Teaching Bite Inhibition

Theories about dog behavior usually originate in studies of packs of wild dogs and wolves, and how they interact. The theory about playing tug of war causing dominance aggression stems from the fact that the "dominant dog" in a pack will be tested for strength and stamina... my problem with some of the theories is that, while they offer alot of insight into how wolves interact in the wild (during feeding time, at least {grin}), they don't take into account the dog's ability to distinguish between species, or that there is an incredible, basic difference in the behavior of wild dogs vs. domesticated dogs. I don't use canine ritualized behavior with my dogs, because I feel that they understand on a very *basic* level that I'm not a dog.

It's been my experience that most dogs with a need to be placed in Rescue haven't been taught basic obedience and manners -- including bite inhibition. I have, on a couple of occasions, come into contact with dogs who have been taught bite inhibition in a way that must have been extremely traumatic for them -- they refuse to play with toys that are hand-held, such as tug ropes, and some even go so far as to refuse hand-delivered treats .

Taught in the proper way, bite inhibition does not need to be taught with FORCE -- in my mind, a dog that is taught bite inhibition through force or harsh punishment is more likely to "snap" under stress. Taught using toys, games, and rules, the dog quickly learns that the good things are taken away with even the slightest infraction -- they don't want the good things to end, so they work very hard at NOT breaking the rules. These rules should be taught as a gesture of love for the animal -- not by teaching that hands, or any extension (such as a newspaper) are for hitting!!

I first teach them to accept hand-delivered treats -- all of my Rescues are taught this -- it seems that they are either on one end of the spectrum or the other: either it seems that they're trying to include everything up to the elbow as a part of the offering, or they refuse altogether. Depending on how poorly they've been handled, teaching acceptance of treats in itself can be quite a feat! At either end of this spectrum, the dogs have to be taught that 1) the treat is forthcoming, and 2) hands are NOT for hurting -- something that many of these dogs haven't had the opportunity to learn.

What treats to use? That depends on how the dog reacts to the initial offering: if he's snappy with treats, you want something a little less tempting to start with -- try dry kibble. Also -- and this is important -- with a snappy dog, work with him at first when he ISN'T hungry. Hold a single piece in the palm of your hand, make a fist around it, and hold your hand under the dog's nose with the back of your hand toward the ceiling. Get the dog's attention by saying his name, say the word "easy!", and slowly turn your hand over, with the treat slowly becoming exposed. I've found that the best method is to kind of "grip" the kibble in the folds of the palm of your hand -- it forces the dog to use its lips more, rather than teeth. If he lunges for it, quickly make a fist, say "uh-uh -- easy!", and try again after regaining his attention. He will very quickly come to understand that he only gets the treat when he takes it politely.

A dog who refuses hand-delivered treats has to be handled in the opposite manner at first -- use really good treats , like bits of cheese or liverwurst, and work with the dog when he's hungry. You may find it necessary, once he finds out just how good the treats are (and that your hands do not pose a threat) to switch methods. Start by placing the treat on the floor, away from you, rather than using hand delivery. This will give the dog a chance to trust in the reward system, and to understand that his taking the reward is met with praise -- it will allow you to build a reward history, from the moment you begin working with him. When he is confident in taking the treat at a distance from you, then begin offering the treat from successively closer distances -- it will help, if you are seated, rather than towering over him. When you can offer the treat by simply laying it on the floor next to your hand, you can begin offering by putting the treat in your palm, laying the back of your fist on the floor, and opening your hand -- allow the dog to take the treat, even if he snaps for it! With your hand so closely involved in the delivery, he may feel it necessary for awhile to move quickly -- if you close your fist, it could startle him, or even cause him to inadvertently nip your fingers -- allow him to become comfortable. Once he becomes comfortable with this, the time is right to begin on the manners part -- the same way as before -- closed fisted offerings.

Some dogs are "mouthy" dogs -- with Saints, it comes with the breed -- bear in mind that this breed was originally bred to rescue humans -- they have that inherent mouthiness. My Cis will take my hand in her mouth if she feels she's not getting something she should be getting -- such as attention. There is no pressure, or even the threat of pressure behind it -- it's not in any way the preface to a bite -- if I tell her "Not right now", she'll wait. This doesn't mean that bite inhibition doesn't need to be taught to these dogs -- on the contrary -- it's even more needed than with those breeds that don't have a predisposition to this! I DO think, though, that it makes it even more necessary that this be taught in a way that doesn't subjugate this method of communication -- and, to me, that's what it is. She doesn't bark at these times -- if I've been working on the computer for too long, she'll come into my office, nuzzle her nose up under my arm, and take my hand. She's just reminding me that there are more important things to be tended to.

These are the rules for tug-of-war -- an excellent tool for teaching bite inhibition and control (a la Jean Donaldson):

1) Choose 1 toy for this game, and it's not to be left lying around, where the kids can pick it up -- tug-of-war is not for small kids! If older kids play, it should be supervised.

2) If the dog breaks a rule, the game ends. Period.

3) If the dog allows his teeth to touch you, the game ends (there is no such thing as an accident -- he knows where his teeth are -- this will teach him to be careful about what he does with them!) The dog will learn to avoid your hand, even if you "feed" it to him.

First, using some really good treats , teach your dog either "let go", "out", or "drop it" (the release command). Put the toy in his mouth, give the command, and when he lets go, give him a treat. He'll catch on, pretty quickly.

Second, teach "take it", the same way. Tell him to "take it", put it in his mouth, allow him to hold it in his mouth for a second or 2, then give the release command, and treat. Once he learns this command, he is not allowed to "take it" without your giving the command -- if he tries to, end the game for 10 minutes.

Last, teach "tug". Get him a little fired-up, and give the release command (at this point, you can do away with the food reward -- the "tug" is more reinforcement than the food is). At first, you may need to give the command twice to break through the excitement haze. If you have to say it more than twice, end the game. Wait 10 minutes, and try again. Don't get mad, if you have to end the game for a rule violation. Just end the game in a "I'll just take my toys and go home!" fashion. He'll learn pretty quickly what his limits are -- he wants to play!!

Once he's learned all 3 parts to the game, start incorporating obedience commands into it. When you give the release command, have him "sit" or "down". This very quickly becomes an excellent reward for obedience, and it teaches your dog control! Have him go through a few paces, then play the game again.

Brenda Rushman CCBC

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