Bite Inhibition

Written by Susan Smith of "Raising Canine"

One of the most important things you can teach your pup is to inhibition his bite. Learning about bite inhibition means that your puppy is learning to control his mouth -- NOT learning not to bite, but to CONTROL his bite. If your puppy learns to control his bite now, if, as an adult dog, he is ever in a position of having to bite someone, he will not inflict serious damage to the person he bites - hopefully nothing more than a simple puncture wound. After your dog has learned bite inhibition you can begin teaching him not to bite at all.

Let’s start with some background on dogs and their mouths. First, we must always remember that a dog’s mouth is his primary tool -- for hunting, eating, playing and defense. A dog’s mouth is also a very powerful tool. It is designed to crush bone! Finally, if a dog feels afraid and trapped, he WILL BITE -- I don’t care how nice a dog he is. It is unfair for us to expect a dog to never bite, under any circumstance -- their mouth is their only protection. With those thoughts in mind, it is easy to see why we must teach our dogs to control their mouths.

If you observe puppies in their litter, you will see that they do a lot of roughhousing. When puppies play, they are experimenting, learning to communicate, exploring, and testing their boundaries. If a puppy bites his littermate too hard, the littermate will yelp. If the puppy continues to bite too hard, the littermate will quit playing with him. If the puppy bites his mother too hard, she will reprimand him. This puppy is learning bite inhibition.

In the dog world it is perfectly legal to bite other dogs as long as you don't inflict serious damage, and they learn their limits by playing with other dogs.  People do not have the protective padding of fur and thicker skin that dogs have, so if a dog bites us in play as hard as he would bite another dog in play, it really hurts! Therefore, people must teach dogs their limits when playing with people. Eventually these limits will be not biting at all unless invited, but this is a gradual process.

In the human world, it is not at all acceptable for a dog to bite. We are imposing our rules on dogs, so we must, in return, teach them what is and is not acceptable. We humans have classified dog bites by severity:

  1. Harassment (doesn’t actually touch your skin)
  2. Tooth contact (touches but doesn’t break the skin)
  3. Puncture (1 bite and then he releases - may have blood and tearing because person pulls away)
  4. 1 bite with severe bruising (usually held in the mouth for 3 or more seconds)
  5. Multiple bites
  6. Severe mutilation or death (very rare)

99% of dog bites fall into categories 1-3, and to the dog these are warnings. For instance, if you are grooming your dog and he puts his mouth on your hand or arm but doesn’t hurt you, he is telling you he does not like what you are doing. We usually do not understand what our dog is telling us, and ignore the warnings. It is very unusual for a dog to bite without giving any warning. However, most people do not understand dog communications, and do not realize that they are being warned. This is when we hear "he bit me with no warning at all!" Actually, he probably did give plenty of warning, the owner just didn’t realize it.

To teach your puppy bite inhibition, follow these steps:

  1. When playing with your puppy, pay attention to his bites and figure out what his "normal" range is.
  2. When he bites harder than "normal," yelp in a high pitched tone (as if you were a littermate). Your puppy should immediately stop biting and look at you.
  3. Resume playing. If your puppy again bites outside the "normal" range, get up and walk away from him -- stop the play session.
  4. You can resume playing again after about 30-60 seconds of time-out.
  5. Within a short time, your puppy’s "normal" range should decrease and not be as hard as it was before. When this happens, re-assess his "normal" range and repeat these steps.

Eventually, you will train your puppy not to bite at all unless invited, but in the meantime, you’ve trained him to be aware of how hard he bites, and you’ve taught him that there are consequences for biting too hard.

It is important that everyone who has contact with your puppy follow these steps -- particularly family members. It is often difficult to teach young children to assess a level of bite, so you can instruct them that if the puppy bites too hard, they should quit playing with him altogether for a few minutes.

Finally, you work on your dog's bite inhibition for the rest of his life.  If you are wearing a heavy-sleeved garment such as a sweatshirt or jacket, invite your dog to take your forearm in his mouth; roughhouse a little and if he's too rough, stop for 30-60 seconds and start playing again.  The early lessons will come  back quickly.  As with all skills, bite inhibition needs to be practiced to be maintained.