teeth rather than running away and screaming – a game that most bitey pups find highly reinforcing.
It is possible to suppress a puppy’s hard biting by punishing him when he bites too hard. That might even seem like a quicker, easier way to get him to stop sinking his canine needles into your skin. However, by doing so, you haven’t taught him bite inhibition. If and when that moment comes where he really does feel compelled to bite someone, he’s likely to revert to his previous behavior and bite hard, rather than offering the inhibited bite you could have taught him.
Teaching Adult Dog Bite Inhibition
Teaching an adult dog to inhibit his bite is far more challenging than teaching a puppy. A dog easily reverts to a well-practiced, long-reinforced behavior in moments of high emotion, even if he’s learned to control his mouth pressure in calmer moments. I know this all too well. Our Cardigan Corgi, now six years old, came to us at the age of six months with a wicked hard mouth. Hand-feeding her treats was a painful experience, and I implemented a variation of the “Ouch” procedure. Because she was biting hard for the treat rather than puppy-biting my flesh, I simply said “Ouch,” closed my hand tightly around the treat, and waited for her mouth to soften, then fed her the treat. Hard mouth made the treat disappear (negative punishment); soft mouth made the treat happen (positive reinforcement).
She actually got the concept pretty quickly, and within a couple of weeks could thoughtfully and gently take even high value treats without eliciting an “Ouch.” She still can take treats gently to this day, except – when she’s stressed or excited; then she reverts to her previous hard-bite behavior. When that happens, I close the treat in my fist until she remembers to soften her mouth, at which time I open my hand and feed her the treat. So, while our bite inhibition work was useful for routine training and random daily treat delivery, if Lucy ever bites in a moment of stress, arousal, fear and/or anger, I have no illusions that she’s going to remember to inhibit her bite. Of course, I do my best to make sure that moment doesn’t happen…
Because I have more leeway with Scooter and his excellent bite inhibition, it’s tempting to be a little complacent with him. I try not to. One of Scooter’s “likely to bite” moments is grooming
time. The poor guy has a horrible undercoat that mats, literally, in minutes. This is a highly undesirable Pomeranian coat characteristic. I could groom my first Pomeranian, Dusty, once a week without worrying about mats. I have to groom Scooter every night.
Of course he hates it – it always causes him some discomfort as I work to ease the tangles out without pulling too hard on his skin. We’ve made progress in the year we’ve had him – I can comb the top half of his body without encountering much resistance, but I can feel him tense up as I approach the more sensitive lower regions. Rather than relying on his good bite inhibition to get us through, I continue to use counter conditioning and desensitization – feeding him treats as I groom (or having my husband Paul feed him), or letting him lick me (and activity he enjoys mightily – and one I can tolerate in place of his biting) while I comb out the tangles.
Whether you’ve taken the time to teach your puppy good bite inhibition or had the good fortune to inherit a dog who has it, don’t take it for granted. Continue to reinforce soft-mouth behavior for the rest of his life, and don’t be tempted to push the envelope of his tolerance just because you can. Even saints have their limits.
SIDEBAR: DON’T DO THIS
Over the years, I’ve cringed at a variety of puppy-mouthing modification suggestions. Here are some of the things you don’t want to do:
Alpha-rolls. Whole Dog Journal readers might think “no alpha-rolls” goes without saying by now, but I still see clients with mouthy puppies who have had their trainers, dog walkers, dog-owning friends or veterinarians tell them to alpha-roll their bitey pups. Don’t do it. You are likely to elicit a whole lot more biting – truly aggressive biting – as your frightened pup tries to defend himself. (See “Biscuits Not Rolls,” July, 2006)
Hold his mouth closed. Another classic bad idea. What self-respecting puppy wouldn’t struggle and try to bite harder with this inappropriate restraint? All the while, you’re giving your pup a bad association with your hands near his face, which isn’t going to help with grooming, tooth-brushing, mouth exams, or even petting. Don’t do it.
Push your fist down his throat. Seriously. For the same reasons lists in the prior two suggestions, this is a really bad idea. Don’t do it.
Push his lip under his canine tooth as he bites so he bites himself. There really is no end to the inappropriate ways people can think up to try to change behavior. This is another one that has a strong possibility of causing your pup to associate hands near his face with pain. Don’t do it.
Bite him back. Yep, some folks actually recommend this one. I shouldn’t have to say this, but… I will anyway. Don’t do it.
Give a high-pitched yelp. This one might surprise you. It’s in a different category from all the pain-causing inappropriate suggestions above, and it’s often suggested by positive
trainers, some of whom I respect greatly. The theory is that the high-pitched yelp makes you sound like a puppy in pain and communicate to your young dog in a language he understands. The fallacy with this theory is that we think our feeble attempt to speak “puppy” with our human yelp might really communicate the same message as a real puppy yelp – like trying to speak a foreign language by mimicking what we think the sounds are, without actually knowing any of the words. C’mon, we all did this as kids. Do we really think we could have made any meaningful communication to an Asian person as we tried to copy the sounds of the Japanese or Chinese language? In my experience, the high-pitched yelp is at least as likely to incite an excited biting puppy to a higher level of arousal (and harder biting) as it is to tell him he bit you too hard and he should soften his mouth. Don’t do it. A calm “Ouch” sends a much more consistent, useful and universal message, which is simply, “That behavior makes the good stuff go away.”
Peaceable Paws LLC
Pat Miller, CPDT, CDBC
Pat Miller is a Certified Dog and Horse Behavior Consultant and Certified Professional Dog Trainer. She offers classes, behavior modification services, training clinics and academies for trainers at her 80-acre Peaceable Paws training facility in Fairplay, Maryland (US), and presents seminars worldwide. She has authored “The Power of Positive Dog Training,” “Positive Perspectives,” “Positive Perspectives 2,” and “Play With Your Dog.” Miller is training editor for The Whole Dog Journal, writes for Tuft’s University’s Your Dog, and several other publications. She shares her home with husband Paul, five dogs, three cats, five horses, a donkey and a potbellied pig. www.peaceablepaws.com
Posted on 08/18/2010 by
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