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Bite Inhibition How-To

Important: bite inhibition is a behavior that's taught using games... but it's tested when the dog is pissed off.  When he's pissed (just like you, I'll bet), his self-control is at its lowest, and he's more likely to be unable to mitigate damages.. it's important, then, that he be taught to do this (mitigate damages) so that it becomes habit.

To teach an older dog (6 months or older), skip the next few steps... to teach a young puppy, read on...

There is an evolutionary reason why God gave puppies milk teeth... if you think about it, there is absolutely no other reason for a puppy to have milk teeth, except to teach them to inhibit their bite while their jaws are under-developed.  They (the milk teeth) are like needles... they hurt a lot worse than the adult teeth do.  The jaws, though, can inflict real damage, when the dog is older.  So, God made them so that they learn this stuff while they're so small that they won't do real damage, in conjunction with those needle-like teeth.  It's a brilliant system.

To teach bite inhibition in a puppy in One day :

With puppies who still have their milk teeth, it's relatively easy to teach bite inhibition in a way that will also teach him to be gentle with human flesh, even when he's frustrated.

1.)  Put him on a leash, and hook the leash to something (furniture, or a Stationary Board) that will allow him to be close, but not able to reach you.

2.)  Move into his space.  Interact with him on a low level... you want his interest, but you want to S-L-O-W-L-Y increase his activity level, so that he has time to practice this new rule before he gets too ranped up.  If he mouths you hard enough for it to hurt, just say 'oops' and remove yourself (and your attention) from him.  Don't get mad, or upset, or loud.  You can even say it in a Happy Voice.  Just 'oops' and move just out of reach. (Each person can use their own word for this, but your puppy will learn faster if the word is universal.) No eye contact, nothing.  Wait 1-2 minutes, then move back and do it again.

3.) If more than 1 person lives in your house, do these exercises 3 times with each person, then change.  ALWAYS supervise children.   Person A goes through the exercise 3 times, then Person B goes through the exercise 3 times, then Person C, and so on.  When everyone has had a turn, start at the same level with Person A.  You'll start to see that it takes longer for the pup to start mouthing hard enough to cause you to stop... that's the point of this exercise.

4.)  When you start to see that he's not biting hard enough to hurt consistently (8 out of 10 repetitions), start getting him more excited, but use the same set of rules: if he bites hard enough that it hurts, end that repetition for 1-2 minutes.  Don't cut him any slack on this: he'll learn it, and there aren't any mistakes where this is concerned.


By the end of today you should see the biting behavior greatly diminished. You can do this whenever he needs practice, and I recommend doing this with each person in the house at least once a week, even if you think he's getting good at it. Keep giving him things he’s allowed to chew, too, so that he knows which things he's allowed to get tough with.  It’s important for a dog to have human hands in their mouths (you don't want this tested for the first time when he's 6 years old, and he hasn't had the opportunity to practice this!)… but it’s also important for them to learn that they have to be gentle. That’s what the milk teeth are for… it’s God’s way of teaching puppies not to put force behind their teeth. Removing attention this way makes sure that the dog doesn’t associate hands with correction, but also teaches them to inhibit their bite before they reach the age where they can get real power into the bite, and do damage. 

Back to older dogs: Again: bite inhibition is a behavior that's taught using games... but it's tested when the dog is pissed off.

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 .  With these dogs, you have to get creative about finding ways of luring them into playing with the implements you'll be using to teach the rules of the game.

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!!

Some dogs are "mouthy" dogs -- this is NOT a bad thing... in fact, I much prefer to work with a dog that's 'mouthy', because there NEEDS to be contact between your dog's mouth and human skin in order to start teaching this.  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. In order to teach a dog to inhibit their bite, you have to first have contact between mouth and skin... many are worried that this will cause 'accidents', but it won't... it just gives you the opportunity to teach.

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 1minute.  Do something else.  Don't get mad, just say "Oops!" and go do something else for a minute.  Then, come back and start up again.

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 1 minute, 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.  This is the absolute best way I've found to teach dogs to self-limit when they play with humans... a 'side effect' is that they'll inhibit their bite when they're mad, too.

Dog-Dog Bite Inhibition

**Please note that when I talk about bites and fighting between dogs, I'm talking about those situations that cause blood to flow (whether they require stitches or not).  I consider most bites between dogs that do not draw blood to be play-biting.  If the biting bothers you, work with the dogs so that you're able to have them calm down on command (yes, this can be done!)

Dog-dog bite inhibition is usually taught by the dam and siblings during the first 10-16 weeks (this much is documented scientifically). It's *possible* to teach it after this, but not easy. That's WHY puppies have those little needle milk teeth -- God provided them with a way to gain feed-back from their playmates. Those milk-teeth cause PAIN, but not DAMAGE (because their jaws haven't matured to the point where they can inflict grievous injury yet). Once the milk-teeth fall out, that opportunity for NON-injury-producing feedback is GONE. (This is why, behaviorally, those single-puppy-litters are so incredibly catastrophic... and, why puppies shouldn't be removed from their dam earlier than 7-8 weeks, at the earliest!)

The problem in gauging bite inhibition is that it's taught when the dog is relatively calm... but you have to test it when the dog is pissed off -- that's the TRUE indicator. So, in order to say with even a modicum of certainty how a dog will respond when provoked, they have to have a bite history.  You can see the problem here.  If 'put on the spot', my stance is that EVERY dog will bite, under the right set of circumstances... training helps you to KNOW your dog, and his triggers, so that you can mitigate these kinds of scenarios.

Bite and bite propensity is gauged in levels of severity...  propensity is just the number of times the dog has bitten over its lifetime, along with the level(s) of those bites.  Comparing this way gives us a "Fight/Bite Ratio"... it allows us to give an educated guess as to whether we can reasonably expect the same set of circumstances to recur. 

These issues and how they're managed can have a devastating impact, and shouldn't be considered lightly.  If you have a situation in your home involving dogs fighting, I highly recommend that you get the input of a qualified behaviorist (who uses positive reinforcement) to instruct you so that you've looked at all the avenues and their fall-out before proceeding.  Many breeds of dog can exert an enormous amount of pressure with their jaws,  and this is what makes a dog fight so dangerous for humans.

Brenda Rushman, CCBC

Older dogs


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