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05 February 2010

Bite Inhibition and Its Importance - One Viewpoint

About Paws for Thought - written by a friend at work, posted with permission.

Please note that these posts are written by a dog lover learning more every day and happy to share. They are intended to give you options and ideas to think about. They do not replace the help of a professional (such as a vet, behaviourist, trainer or lawyer).

Posts can be shared with others as long as you make sure that any references contained within the post remain with the post and please do not take chunks out of context. Preference is definitely for the whole post to be shared rather than pieces.

Fostering puppies with their sharp little teeth and lots of biting and chewing has reminded us all of our fostered dog Lucky (also affectionately known as 'Lucky to be Alive'!). He acted like an 8 week old puppy but in a one year old body, really challenging and a little scary. He had absolutely no bite inhibition whatsoever. He would grab clothing and play tug o' war which is cute when puppies are ankle height but not when they can jump up and wrap their paws around your waist. He would grab our arms in his excitement too, leaving bruises. We coped with him for a week and saw some improvement to his behaviour, his rehabilitation continued with Katherine and he found a wonderful home with an experienced gundog family who knew how to continue to manage his mouthing. My kids are now very keen to teach these pups bite inhibition so they don't grow up to be like Lucky!! I'd like to share this informative article with you.

Those who read the post on puppy priorities will know that bite inhibition is right up there as a priority to teach puppies (basically because this is the time they are tuned to learn this lesson and it can prove impossible to teach them as adults).

Bite inhibition is not about teaching a dog not to bite (or at least not only about teaching them not to bite). Bite inhibition is where a dog does not bite even though it could easily do so, instead self limiting themselves to grasping or mouthing without causing damage. It’s a normal part of dog to dog play between socially adept dogs. It’s also a key part of establishing a safer dog to human relationship as a dog with bite inhibition towards humans is far less likely to actually inflict injury or even in some horrific circumstances cause far less injury then they have the potential to. So let’s take a look at both scenarios:

* Bite inhibition dog to dog.

* Bite inhibition dog to human.

While many trainers and other professionals will tell you to stop your puppy from putting their mouth on you immediately they start it seems that this can actually cause a problem – as can having a puppy that never puts its mouth on you in the first place. You need that puppy to apply teeth at some level in order to be able to teach them bite inhibition.

Not everyone will agree with the thinking, nor the approach taken here, but the more I learn the more it makes real sense to me.

So read on and make of it what you will…

Dog to dog

Bite inhibition between dogs allows for dogs to have disagreements and fights to resolve conflict but minimise the damage caused, thereby allowing the social group to remain intact.

Puppies have needle-sharp teeth and weak jaws combined with a penchant for biting for a very specific reason – so that they will use their teeth frequently and learn how to control their bite. Puppies in a litter and later at puppy play school teach each other bite inhibition when they play fight – and this is reinforced by off leash interactions with appropriate adults who let the pup know what is and isn’t acceptable. So appropriate socialisation with appropriate puppies and dogs is a priority for your pup.

Dog to people

Why is it an issue and what are we trying to achieve?

Establishing bite inhibition towards people is critical for dogs to be able to live safely (as safely as an animal with teeth and claws can) alongside humans as our companions and family members. This particular behaviour can get you out of some particularly nasty situations. Take the following real life examples:

·         My boy Merlin was a very mouthy puppy – just ask his vet : ) but this gave me lots of opportunity to help him learn bite inhibition to people – and it all paid off when he got to a couple of years old and was at the same vets for a limp. While pressing along his spine the vet obviously hit a very very sore spot and Merlin turned quickly and put his mouth fully and firmly around the vet’s arm and gave him a clear signal – that is enough – but only held it long enough to give the message and left no marks at all. The vet blessed his luck (or was that Merlin’s early training even though I was just bumbling along) as he figured many of his other patients would have shed his blood in a similar situation.

·         A woman in the US who accidentally stood on her lying Rottie as stepping down from a step so there was a lot of force and a stiletto actually went through the poor dogs leg – but he too curbed his natural reaction and while he turned and grasped the offending leg and held it did not so much as tear the woman’s stockings.

One approach to teaching bite inhibition

Instead of the well known approach of ceasing all contact or applying punishment/an aversive immediately a puppy’s teeth touch human skin, this approach takes 4 steps:

1. Teach no hard bites – progressively teach the pup to decrease the pressure he applies with his teeth and jaws.

2. Teach no pressure at all – so now mouthing (or gumming) is the only acceptable contact.

3. Teach that mouthing is okay until you say stop – and then it must stop.

4. Teach that mouths are not used on people or clothing attached to people without permission. That permission is only given in highly controlled exercises or games and rarely and only if you want to.

The idea is to teach the puppy to develop a soft mouth (inhibit the force of his bite) and then to inhibit the frequency of his gentler mouthing. Then when the inevitable happens and some poor dog gets such a fright or is in immense pain it is far more likely to inhibit its bite and while some damage may occur it will be far far less than the dog is inherently capable of.

To learn more about how to teach the steps check out:

Articles for those who prefer to read:


Videos for those who prefer to watch and listen:


* - the importance of biting and step 1 (yelping and stop interaction) and then
- - timeout

and/or and then

To sum it up in Dr Ian Dunbar’s own words:

When bite-inhibition is poor or non-existent, if and when the dog bites, in addition to the serious injury caused to thevictim, invariably the dog loses his life and the owner loses their companion, their peace of mind and often, a lawsuit.

However, when good bite inhibition has been firmly established in puppyhood, when the dog is provoked as an adult, he seldom causes harm and consequently, rehabilitation is comparatively easy and safe. Basically, bite inhibition is the dog's, owner's and victim's last line of defense.

If you have a puppy – act now. The critical period for teaching these skills is until about 4 ½ months of age when they start turning into an adolescent and their teeth and jaw start strengthening.

But what if…?

There are a number of situations that make teaching bite inhibition harder including:

* People who play many games with their puppy that incite them to such a level of arousal that play-biting and play-mouthing occur. In this case insist on rules and frequent breaks in the games to control arousal levels. See the previous post on teaching tug for an example of rules and arousal will be the subject of a future post.

* Puppies who do not frequently mouth or bite and do not occasionally bite hard. This is serious stuff – in order to learn about bite inhibition the puppy must apply teeth and receive appropriate feedback. Get into off leash play sessions with other puppies and work on getting your puppy playing and aroused enough to apply teeth so that other puppies and you get the opportunity to teach him.

Happy to hear other views, experiences and questions.

The Lab Rescue puppies; Scooby, Winkie and Blossom, using their teeth in play

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