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A Guardian's Guide to Controlling Canine Biting Behavior

Guest Author, Sarah Wadleigh
Only Natural Pet Store Customer Care

Introduction – Why Do Dogs Bite?

Why do dogs bite? Many factors, including a dog's early experiences and heredity, can play a role in biting behavior. In almost all cases, it is due to lack of socialization with humans and other dogs, or lack of leadership and poor training about boundaries and territory. Some dogs have a fearful nature, which can be made worse by lack of leadership in their relationship with their guardians. This lack of leadership, along with absence of socialization and established boundaries can create fearful, unpredictable and/or aggressive behavior in our canine friends.

Dog bite statistics are alarming, with over 4.5 million people bitten in the US per year, but many people don't realize that about half of all dog bites are received by the family dog. If your dog has aggressive tendencies and displays behaviors such as running the fence or barking at strangers, or has a habit of playing too roughly or guarding toys, you owe it to both yourself and your dog to monitor and redirect such behaviors. You can help your dog to channel oral urges, to become more socialized, and to learn the rules of play and good behavior. With your leadership, your dog can become a peaceful and solid member of our human/canine society.

Early Experience and Socialization

Teaching Bite-Inhibition through Play

While it may be fun to play rough and tumble games with your dog, it's not a good idea to allow disrespectful biting to be a part of that play. In the dog world, biting is often used to gain domination and control (as well as being part of most play). There are many other ways to enjoy being with your dog, and many ways to channel their oral tendencies.

Dogs like to have rules and boundaries, so you can actually tell your dog or puppy: no hard biting. If he does bite hard, you can "yelp" to let him know that it hurt! When working with a puppy in this regard, teaching soft play biting is a good idea. I love it when my Corgi puppy grabs me gently yet enthusiastically when we play! And I feel safe watching this 20-pound puppy playing "bitey" games with my 110-pound German Shepherd, because they both bite gently. It's rare that either of them gets pinched or yelps in pain while they are playing.

After you have made it clear that there will be no rough biting, if your dog makes a mistake by aggressively grabbing or jerking a toy from your hand, it's time to stop the play session. Remove the toy from your dog's possession for a time out, while you, as the leader, project/say something like, "Remember, I said no biting. Now you've lost your privilege of playing with this toy." Then walk away.

Of course, you need to refrain from behavior that would encourage biting, such as yanking a toy aggressively from your dog's mouth, or playing tug of war. Both of you need to follow the rules and respect the other's boundaries. You, as leader, need to be aware of the activities, toys, and games that could potentially stimulate excited biting from your dog and look for the earliest sign of "pre-biting behavior" so that you can intervene at that point – before the biting behavior has been activated. Interspersing waiting commands with play time can be very beneficial for everyone and emphasizes your leadership role.

Providing Safe Outlets for the Teething or Gnawing Urge

Especially for puppies, it is important to provide safe objects to chew. Teething is a normal part of canine development, and your pup will find an outlet for the urge to chew if you do not provide one. Providing safe objects, like the Puppy Cool Teether to chew can help curb the biting urge during play. There are many safe, natural chew treats available to provide satisfaction for oral urges. Chew toys can also help your dog satisfy this urge, but be sure to supervise your dog with new toys and remove any toy that becomes damaged. Fabric, plastic, and other materials can cause bowel obstruction if your dog swallows them, so be sure to keep an eye on chew toys and check them regularly for damage. Older dogs, especially high energy, active dogs will also appreciate having safe objects to gnaw on, which can help curb frustrated energy that can lead to biting behavior.

Exposing Your Pup to Diverse Members of the Community

A great way to prevent puppies from developing fearful behavior is to expose them to a wide variety of other people and animals when they are still young. Taking your dog to the dog park, on puppy "play dates," and simply walking around the neighborhood and greeting other people and dogs will help your dog learn to accept others as part of their world. Especially with dog breeds that have guarded or suspicious tendencies by nature, it's important to let them meet people of different gender, age, shape, size, and appearance in order to learn that all people are okay. Fearful aggression can often be completely eliminated in young dogs with broad socialization like this. With older dogs that display mild fears, you may be able to reduce anxiety by using reward training to reinforce good behavior when meeting new people. There are many excellent books on positive dog training available, but be sure to involve a professional trainer or dog behavior specialist if your dog has strong aggressive tendencies.

