with dogs
that bite
Working with dogs that bite All rights reserved (c) 2015-2018 Frania Shelley-Grielen

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 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

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 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
Bite inhibitition is learned best as puppies
Angela Antunes
Request 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 interactions.  
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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