My Dog Bites! Help!
Despite knowing that dogs use their mouths to communicate, as weapons of defense and offense, and in play, people are often surprised and disappointed when a dog bites. When I first got my German Shepherd, I was told that the breed is naturally mouthy, and it wasn’t until months later that I learned that there’s a difference between having a “mouthy” dog and letting her leave scratch marks all over my lower legs. Later, when I got my street dog from Mexico, I learned that there’s yet another difference between have a reactive dog and a dog that redirects and bites whatever flesh it comes into contact to (again, my poor legs!). The mouth is a very important part of dog-dog communication, but it doesn’t have to be a part of human-dog communication, especially if we are watching for the signs that predict a dog might end up biting.
There are different classifications of biting. When dogs play with each other, often times we can see a lot of nipping and grabbing. Sometimes, that nipping can turn into one of the dogs being “told off” by another for taking things too far or not acknowledging that the other dog didn’t want to play anymore. This mouthing behaviour is always accompanied by a variety of body language and often verbal signals. By paying attention to all of the parts of canine communication, a keen human observer can decode what dogs are “saying” to one another.
We can also see this kind of behaviour when playing with our own dogs. If you don’t typically use toys when wresting or rough-housing with your dog, you might notice that they like to bite and nip when excited, or that they even just bite you for attention. While this is natural and normal for dog-dog relationships, it’s not always appropriate in dog-human relationships. Even if you don’t mind the rough play and the teeth, you can’t easily teach your dog that it’s okay with you but not with your aunt or your neighbour’s children. Since it’s not necessary to involve biting in your play, I would advise to cut it out entirely. This is easily doable as long as it’s consistent. Dogs find biting FUN – I mean, it’s play! So you can do a couple of things to prevent biting:
1) Have a toy handy! Instead of playing with your hand or your body, encourage rough housing with a stuffed animal or a tug toy. Turning this into a game of drop it, wait, take it, makes it even more enriching for your dog! Including a little impulse control and high-low arousal is really good practice for excitable dogs.2) If your dog starts using their mouth, end play immediately. Biting should not equal a good time. The more you reduce this association, the less likely they are to continue using their mouth on you to elicit further play. Some dogs are persistent and will follow you if you get up, so it’s a good idea to have an alternative activity for them to engage in, such as going to their mat or even just going for a walk to get some of that energy out.
3) Know your dog’s over-excitement level and work below it. This means that you can play until they are a little excited, and then switch to a more calm activity or give them something else to do. If you have been paying attention to the arousal level that usually goes along with biting, you should be able to predict when to stop playing.
The great thing about play biting is that it’s totally possible to scale it down or eliminate it completely with the right training regimen. Aggressive biting, on the other hand, is a trickier subject. The word “aggressive” when it comes to dogs is a vague notion due to misuse and mislabelling. For the sake of this article, I would like to consider any bite that is delivered due to a perceived threat or frustration to be “aggressive”. For example, as I stated earlier, my reactive younger dog can become very frustrated on leash if not managed properly, and has turned around and bitten me due to this. Other examples include a dog attacking another dog for coming onto their property or a dog biting someone trying to clip their nails. Some dogs have what we call “bite inhibition”, which means that they are apt at biting without causing injury. My little dog doesn’t have this, so I need to be extra careful when she feels threatened or frustrated.
It is important to note that, while it is always considered a “bite” when a dog puts their mouth on another animal, it is not always an injury. A bite can mangle an arm or it can barely leave saliva, but it is still a bite. While some people might think that a bite that doesn’t cause harm doesn’t count, it is actually really important to take into account the mental scarring of the animal being attacked and the root cause behind the dog doing the attacking, to prevent it from happening again. Dog bites are almost always preventable, and here I will list some of the ways we can ensure that:
1) Some dogs are on leash for a reason. Just because your dog is “friendly” doesn’t mean that all other dogs are. In fact, the best way to turn a friendly dog into an unfriendly one is to allow them to be accosted by an off-leash dog. The on leash dog isn’t able to greet the other dog properly, and can’t exit the situation if they want to, which can trigger the flight, fight or freeze reflex. If you have your dog off-leash, make sure that they are trained to stay away from on leash dogs and have an excellent recall. 2) Advocate for your dog. Not all dogs love strangers coming up to them! And when they tolerate it, they probably won’t be stoked to get a pat on the head. I would love to see dog etiquette become more in the favor of the dog, where they are the ones in charge of who they meet. Let the dog come to you!
3) Have an excellent recall. Especially around other dogs. If you are planning to let your dog off-leash, use as many opportunities as you can to perfect that recall. Dog play can turn into a dog fight in two seconds or less. If you can read the body language of the dogs and get your dog back to you before anything happens, you’re saving everybody and yourself a lot of trouble. Not to mention, there are some strange people on the trails – one time I ran into a man who wanted to karate chop and kick at any dog that came near him! I was terrified one of my off leash dogs would feel (appropriately) threatened by him and potentially bite him, and I felt so relieved that their recall was good enough to get them out of the situation.
4) READ THE SIGNS. Dogs will let you know if they are uncomfortable! Ignore or punish the signs and you will end up with a biting dog. Many of the stories we hear about children getting bit by dogs end up being those stories because nobody listened when the dog said no. Signs that tell you when a dog is uncomfortable and wants space: lip licking, side-eye, turning their head away, yawning. Signs that a dog needs space NOW: teeth baring, growling. Please listen to your dog and don’t take their tolerance for granted.
5) Buy a muzzle. While this won’t deal with the behavioural issue itself, it will prevent any harm until you feel that you have the behaviour under control. It is really vital that muzzle-users condition their dog to like the muzzle, or else you’ll have an even more frustrated dog. This needs to be done slowly and very positively, but is worthwhile!
What I want you to take away from this is that biting is normal. Dogs fight. Dogs play. Dogs need their mouths to communicate. But also – biting is preventable. Paying attention to the rest of your dog’s body and watching for signs of stress and excitement are key to making sure that you can remove them from a situation before they start using their mouths inappropriately. Using environmental management and instilling trust and a good working relationship between you and your dog is vital to preventing harm to other animals or even to them. And when in doubt, purchase a muzzle.