Just this past week alone, I must have answered at least a dozen different messages and comments from Snow Dog Owners looking for help with their Huskies that are nipping and biting at their humans. This kind of biting is not the same kind of biting that occurs in dogs who are trying to inflict an offensive or defensive fear based bite. These dogs just need to be taught bite inhibition.
These dogs (most often young puppies or adolescent dogs) are not trying to hurt anyone. Just the opposite, they are trying to initiate playful interaction. The problem with their form of interaction is that they are using their teeth on humans and the humans are getting hurt.
Why Do Puppies Play So Viciously?
If you ever get the chance to watch a group of puppies playing you will see a lot of wild puppy biting behaviours happening. These young dogs launch themselves at each other, grab whatever body part they can, and clamp down with their teeth. Faces, noses, ears, legs, tails, even exposed genitalia are not safe from those sharp little puppy milk teeth. It is no wonder that nature designed puppies to stop nursing from Momma at around 4 to 5 weeks of age. OUCH!
These biting behaviours in puppies do serve a purpose beyond just having entertainment value for them. They are the practice field for honing their eventual hunting and fighting skills. Tracking prey, attacking prey, hamstringing their prey, pouncing on prey, wrestling prey to the ground, and ripping out the prey’s throat are all part of developing keen hunting skills that will eventually keep a wild canine alive.
In the case of our domestic companions the need to hunt for their food seldom comes into play for them as their food is catered to them by us. But the urge to develop good hunting and fighting skills is a hard wired genetic drive in dogs (even more prevalent in drivey dogs like Huskies).
So how do we deal with the natural drive to rip and shred and save our fingers, toes, faces and even clothing from these furry destruction machines? Unless you convey the message to your dog, in a way that he understands, that he must not put his teeth on you, he will continue to nip, jump, and bite at you and any other human being.
The key to surviving this drive is through teaching Bite Inhibition.
What Is Bite Inhibition?
In dog training terms, Bite Inhibition refers to a set of skills taught to a dog so that he can control the pressure exerted by his bite and to over ride the drive to bite down on an object. Another way of looking at this is we are working to shape the dog’s understanding of what he is allowed to do with PREY. Unless you tell a dog differently, (especially in a dog with a naturally high prey drive) anything that moves and/or squeals will be classed as prey and will be chased down and “killed”. Their genes drive to tell them that this is the right thing to do.
In domestic situations, this drive to hunt down and kill prey is still there but the dogs lack the avenue to use this skill. Enter the willing and unaware human being, leaning down with his face near the dog’s face, and with his swinging arms and appendages that stick out (perfect for grabbing). Human children are even a bigger target for these highly driven dogs because the children are small, built close to the ground, move quickly, naturally flap their arms about, and make lots of high pitched noises as they run.
For many dogs, children running and playing provide an irresistible trigger that stimulates their prey drive and unless someone intervenes, a mock “attack” will be launched. Even though the intent of the dog is not necessarily to seriously harm the human “victim”, the sheer size of the dog, the sharpness of the teeth, and the force of the jaws biting down can easily inflict serious injury on humans.
Every year humans get bitten by dogs that have not been given any Bite Inhibition training and every year many dogs pay for this lack of training with their lives. Far too often these dogs are labelled as” aggressive” or “vicious” dogs and are euthanized for doing what comes naturally to them. When this happens it is not the dog who is at fault. Most often the owner is at fault for failing to provide the necessary instruction and Bite Inhibition training for their dog.
Bite Inhibition Training Starts Early
Ideally, puppies get their first lessons in Bite Inhibition from their mothers and their siblings. As the puppies grow and start exploring their surroundings with their mouth and teeth or start honing their play fighting skills, mother dogs can be seen to intervene. At first, if the puppies start using their teeth while nursing, the milk wagon suddenly stands up and service is refused. As the puppies begin using their teeth to hone their hunting and fighting skills, mom can be seen clasping their muzzles in her mouth in a message that says, “Stop using your teeth in that way!”
Siblings that get bitten too hard during mock battles issue a sharp high pitched scream that serves as a natural signal for the puppy to know that the force they used to bite down with was too hard. Mothers can also be seen scruffing puppies by the nape of the neck. This too is a natural hard wired freeze reflex that puppies have. This signals the puppy to FREEZE in their tracks.
This is useful for when mom has to pick up puppies to move them to safety. When mom scruffs a puppy they are expected to submit and not move or squirm. Later, this signal of scruffing is used to convey the message, “I want you to stop doing what you are doing NOW. FREEZE.”
Also, puppies that get the benefit of playing with litter mates also have a chance to develop a tolerance to the frustration of how to deal with stressors. Whether it is competing for resources or having a sibling gnawing on your leg causing you pain, these are all stressors. Dogs that have no early exposure to stressors can easily become quick to anger and if they lack Bite Inhibition skills, these dogs can easily be a prime candidate for becoming a problem biter later on.
