All dogs come equipped with powerful jaws and teeth capable of inflicting injury, but they vary in their willingness to use them as weapons. Most save them for marrow bones, chews or Kongs, a quality that makes for good pets and great friends. The degree to which dogs learn not to use the full force of their mouths on people and other dogs is called “bite inhibition,” and it is the most important part of a dog’s education.
Unfortunately, all dogs are likely to experience unpleasant or stressful incidents, but those with proper bite inhibition will not cause much (if any) damage in response. That’s why bite inhibition is so valuable. If an injured or terrified dog air-snaps or inhibits his bite so effectively that contact with another dog or person causes no pain or injury, that’s a manageable problem by most people’s standards. If a dog with poor bite inhibition is in the same situation and inflicts serious damage, it’s a potentially disastrous problem from a physical, emotional and even legal standpoint.
Consider the following incidents from my own case files.
A visiting child loses his temper when the family dog distracts him during a game of ping pong by yawning and whining. The child hits the dog in the face with the ping-pong paddle, and the dog runs away yelping. A teenager tries to dress up her dog to match her own outfit, and the dog resists. As she continues forcing the clothes on him, he whines and struggles. After several minutes, the dog growls and snaps at her face but makes no contact. An elderly man trips and falls onto his dog while the dog is eating. The dog bites the man on the leg, leaving no mark. A toddler tries to climb on her sleeping dog to ride him like a horse. The dog stands up and begins to walk away, but when she tries once again to get on his back, he bites her on the shoulder, causing a bruise. When a man reaches to pet his friend’s dog, his watch catches on the dog’s collar. He gently tries to disentangle himself, and the dog bites him on the leg, leaving two puncture marks and some bruising. A woman walks into her dining room, sees a dog toy under the table and reaches down to get it. Her dog races in from the living room and bites her arm repeatedly, resulting in multiple punctures along with fractures to her wrist and arm that require several surgeries to fix.
In each instance, it’s easy to see why the dog was distressed. Yet, the seriousness of the responses was not directly related to the injustice or pain suffered by the dog, but rather, to the dog’s ability to exercise proper bite inhibition. It’s no exaggeration to say that bite inhibition can be the difference between success and failure in treating behavior problems, and even between life and death for the dog.
When evaluating risk, it’s reasonable to ask what’s the worst that could happen if for example, a gate is left open, a leash breaks or a person barges in unannounced. If the answer is, “Someone could get really spooked and be furious with us because our dog may bark, lunge or snap,” many people would be willing to take that chance. If instead, the answer is, “Someone could be badly and even permanently injured, require medical care such as surgery or be deeply traumatized,” far fewer would be able to live with that risk. The answer is really important because it will generally determine how willing people are to live with the risk, which in turn influences how committed they are to their dog and working to improve his behavior.