Working with dogs that bite

By 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? We know that biting is a natural behavior in 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 this to be the only option, and with 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. We can also see this sort of feedback in the dog park or at puppy play groups when an offended dog yelps and/or retreats from what is not fun for them. The dog who bit too hard often gets a second chance at playing nice but not a third.

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. (Continue Reading Below)