Working with dogs that bite (c) 2015-2017 Frania Shelley-Grielen all rights reserved
Let's talk about biting dogs. Biting is natural behavior in a dog, it's part of being a dog.
Dogs are oral, they use their mouths to eat, taste, explore their environment, offer
affection, to carry objects and to bite. Dogs bite each other in play and in defense with
varying degrees of intensity and frequency. Dog biting can extend to people as well.
Behaviorists often characterize biting behavior by what possible motivations might
exist, using labels such as aggressive, defensive, fear, etc. Basically, all biting is a
reaction by an aroused dog to a stimulus that is a stressful one for the dog or more
simply put, a dog bites because he believes there is a very good reason to bite under the
A more holistic approach to the how and why of bite categorization is a system that
looks at who is the object of the bite, what type of bite is delivered and under what
circumstances. Dog expert extraordinaire, Dr. Ian Dunbar, a veterinarian and animal
behaviorist outlines such a categorization and rating system for understanding dog
biting, a system that is way more accessible contextually to how domesticated dogs live
Dunbar's three pronged approach to rating dog bites asks:
1) What is the target of the bite? Person/Animal/Thing?
2) What is the severity of the bite? Mouthing with no teeth, puncture wound (1-Dunbar's system makes more rational sense of how and why a dog might be biting and
4 bites), a tear in one direction for less than 3 seconds, a multiple bite attack or
3) What is the circumstance surrounding the bite? Trespassing, home, private
with public access (a fenced yard), dog is leashed in public with the owner
unaware of biting inclination, dog is leashed in public with the owner aware of
biting inclination and dog roaming free?
how and why it might be justifiable from the dog point of view. An intruder breaking
into a home where a dog lives is more likely to be bitten justifiably, we might believe,
from the resident dog. We might also classify as justifiable a quick, soft, single bite on
another dog in play or a nip to protect a sore spot, litter of puppies, meal or favorite toy.
Justifiable from any viewpoint does not necessarily equal acceptable in every
scenario. For dogs to live successfully they needs to have what we call "bite inhibition".
Bite inhibition means just, that, the dog must independently regulate the force of his
mouthing on humans and other dogs.
Bite inhibition is learned in development, as a puppy from the mother and from litter
mates. When a puppy bites too hard, the mother offers a maternal correction and litter
mates offer feedback vocally or by withdrawing from interactions. When interacting
with puppies humans can help to develop bite inhibition by allowing puppy mouthing
to a point. Once the puppy bites too hard, which means you feel teeth, the human
should yelp. Once. The startled puppy will be able to pair a short, well timed yelp (this
is the correction or feedback) to biting too hard. As soon as the puppy stops, to the
second (timing is everything here), the bite, praise should follow. When working on
developing bite inhibition with puppies Dunbar notes that four things are vitally
important to teach: 1) no pain should be tolerated 2) no pressure allowed 3) mouthing
is OK but release on command (i.e. "off") and 4) biting is never initiated by the dog.
Through this method force is inhibited to inhibit incidence.
Working with dogs as puppies is the most successful way to develop bite inhibition but
what about the adult biting dog? A grown dog that has diminished bite inhibition has
not benefited from the process in development or in the appropriate interactions with
other dogs or humans. What can also happen is that somewhere there is a deficiency in
that process or the warning/signaling/pre-intention movements before the bite were
trained out of the dog or ignored to the extent that the dog skips the growling or
freezing or whatever else is on the ladder of aggression.
Dogs never "just" bite. There are any number of "distance reducing behaviors" used by
a dog before resorting to biting aggressively. Dogs avoid biting, if possible, through a
series of deference behaviors which are also stress indicators. Some of the preliminary
behaviors used to communicate that a dog is under pressure are lip-licking or yawning
out of context, looking away, leaving, creeping, hair raised on hackles, ears back and
whale eye. Later, more severe warning signals can include agitated alarm barking,
freezing, squaring off, lunging, wrinkled muzzle with bared canines (Open mouth
displays can be positive ones. Look for how many teeth are evident and how much gum
is showing along with other behaviors), snapping and growling.
Hopefully the earlier signals are recognized and the environment changes and the
perceived need to push forward with later signals including biting is averted. It is
probably no surprise to learn that others dogs are usually the most successful compared
to humans in "reading" this information.
For humans the best steps in modifying biting behavior in the adult dog are
management; avoiding the situations where biting can occur, and behavior
modification, usually best accomplished through working with a professional. How
successful the outcome can be will relate to how effectively the behavior modification is
delivered, how skilled the practitioner is, how closely the handler/owner works in
tandem and the degree of the lessened bite inhibition.
Know that the use of any aversive approaches is dangerous with the biting dog because
this is a defensive, fearful or stressed dog who will undoubtedly perceive any
harshness, force or punishment as something else to protect against and the biting can
actually get worse. This does not mean that correction becomes a dirty word. There is
also a danger in under correcting a biting dog, as if this dog is a child that needs
coddling in the event he might explode into a terrible tantrum. No matter the
scenario, we cannot control every aspect of every situation and in the event warning
signs are exhibited, the environment needs to be managed immediately with a quick
correction; one word "off" or "no" gives a cue and if possible, the dog should be turned
away from the stimulus or leave the scene. Follow with an immediate redirection or
request for another behavior to change the energy level and praise once the request is
fulfilled with the praise focused on the behavior "good sit," or "good down," etc.
There is good news on the one hand with the dog that only bites minimally when he
feels threatened and his threshold for that is inappropriate personal space invasion and
home territory and not everyone on the street. With this dog, the approach is to create
more security for the dog by providing positive reinforcement, direction and
immediate redirection when required in a heavily structured environment where he is
directed/trained to do most things and little is free thereby limiting impulse/biting.
The bad news is it is then harder to counter-condition and desensitize the
reaction/behavior because it becomes problematic recreating this. Dogs that want to
bite everyone on the street are almost easier to work with because you can put a muzzle
on them and work in the immediate environment they live and react to. Dunbar
actually created "growly dog" classes to work specifically with dogs that are overly
reactive to other dogs.
Extreme care needs to be taken when working with any biting dog in understanding
the level of the dog's bite inhibition, the use of careful observation of what the dog is
"saying" and sensitivity to not exceeding an approach to a trigger that the dog
perceives as stressful.
Structure with clear communication, force free corrections, redirections and positive
reinforcement are beneficial for all animals in all situations. Anthropomorphic aside,
all animals learn and all animals' behavior can be modified by learning.
Dunbar, I. (2006). Dog Aggression: Biting (Video). United States: James & Kenneth Publishers.
"Dogs never "just" bite. There are
any number of "distance reducing
behaviors" used by a dog before
resorting to biting aggressively.
Dogs avoid biting, if possible,
through a series of deference
behaviors which are also stress
"Bite inhibition is learned in
development, as a puppy from the
mother and from litter mates. When
a puppy bites too hard, the mother
may offer a maternal correction and
litter mates offer feedback vocally or
by withdrawing from interactions.
When interacting with puppies
humans can help to develop bite
inhibition by allowing puppy
mouthing to a point."
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