When a Small Dog Bites

Just because a dog has a good reason to bite, does not necessarily mean that dog will bite. To put this in another perspective that strikes closer to home, we can look at human behavior to understand why dogs act aggressively. It turns out the same reasons that can lead to aggression in dogs apply almost one-for-one in humans.

We humans can act aggressively to dominate other people. We can act aggressively within the realm of sibling rivalry, or to protect personal property and territory. We can lash out at others due to fear or pain. (Have you ever snapped at someone when you have a very bad headache?) Those of us who play contact sports or engage in combat simulations are exercising a form of predatory aggression in a benign environment. We read about psychopathic killers in the newspaper who are likely responding to genetically programmed, and physiologically-triggered aggression. Studies have shown that some, but certainly not all individuals who we're beaten and abused as children are more likely to replicate that behavior as adults, a form of learned aggression.

My point is this. Before we declare ourselves superior to the rest of the animal kingdom, we need to realize we humans generally follow the same rules of behavior that influence dogs and other animals, especially when it comes to aggressive behavior. What may set some of us apart is our ability to rationalize our way out of acting aggressively. For example, you may have had thoughts of harming someone who really angered you, but that did not mean you acted on those thoughts. You had the capability to think your way out of doing something rash. Even then, you did not come by this thought process naturally. In order to rationalize away from violence, someone at some time had to teach you to detour away from violent behavior. Perhaps one of your parents punished you as a child when you hit your brother or sister. Or, you learned you could go to jail for a serious offense. However it happened, at some point you learned there are bad consequences for acting violently.

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Lo and behold, the same process applies to dogs. Dogs must learn to be non-aggressive. Some of the learning takes place within a dogs litter when it is a puppy. As puppies play with each other, and as they interact with their mother, they learn some degree of bite inhibition. Bite inhibition is exactly what it sounds like. A puppy learns that it cannot clamp down on it's littermates or on it's mother. If a puppy gets overly rambunctious with it's playmate or mother and bites down too hard, that playmate or mother will yelp and then retaliate. The puppy gets an auditory response and then immediate punishment for biting too hard. It learns to not sharply bite other dogs during play, feeding, and other day-to-day activities in the litter. Note that I said sharply bite. Dogs literally have thick skin that has a low density of pain receptors. Puppies actually bite each other fairly hard. They only let each other know a bite hurts when that bite is hard enough to poke tissue underlying the skin, or hard enough to puncture the skin. So when I say a puppy learns bite inhibition, what the puppy really learns is damage inhibition.

A puppy gets very limited bite training while in it's litter. It does not learn to avoid biting inanimate objects because inanimate objects provide no feedback. It does not learn to avoid biting people, because in the first few weeks of life, a puppy has infrequent or no contact with people unless it develops under the watchful eye and hand of a responsible breeder. It also does not learn that biting is unacceptable in absolutely every circumstance.

Now the puppy comes to you. It becomes your responsibility to fill in the gaps in a puppys education about biting. Again, it would seem you have your work cut out for you. It turns out it is extremely easy to teach a puppy not to bite. The only difficult part of the process is timing. If you fail to teach a puppy to not bite people prior to the end of it's twelfth week of life, you are going to have an extremely difficult time convincing the dog not to use it's teeth to resolve it's problems for the rest of it's life. Here is the key statement, and really the point of this whole article:

Once a dog learns it can use it's teeth to bite people, biting people will always, and I truly mean always, be an option for that dog.

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A properly trained dog one that has been taught prior to the end of it's twelfth week, to never bite people will never even consider it's own teeth a weapon. A dog that does not bite people simply does not know it can bite people.

Lets assume you have taken in a puppy prior to it's twelfth week. Hopefully, the person who cared for this puppy prior to you receiving it has already taught the pup not to bite. Any good and responsible breeder will do this training. Assuming the puppy still needs training, here is how to go about it:

1.Get down on the floor with the puppy and wriggle your hand in front of it's mouth to invite a nip. What you are doing here is mimicking the behavior of prey animals, as children unwittingly do before they are nipped.

2.As soon as the puppys mouth touches your hand, scream as if you are in agony, jump, away from the puppy, and turn your back to it. I like to go and face the wall with my head bowed. The point of this behavior is to show the puppy that unlike it's thick-skinned littermates, you are too sensitive to endure any contact from it's mouth.

3.Repeat this procedure several times a day, if the puppy will even mouth you at all after this experience.

Very few puppies will continue to mouth and nip you after you do this once, much less two or three times. If a puppy does persist in mouthing and nipping:

1.Lay the back of your stronger hand against the puppys head, and wiggle the other hand in front of it's mouth.

2.When the puppys mouth touches your wriggling hand, shout No! in a commanding voice, and with the back of your other hand, push the puppy away forcefully. What your are doing here is imitating the behavior of a female dog with her puppies when one of them suckles too hard.

As I said, bite inhibition is very easy to teach, as long as it is done early enough. This brings up an important point about taking in a new dog. The dog you decide to take into your home must already be completely trained not to bite, or you must receive the dog at an early enough age to teach it bite inhibition with regard to people. If you decide to adopt a dog that has a history of biting, do not kid yourself into believing you can completely de-program biting behavior or that the dog will be okay now that he/she is in a better home. And please keep this last point in mind. Every dog has it's breaking point, just as every human has limits. Given enough pain, or enough fear, or a human that is pushing a dog past that it's limits, a dog will defend itself with it's teeth.

Is it okay, in some circumstances, for a dog to bite? That is an ethical question, and dogs do not naturally behave according to human ethics. They behave according to nature. We can teach a dog to adopt our ethics and suppress their natural behavior. While we humans can use our words, rational thought and other resources to resolve our problems, sometimes dogs run out of peaceful options. When running away or shutting down are no longer options for dogs in distress, all that is left is to try and make the problem go away with teeth.

Let me mention that I got the thought for this post speaking with Dean at Dean 2016. Thanks for the idea. Guess you get ideas in unexpected places.

Article Resources - Very nice layout.

Posted in Other Home Post Date 03/19/2016






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