Sometimes a topic for a blog post has to jump up and down in front of me waving its metaphorical arms, before I realize I need to write it. This was apparently one of those times. First, someone on Twitter asked Snickers (@snick_the_dog) about puppy nipping and teething, which we did cover in Dealing with Puppy Biting and Chewing. Then someone on Yahoo Answers, asked How to teach a Shiba Inu Bite Inhibition? Lastly, it came up briefly on my favorite breed-specific mailing list, Shiba-L.
What Exactly Is Bite Inhibition?
Pups usually learn bite inhibition – as it pertains to other dogs – from playing with their litter mates and their mother. They learn from their interactions how much force is too much and they learn to make a conscious decision to limit the force of their bite. They have to learn to translate that desire not to injure others to humans as well.
Bite inhibition in companion dogs is much too important to leave to chance. I am fairly convinced though that many dog owners do exactly that. Of course, they are surprised when the dog eventually bites someone and then it is the dog who pays the price for their negligence. Too many people don’t respect how much damage a dog can do. Even a small dog! If our companions are not raised to have a STRONG inhibition to bite humans, they can inflict serious pain while reacting instinctively.
Two Examples of Inadequate Bite Inhibition
I evaluated a Shiba for rescue last summer who was being given up AFTER SIX YEARS because she bit her owner in the face. The problem was, it was the owner’s fault. The dog was a great dog with a nice temperament and even came from a good background. The owners, however, had not socialized her with other dogs and treated her like a human, not a dog. Consequently they didn’t know anything about dog body language. The owner startled the dog and then leaned over her in a threatening manner. The dog reacted by biting and then looking horrified that she had bitten her beloved owner. The damage was done though – the owner was never comfortable around the dog again and gave her away.
A less drastic, but still frustrating, example of poor bite inhibition happened to me a few days ago. I was at the local dog run near my new apartment. There was a super overweight lab there who kept jumping up on my daughter and me. When I put my arm out to try to block the dog, he grabbed onto my wrist and hand with his mouth. He only barely scratched my skin, but his intention was clearly to hold onto me with his mouth. So COMPLETELY unacceptable. His owner was unfortunately clueless about how bad his dog’s behavior was.
An Example of Excellent Bite Inhibition
Even when Snick is snuggling with me, I’m careful not to startle him awake. I was incredibly grateful for his bite inhibition a couple weeks when he was surprised in his sleep. I walked into my bedroom and he was curled up sleeping on my bed. I bent over to give him a kiss. At exactly the same moment, Secret launched herself onto the bed and LANDED ON HIS TAIL. He jolted awake all fangs and fury only centimeters from my face. Yikes! Luckily, his reaction to seeing me so close to his teeth was as immediate as his displeasure at being stepped on and he stopped himself before accidentally biting me. Nasty facial scar avoided.
Tips on Teaching Bite Inhibition
One of the best pieces of advice anyone gave me when Snick was a puppy was regarding how to teach him not to bite and play so rough with my daughter. He thought of her as a litter mate – an equal instead of a superior – so we used that to teach him. Whenever he played too rough and bit her too hard, she would YELP like a hurt puppy and then turn her back on him and ignore him for about 10 seconds. It worked like a charm. His puppy brain completely understood and he totally stopped biting her in about a week. What I didn’t know at the time was that this great advice was based on the excellent training method of Dr. Ian Dunbar. Dr. Dunbar’s wonderful article, Puppy Biting, explains the reasoning behind the method.
In addition to self control, dogs need to learn self confidence. Many dogs bite to defend territory or because they are afraid. Raise a confident, well-socialized dog and he is a lot less likely to ever feel the need to bite.
Bond with your dog. If your dog sees humans as his key pack members, he is more likely to understand that biting humans is undesirable.
Don’t put your dog in any situation he can’t handle. Protect your dog from having to defend himself. If your dog is confident that you will take care of him, he won’t feel like he needs to protect himself and is less likely to bite out of fear.
Don’t startle your dog – or let anyone else startle him – especially when he is sleeping. If he’s going blind or deaf, pay special attention to how you interact with him.
Read your dog’s signals. Most dogs communicate multiple warnings before biting and will only bite as a last resort. Are you paying attention to what your dog is "saying" when he or she is stressed or in an unusual situation? Have you learned enough about canine communication to send your dog calming signals so he doesn’t worry as much?
Be your dog’s defender, his teacher, his advocate and his friend.