Bite inhibition is a very modern term, used initially in veterinary behaviour circles, for a learnt or inherent ability in a pup to bite an opponent without inflicting damage. The opponent may be another animal or a human.
It is natural, normal and necessary for dogs to bite, even from the time their teeth erupt. The response of the individual being bitten may determine and influence the biter’s ability to control its biting strength in the short-term and long-term.
In nature, in any litter, pups have an in-built mechanism amongst littermates to receive appropriate responses to ensure that their jaws are not harmful – which, once sorted out remains through to adulthood. A puppy that learns not to mouth and bite as a youngster will less likely cause any serious injury later on in life.
All puppies enjoy biting during their numerous “play” activities. At this stage it must be made clear that all play is not to be interpreted as an anthropomorphic concept but, rather, a natural means to teach each other survival skills such as chasing, biting, pinning down, controlling and many more predatory techniques. It looks like fun to us – animals do not play games, in the true sense of the word. These people who hector the faces of their puppies certainly have a very low threshold for receiving the same medicine. When you put your hand over these young men’s faces it is quite uncanny how rapidly offended they become – even to the point of aggression and swearing. My question remains: then why do it to the puppy?! It never ceases to amaze veterinarians, animal behaviourists and dog trainers that dogs becoming aggressive in adulthood are a complete mystery to their owners whose memory does not stretch very far with regards to their culpability in laying down such a socially unacceptable and dangerous foundation during puppy-hood.
There are always a few members of the community at every level of society who have their heart set on having an aggressive dog – these people will never change nor learn from tragedies – this is partly due to their arrogance, partly due to the dog having to reflect their inadequacies and partly due to the genetic factor of humans having a certain percentage of the dog owning population living on the edge of danger. An aggressive dog is not, and cannot be, a pet. It is a liability, more for the immediate family and friends than for intruders.
All puppies have milk-teeth as sharp as needles and, while this may hurt, the strength of its jaws can not cause serious harm. The young impressionable pup has to learn that bites can hurt other animals and people – this must be imprinted long before the puppy develops jaw muscle and bone powerful enough to inflict damage. The greater the opportunity it has to play-bite with humans, other dogs and other animals, the better will be his bite inhibition as a full grown dog – this applies to a 500g teacup Yorkshire terrier up to an 85 Kg Neapolitan Mastiff. If pups are not raised with a wide social circle of animals the responsibility of teaching it to have a “soft mouth” lies with its owner.
Most pups that have been handled during specific exercises in puppy kindergarten classes will be less likely to want to bite because it has already learnt to like people. At this stage, particularly, children and men have to completely refrain from badgering the pup’s face as immature, ignorant human fun – by teasing the face of the puppy, usually grabbing its muzzle and shaking it you are teaching the pup to defend itself against human aggression by becoming retaliatory aggressive. Why people do this is a psychological thesis all on its own!
It is expected for a dog to snap or bite purely out of fear or pain which should not be damaging because of having learnt good bite inhibition during puppy socialization classes. While it is almost impossible to prepare a dog for every inevitable situation in life, it is simple to ensure that as a puppy it develops a reliable bite inhibition – if you know the rules! Even with provocation a reliable dog must never break the skin. Once any dog inflicts deep puncture wounds as an adult the chance of fixing this character is close to hopeless.
Good bite inhibition is the most valuable trait of any companion dog. However, in order to be a trustworthy pet this behaviour needs to be in place before the pup is eighteen weeks of age.
When puppies play-fight with each other it usually sounds like they are trying to kill each other especially if one is screaming blue-murder. People must not interfere in these cases, otherwise they have unfinished business and the normal behaviour can become abnormal. When these pups are examined it is extremely rare to ever discover a puncture wound. Even though the fights may be often, carry on for protracted periods of time with complete frenzied activity no harm is usually done because pups know the rules of bite inhibition. If the bite hurts the recipient will scream or yelp and the other will back off. If the bite is too firm the recipient will lie down, submit and not retaliate instilling the idea that the more gentle the bite the calmer the response. Puppies also have scraps to establish their position in the hierarchy – this is mostly based on attitude rather than plain size. Frequent play-fighting and occasional disputes in ranking are essential to fine-tune bite inhibition. The last thing that humans should do is intervene. It is far better to observe and understand what the young tykes are actually teaching each other.
Even if your pup has canine peers or senior dogs on the same property it is incumbent upon all puppy owners to inhibit the force and frequency of its bites towards humans. Additionally, you have to educate your pup how to react when frightened or hurt by people. These incidents do occur. Sometimes a dog’s tail is caught in the door, someone stands on the pup’s paw or a child falls on top of a sleeping or eating puppy. The young animal should, by all means, yelp or run away but should not bite or try to overpower the person.
If your dog mouths gently and appears friendly by five months of age it must be taught never to touch any person’s body or clothing with its jaws and teeth unless commanded to do so – as in a trained retrieve.
While mouthing is necessary for puppies and acceptable from a young adolescent, it would be completely unacceptable for an older adolescent or adult dog to mouth visitors and strangers. Likewise, it would be absolutely inappropriate for a twenty-four-month-old dog to approach a child and grab the arm, no matter how gentle, friendly and playful the dog’s intentions may be. If one is not accustomed to this type of mouthing behaviour it can frighten the living daylights out of children and adults. The response to this behaviour may be strange to the dog and a tragedy may occur, especially when the dog experience a response it has never been used to.
The ultimate aim is to eliminate puppy biting behaviour completely. Imagine having an adult dog playfully mauling family, friends and visitors in the same manner as it did as a puppy?
