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.
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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.
Some dogs develop the bite inhibition so essential for navigating life’s tricky and unexpected events while others don’t. Both genetics and learning influence the process. Though there’s genetic variation among individual dogs, some types of dogs are famous for soft mouths. It’s not surprising, for example, that dogs bred to retrieve game use their mouths gently to avoid damaging that game. Retrievers are also well known for being “mouthy,” meaning that they use their mouth, including their teeth, often. Though there are cases of dogs who are gentle with their mouths while retrieving but do not have good bite inhibition in social situations, it is more common that dogs who are able to exercise control in one situation are able to behave similarly in others. That does not mean that dogs with good bite inhibition won’t kill squirrels or tear up their chew toys. Bite inhibition is all about exercising control in social situations, but that does not necessarily apply to predatory behavior or to play with objects.
Experience with play biting and mouthing often leads to better bite inhibition, and like anything else, those who practice become the most skilled. Littermates are a puppy’s first teachers, one of several reasons that it’s beneficial for puppies to stay with their litter for about two months. As the young dogs play, they use their mouths to tug or gnaw on their siblings’ ears, tails, paws and loose skin. If one puppy mouths another too hard, the puppy who got hurt will yelp, stop playing and move away. This teaches puppies that hard bites, even if not intended to cause pain, result in an interruption in play. Singleton puppies and those taken from their litter before the age of five or six weeks often lack proper bite inhibition. It seems that puppies need their littermates’ feedback to learn to control the pressure they exert with their mouths.
Once puppies head to new homes, their education needs to continue, and that includes socialization with other puppies and dogs. This does not mean throwing a puppy into the dog-park scrum and hoping it will all work out. In that setting, puppies are far too likely to be overwhelmed and to experience it as we might experience a gladiator pit. Rather, it means supervised play dates with carefully selected and well-behaved canines.
Lessons from people are also useful in teaching bite inhibition. Though using their mouths on our hands, arms, legs, hair and clothes is natural behavior for them, dogs must learn to interact in ways that are appropriate in our world. An effective technique, one based on puppies’ earlier experiences with their littermates, is to startle and then redirect the young offender. If a puppy mouths too hard, yelp with a puppy-like sound (Aaarp! is the closest description of this sound that can be spelled), which often interrupts the puppy’s biting. Take advantage of that pause in the behavior by immediately giving the puppy something appropriate to chew on. Good options include bones, chew toys, Kongs, squeaky toys and stuffed animals.
A common mistake when using this method is to make the yelping sound and then fail to redirect the puppy. In most cases, although the sound will startle the puppy into a break in the mouthing, he or she will go right back to it unless given another, more appropriate object to focus on. Many people begin by doing both steps (startle and redirect), but as time goes on, they switch to startling without bothering to redirect. They then report that the technique doesn’t work.
While more than 90 percent of puppies will respond to this method if it is used correctly and consistently, there are indeed dogs who seem to get worse in response to high-pitched yelps, becoming even mouthier and more revved up. For those dogs, it’s usually effective to startle the dog with a deep-voiced “Hey!” or “Ouch!” Otherwise, the technique of interrupting the behavior and then redirecting the dog to an appropriate object is the same. If the puppy fails to respond to either sound, walk away so that he learns that biting brings an end to the fun.
It’s important to begin by startling and redirecting the puppy only in response to the most forceful bites. Employing this approach with every instance of mouthing can be overwhelming to the puppy, who is, after all, doing what comes naturally and exploring the world by mouth. So, the first goal is to teach the puppy not to mouth so hard rather than not to mouth at all. When the hardest bites have been inhibited, the next step is to startle and redirect after medium-force bites. Finally, once the puppy has learned to mouth people with only the gentlest of pressure, teach him not to do this at all by employing the same technique in response to any occasion in which his teeth touch delicate human skin, hair or clothes.
There are many recommendations out there for stopping puppy mouthing and I advise against most of them because they are inhumane and generally ineffective. For example, do not hold the dog’s muzzle closed, yell at the dog, jam your fingers into the dog’s mouth or swat the dog. Basically, it comes down to one piece of general advice: Don’t do anything that involves any kind of physical punishment that causes pain or frightens the dog.
Proper bite inhibition is incredibly important, and developing it requires lessons early in life. The normal process of learning bite inhibition is linked with puppy development and it can’t usually be learned later in life with the same degree of success. Dogs without this essential skill may cause severe damage—punctures, painful bruising and even broken bones on occasion. Learning bite inhibition is one of the first and most essential lessons for puppies, because it is about safety as well as being a well-behaved, polite member of society.