Understanding bite inhibition


It’s something every dog owner fears. It’s something every dog has the ability to do. It’s something that is misunderstood due to conflicting and inaccurate information. It’s also something that’s imperative for every dog owner to understand.

“I shall repeat over and over: teaching bite inhibition is the most important aspect of your puppy’s entire education.” – Ian Dunbar

Our species does not take well to sharp, bared teeth, and for good reason: It’s part of our evolutionary makeup. Bared teeth signal danger. Dogs, on the other hand, have evolved to bite in order to guard resources and defend themselves against potential threats. It’s rarely their first line of defense; biting is expensive behavior, more so than snarling, growling, and other behaviors in a dog’s ritualized threat sequence. But if provoked by pain, fear, or other type of threat, dogs can and will bite. It’s simply part of their behavioral repertoire.

Biting is also an important part of a puppy’s play repertoire, as evidenced by any puppy owner’s ripped clothing and battle scars from encounters with sharp little teeth.

A glaring myth about biting is that puppies should never do it, that a puppy who bites will morph into a dangerous adult dog. The truth is quite the opposite. Puppies *should* bite. If a client came to me with an adolescent dog who had no history of biting as a puppy, I would be incredibly concerned because that dog would not have developed bite inhibition during the critical socialization period.

Bite inhibition refers to a dog’s ability to bite at reduced pressure and frequency, and is learned through operant conditioning (consequences).

Puppies have little jaw strength and therefore cannot bite with maiming force. But they can still inflict pain (nature provided them with razor sharp teeth for a reason). They bite constantly, starting among their litter mates and then with their owners, inanimate objects, and, with proper socialization, other puppies.

If you’ve ever watched puppies at play, you’ve likely seen the following scenario: Puppy A bites Puppy B during play. Puppy B let’s out a yelp, and ends the play session. Puppy A plays with Puppy B again, and again bites Puppy B too hard. Puppy B yelps and ends play. Puppy A gradually realizes that in order to keep playing with Puppy B, he has to bite softer. Puppy A has learned, via operant conditioning, that hard bites lead to end of play, and soft bites mean play continues.

“Suppressing puppy biting too early means the puppy doesn’t get the repeated doses of feedback on his jaw strength; the puppy grows up with a hard mouth. Ironically, this is a serious squandering of a critical lines of defense against dog bites.” – Jean Donaldson, The Culture Clash

That puppies learn this behavior-consequence contingency is critical. The ones that do will use a soft mouth during play and face fewer chances of biting during future escape or avoidance situations.

Teaching puppies never to bite during play is not an effective endeavor. For one, biting is part of a dog’s behavior repertoire. No matter how much an owner attempts to teach a puppy never to bite under any circumstance, it does not take into account what will happen if that dog ever feels threatened.

“Sometimes, however, even the best efforts of the wisest dog owners can’t prevent a bite from happening. If and when it does, one hopes and prays that the dog has good bite inhibition,” writes Pat Miller in The Whole Dog Journal.

There are four critical pieces to teaching your puppy bite inhibition:
1) Gradually decreasing the pressure of the bites
2) Consistent consequences for the bites from all family members
3) Repetition of training
4) Socialization with other puppies

Let’s explore these points in more detail.

1) Gradually decrease bite pressure

It’s important to give your puppy time to decrease the pressure of his bites. Just as you can’t go from a three-second stay indoors to a five-minute stay at the dog park, training soft bites takes time and gradually set criteria. Taking bite inhibition training on a week-by-week basis, the process could look something like this:

Week 1: Time out all hard pressure bites (ones that break skin or make you think “ouch!”). Positively reinforce bites below this threshold.

Week 2: Time out all medium pressure bites. Positively reinforce bites below this threshold.

Week 3: Time out all soft pressure bites. At this stage, the puppy should be timed out for teeth touching skin or clothing.

It’s important for every member of the family (excepting young children) to practice this so the puppy generalizes that the rules apply to all humans, not just one person.

2) Consequences

Just as puppies provide consequences to their litter mates for hard bites, you must provide consistent consequences for bites based on the training criteria. This means that each pressure bite receives a consequence. The more consistency, the faster your puppy will learn. The following are two options for biting consequences:

– Place your finger in the puppy’s mouth and let him nibble. When you feel the pressure bite, yelp “ouch!” and, once the puppy softens his mouth and lets go, praise and continue giving him attention. (Don’t move your finger away, as this will encourage your puppy to bite more!)

– Sometimes, yelping “ouch!” can be fun for a puppy, rendering the time out moot. In this case, practice the bite inhibition exercises in a gated, puppy proof area of the house. When you feel the pressure bite, say “ouch!” and then walk out of the gate and stand with your back to your puppy for 10-15 seconds. With repetition, the puppy learns that pressure bites mean loss of playtime (quite a hefty fine!)

Remember to provide positive consequences (continued play, treats, verbal praise and attention) for bites that are below the pressure criteria you’re working on. So, if you’re timing out medium pressure bites, make sure to give positive feedback for all soft pressure bites.

As O’Heare writes in Aggressive Behavior in Dogs, “Rarely is merely teaching a dog what not to do effective on its own; he must simultaneously be taught what to do.”

3) Repetition

Dogs learn by repetition. Be consistent not only with your consequences, but with your training. Do these exercises every day, with every member of the household (except young children).

4) Socialization

I cannot overstate the importance of socializing your dog with other puppies at puppy socials, classes and play dates. Puppies need social feedback from other puppies. Your puppy will learn how to play and bite with a soft mouth, which will serve you and your dog well once he gets his adult teeth and jaw strength.