There are usually two fundamental approaches to a pup that likes to play-bite. The first step is to inhibit the force of the bite and the second step is to reduce the frequency of puppy bites until it ceases altogether. Teaching bite inhibition is the most important part of your puppy’s entire education!!!!
In teaching any puppy not to hurt people one must never reprimand or punish it in the process; rather, let the pup know that the nipping is painful by exclaiming “Eina!” – when the pup backs off, wait a short while then instruct the pup to come to you, make it sit and lie down as a form of apology. Then resume playing. If the pup does not respond to your yelp by easing up or backing off then leave the area and shut the door. This technique makes the puppy associate its painful bite with your immediate departure – the loss of its playmate. On your return, show affection, call it to you, make it sit and resume playing again.
This method is nothing more than applying the same natural principles amongst dogs where the individual being bitten too hard undergoes passive resistance or yelps or walks away – the latter, closes down contact and fun, temporarily. Pups are not inclined to repeat any action that does not have a positive reinforcement or a negative effect.
The biter soon learns that hard bites interrupt the enjoyable play session with the “bitee”. It then learns to bite more gently with time and persistence. The more times a puppy bites you and receives the appropriate feedback – the response it understands – the better the bite inhibition, and the more reliable its mouth will be in adulthood. When the puppy mouths you gently, please reward it immediately with “good dog” or a pat.
The next step is to eliminate bite pressure completely even though the nips no longer hurt. While the pup is holding its mouth over your hand or arm, wait for a bite that is harder than it should be then respond immediately by shouting “Eina!” pushing your hand or arm back in to the puppy’s mouth thereby pushing its head backwards. It will find the command alarming and the action unpleasant and, therefore, reluctant to repeat what preceded the response.
An effective training tactic is to distract the pup as soon as it attempts to put its mouth on your arm or hand. As a command “Leave!” is given when it tries to grab your exposed appendage give a tit-bit as a distraction then give another food treat as a reward for not biting. In this training method, once the pup understands the “Leave!” request, use food as a lure and a reward to teach it to let go. The main idea behind this exercise is to practice stopping the pup from mouthing, and so each time your puppy obediently ceases and desists, resume playing once again. Stop and start the sessions many times over.
By the time any pup is 20 weeks of age, that is, at the end of puppy socialization classes it must have a mouth and bite as soft as a ten-year-old working Golden Retriever. There should be no initiation of mouthing from the puppy’s perspective, it should never exert any pressure when mouthing and if it attempts the slightest advancement towards mouthing it should halt immediately and calm down on command by any family member.
As a rule one should never own a dog that bites, even softly. As an adult dog the bite inhibition may slacken so it is essential that, from time to time, every dog owner should carry out the exercise of testing the dog’s mouthing ability.
Bite inhibition is tested and trained every day in every wolf pack system. In the normal run of events it is not in the interests of the pack’s survival and efficiency to bite each other to the point of injury. For this reason, when another pack member shows passive submission, the more assertive wolf will limit itself to snarling close to the other’s belly and throat without biting. Inhibition mechanisms play a major role in interactions between aggressive social animals thus preventing damage or death. Inhibition mechanisms enable wild and domestic gregarious canids to regulate their ranking in the hierarchy as a result of disputes
In a pack, which is any group from two upwards, as soon as puppies become active and forceful they will play physical games with each other, and, simultaneously, they can pester the adult dogs by pulling their ears, lips, feet and tail. In the early days puppies have license to do what they like – after all, it is up to the members of the system to build the characters of the youngsters. As pups grow up, adults and litter mates become increasingly intolerant of their sharp teeth. Puppies soon learn that other individuals react to their biting behaviour. With every action they get a reaction. This helps them learn to control the strength they apply and a rebuff will quickly follow any transgression of the rules.
Animals, instinctively know what to do about bite inhibition but when a puppy is brought into your home for the first time do you have the experience, knowledge and application abilities to take over where the pack left off?!
Certain pups are perpetual biting machines and teaching them bite inhibition can be a full-time job. The bite inhibition training cannot be haphazard and indiscriminate. If dog owners do not take biting during puppy-hood seriously and fail to take the responsible approach by subscribing to puppy kindergarten and basic obedience training then you may regret it when the dog is grown up – many people become scared of their own dogs, living like prisoners in their own homes because of having adopted the soft, loving, submissive and inconsistent approach during the most impressionable period of the puppy’s life.
Perhaps the greatest error made by dog owners during play-fighting sessions is that they fail to communicate that they have been hurt when their puppy bites them. Instead, they may smack the dog over the muzzle or behave in a manner giving the impression that they enjoyed being bitten.
Hitting a puppy over the muzzle in response to being bitten will only heighten their fear and their aggression. People who do not know what to do about bite inhibition may, inadvertently, teach the dog to bite with greater force and more often.
It must be clearly understood that not all puppies will challenge their owners by play-biting but, if they do, one should know how to remedy the problem. If a puppy never indicates any mouthing, nibbling, nipping or munching it may be even more dangerous as it never exercises the opportunity to learn that biting people is wrong. Most often these dogs turn into an adult fear biter or defensive biter. The fear biter bites once, usually, and then backs off or runs away. A defensive biter, however, will bite hard and repeatedly until the victim retreats.
Bite inhibition is time-consuming to prevent. Failing to take timely action can be equated to having a loaded gun around the house – with the safety catch in the “off” position. Your dog is what you make of it. Don’t let your dog make of you what it wants. Inhibit and prohibit the bite mechanism before it is four months old. Every pup starts with a clean slate in life. Take advantage of it before you see the writing on the wall.