The Social Lessons Associated By Week Seven Development
At around the seven week mark of development, mother dogs can be seen doing a marvelous activity with their puppies. She can be seen flipping puppies over onto their backs and if they struggle she gently holds them down with her mouth. This is how dogs naturally teach and reinforce the very first concept of dominance and submission.
Puppies rely on their mothers to teach them social ranking rules that will allow them to be able to live within the social structure of a canine pack. Dogs that did not get the benefit of this learning from their mother and siblings will go on to have problems with excessive nipping and biting or have something referred to as a “hard bite”.
So then when uniformed or greedy breeders are more concerned with getting puppies into their new homes by six weeks of age (they are fully weaned from the mother by then) they are actually denying these puppies crucial socialization time with the family unit. It is not a coincidence that following this growing trend of removing puppies too early from their mothers and siblings, trainers and behaviourists are seeing huge upsurge in dogs with behaviour issues that range from severe and debilitating anxiety to dogs that seem to be somehow learning impaired to due missing socialization keys normally taught by the mother.
NEVER be talked into taking possession of a puppy before it is eight weeks of age. Whenever possible, leave the puppy with the mother and siblings so it can learn critical lessons about social skills. Also, puppies that are removed too early from their mothers and then go on to be bred, will not be able to teach their own puppies about pack socialization as this skill never had a chance to be fostered in them by their own mothers. Always ask questions from a breeder about his practices about how puppies are raised and socialized by the mother.
Always ask to see the parent dogs so you can check out their temperaments. If the parents are skiddish, aggressive, or anti-social, walk away from this breeder. The puppy you are buying will only be as good as the breeding stock that it came from. Temperament is determined 50% by nature and 50% by nurture. No matter how good of a “deal” you think you may be getting from a hack breeder, it will never make up for the extra health and behaviour problems that come with this puppy. This kind of “deal” is simply not ever worth it in the long run.
How And Why Does Puppy Biting Turn Into A Problem?
Even though puppy biting and chewing is natural that does not mean that you must allow him to do it on his terms. He must be taught NOT to bite humans. Most people who have problems with their puppies biting, have a problem for one of the following reasons:
- Either they did not communicate the message of NO to the puppy in a way the puppy could easily understand,
- They were very inconsistent in their reinforcement of the rule of NO, or
- They stopped at telling the puppy what NOT to do but forgot to show the puppy what you DO want it to instead of what he is doing.
Ideally, you will want to have your puppy to have a complete understanding and compliance of Bite Inhibition by the time they reach the age of five months as this is when their adult teeth become to emerge and adult jaw strength is being developed. You do NOT want an out of control five month old dog with adult teeth and jaw strength biting at you. It is unsafe and it is totally unnecessary.
How To Teach Bite Inhibition To Puppies
-Every time the puppy is biting you hard, in a high pitched voice say OUCH and move the body part away from his mouth. Immediately give the puppy a replacement for his biting experience. Give him a soft knotted rope bones or any appropriate toy will help for him to understand that toys are for chewing and human body parts are not for chewing. Make sure that all family members are dealing with this problem in the exact same way. Dogs cannot generalize. The rule has to be ALWAYS or NEVER. Inconsistency will only serve to confuse your puppy as he will not get the message of NEVER bite the human.
-As soon as you feel his teeth on your skin, use a cue like Uh-Uh, Hey, Stop, No Bites. At first look for the bite pressure to lessen and immediately mark the behaviour with praise and a treat. The treat also serves to refocus his attention from your body part so treating works double duty. Over time, expect the puppy to completely let go of the body part when cued to do so. Remember to show him what you want him to do instead of biting otherwise he will just come right back to grab you as soon as you have finished rewarding him. If you do not redirect the behaviour, you will unintentionally be rewarding him for going back to bite.
-When your puppy begins to play bite, get up and remove your attention from him. Eventually he learns that biting humans only makes them go away which is counter productive to what he wants. The whole reason he came over and play bit you was because he wanted to initiate play. If you leave, there will be no play. Again, show your puppy what is considered appropriate play using TOYS. Shape his play behaviour so he understands that you will play with him but play will never include biting games.
-Take a page from Momma Dog’s training manual. When the puppy is biting you, take your free hand, clasp his muzzle with your hand. Once your body part is removed from his mouth apply very light pressure to his muzzle (like mom would do with her mouth) and cue your puppy to stop biting. If your puppy is frantically trying to bite, gently grasp the scruff and hold. Do not shake, roll him to the floor, or lift until his feet come up off the ground. Just hold the scruff until he instinctively does the FREEZE, and then cue the puppy to stop biting. Have a toy ready to redirect his biting.
