with dogs
that bite
Working with dogs that bite copyright (c) 2021 Frania Shelley-Grielen.  
All rights reserved.

How do you work with a dog that bites?  Is biting ever OK when it comes to
dogs and people?  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 immediate circumstances.

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
with people.

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 (1-4 bites), a tear in one direction for less than
    3 seconds, a multiple bite attack or severe mutilation?

    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?

Dunbar's system makes more rational sense of how and why a dog might
be biting and 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

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 with-
drawing 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

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 well qualified professional using force free methodology.  How success-
ful 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

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

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Dogs are oral and biting is a natural behavior for them.
"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."
Bite inhibitition is learned best as puppies
Angela Antunes
Schedule an individual consultation
Dogs at play may display happy, open mouths
Tony Harrison
"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 inter-
actions. When interacting
with puppies humans
can help to develop bite
inhibition by allowing
puppy mouthing to a point."
212-722-2509 / 646-228-7813

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