There are some puppies out there just seem to have a hard time understanding or translating human communication. For these puppies, the more primal the communication (a natural signal that Momma would use) the more effectively he might get the message. Remember, dogs do not understand our human language. In order for dogs to better understand us, sometimes we need to remember to communicate in Doggish rather than in English.
-Use good judgement and set your puppy up for success. If your puppy is revved up and in the middle of a wild bout of puppy playing, that is not the best time to get your hands or your face down near his mouth because the chances are very good that you WILL GET BIT. Redirect wild inappropriate play to a more calm and reserved play. Puppies will get silly, boisterous, and will readily engage in physical activity.
By all means, do play with your dog. Just do it with common sense and give some thought to what kinds of behaviours you are nurturing in him. What is considered to be cute puppy behaviour for a 12 week dog old puppy may not translate so well into 5 month old 40 pound dog. So immediately start shaping your puppy’s behaviours so that you can live with your dog safely in the future.
-And lastly, always use positive training methods with your puppy. Yelling, hitting, and punishing your puppy will not help him to learn what you want him to do. Remember to see this problem from the dog’s perspective. Human societal rules do not make much sense to dogs, especially not to a puppy.
Teaching Bite Inhibition To An Adult Dog
Whether you just recently adopted a dog that has no Bite Inhibition training or you failed to shape these behaviours when it was a puppy, teaching Bite Inhibition to an older dog is much more difficult. A dog that has a well practiced routine for how it does things is much harder to convince to change his ways. Additionally, in moments of highly charged emotion, dogs will fall back into the old familiar reinforced patterns of behaviour.
Noted Behaviourist Dr. Ian Dunbar points out that there are four stages to successful Bite Inhibition training especially as it relates to the mature dog.
In the first two stages the focus is placed on lessening the force of the bite and in the last two stages the focus must be on diminishing the frequency of the bites. The mature dog must learn to first soften the bite as he has never learned this concept. Then after he understands that there is an issue with how hard he closes his jaws, then he can be moved along to resist biting all together.
How To Decrease The Pressure Of The Bite
- Place your hand in his mouth for controlled mouthing practice. It sounds odd to teach a dog not to bite by placing your into his mouth but that is the place to begin teaching this concept. Much like the training they give to service dogs that will be using their mouths to pull and place objects into people’s hands, the mature dog needs to be shown to lessen the pressure. So when you place your hand in his mouth, issue the cue GENTLE. If the dog complies with gentle gumming, immediately reward him with YESSSS and a treat. If he clamps down hard, remove your hand, issue a cue of Uh-Uh and begin again. Your objective is for there to eventually be zero pressure exerted by the dog’s jaws.
- You should train your dog to be able understand cues of TAKE IT, LEAVE IT and STOP. The idea that you are teaching the dog is that what goes into his mouth and when it goes into his mouth is not for him to decide. You must be the only one who gives him permission to do so.
- To teach these concepts, use an object placed onto the floor. Issue the cue LEAVE IT. If the dog complies immediately give him a High Value treat for leaving the object alone. This training helps to keep dogs from biting to grab items, either out of your hand or that have fallen onto the floor.
- And lastly, these mature dogs need to have the understanding that they must NEVER touch a human with their muzzle or tongue unless it was invited and initiated by the human. All behaviours must be cued by the human or the dog believes that the choice is his. That means that no uninvited licking, no muzzle pokes or prods, and no grabbing of hands to initiate play should be tolerated, all games should end on the terms of the human, and in the case of dogs with no Bite Inhibition Training, no games of tug of war, chase, or boisterous wrestling should be played. These games will only serve to over excite the dog and then it becomes too easy for the dog to fall back into the learned behaviours of nipping and biting. As the dog learns control you can then readjust the kind of games he is allowed to play.
A Final Note About Misguided People Who Train Their Dogs To Bite Aggressively
Every once in a while I run into some person who, while they complain about their dogs biting and nipping of them, actually secretly likes that their dog acts in a physical way towards others. I guess in their minds it makes them feel “protected”. The reality is that these people are playing with a “loaded weapon”. Because they are not stopping the biting behaviours (they actually encourage the biting or aggressive behaviour) when it comes to biting, the dog now believes that this behaviour is okay to do to any human. There is really no way to get your dog to understand that a behaviour is okay to do under some nebulous “special circumstance”, unlike Schutzhund training. ALWAYS or NEVER is the understood rule by dogs.
It is NEVER wise to purposely encourage or train your companion dog to be aggressive towards anyone because you will have no control over whom it bites. It could very easily be YOU or some member of your family.
As always, we welcome your questions, comments and stories about your Snow Dogs. When we share our stories we may well be helping someone who is struggling with their Snow Dog.
Helping ALL Snow Dogs …. one owner at a time.