Leading Your Dog – Further Socialization and Training

Respect and Cooperation

Respect is one of the most important keys to achieving success in setting rules and boundaries. Consistency is extremely important, especially with puppies. If your expectations, behaviors and requests for cooperation are fair and consistent, your dog will be more responsive and ready to meet your requests, and will have a lot of respect for you, as well.

Asking your dog to cooperatively wait before eating, while playing, when getting ready to go for a ride, going in and out of the house, or going for a walk are all ways for your dog to learn calm self-control. Since biting is often an excited behavior, encouraging calm, receptive behavior in all situations and settings will go a long way toward channeling and redirecting unwanted biting behavior. Asking and expecting cooperation equals structure for a dog, and builds response potential across the board, and of course, respect.

Boundaries, Possessiveness and Territorial Aggression

A major factor that contributes to biting behavior is dogs' concept of territory – what is mine, what is yours, and what behavior is allowed to protect these possessions. Ownership definitely carries status with canines and the concept of ownership can be applied to doors, fences, rooms, furniture, people, and even other dogs as well as toys, socks, shoes, etc.

A subtle, but important distinction that I make with my dogs is that all the toys and sticks in the yard actually belong to me. In fact, the fence, the yard, and everything in the house, including all dog toys, are mine. This reduces the possibility that either of my dogs will develop aggressive posturing or behaviors around toys or sticks.

To discourage possessiveness, encourage your dog to release toys while you are playing a game, either by dropping the toy at your feet, putting the toy into your hand or dropping it into a bucket! Give each toy a name so that you can direct your dog to find, get and bring the desired article. Advanced retrieval work involves having your dog help you around the house or yard by asking him/her to get your shoes, carry the mail, bring garden tools, etc., and is a great way to channel his/her oral tendencies.

By extending your ownership to everything in your environment, you can curb territorial aggression toward strangers and other dogs as well. For example, since the fence belongs to me, neither of my dogs is as inclined to bark at neighboring dogs. When it does happen, I tell them (from inside the house) to move away from the fence, and they do it! Sometimes when the temptation becomes too great, my German Shepherd will actually come to the front door and ask to come in rather than staying out in the yard and getting agitated by the neighbor's barking dogs.

I once worked with a Samoyed who would steal her owners' socks, eventually destroying and consuming them. Her humans were afraid of her, as she would assume a possessive posture, exhibit vicious snarling, and threaten to bite when they tried to get the items away from her. All undesirable behaviors!

My strategy was twofold. I began by requesting cooperation from her regarding walking on leash and basic commands. Gaining cooperation and establishing leadership made up the first two weekly sessions, and the owners worked diligently with her between lessons, thus addressing their leadership role, which they had not been assuming. On the third session, I had her sit and watch while my dog repeatedly retrieved and brought socks to me and dropped them into my hand. He was heartily praised for bringing each pair of socks.

The activity of watching another dog pick up, bring, and voluntarily surrender socks was almost more than she could bear, evoking heavy breathing and avoidance behavior. She tried numerous times to turn away, but we had her on leash, and continued to redirect her to sit and watch. This session lasted about 15 minutes, and was probably the longest 15 minutes of this dog's entire life!

Immediately following this "observation session," she voluntarily picked up a sock and brought it to me, and her formerly aggressive behaviors around socks changed dramatically and permanently as a result. This was a success story because the humans involved understood how important it was to request cooperation from their dog! We worked around the aggression by first getting her cooperation in daily activities and by demonstrating leadership with another dog in the "problem area." These activities shifted the leadership and ownership roles in this equation from the dog to the owners.

Psychological and Physical Factors

Fear Biting – Developing Familiarity and Confidence

While some dogs are inclined to be fearful or shy by nature, others may develop fearful behavior in response to traumatic events. Both types of fearful dogs are more likely to bite when their guardian fails to demonstrate strong leadership. Dog society is deeply hierarchical, and when their humans fail to act as leaders, even fearful dogs may feel compelled to step up and lead the pack. It's important to be a strong leader, especially if your dog is fearful, so let your confidence and authority guide your dog's behavior.

Even dogs that are normally terrified in strange situations will, when given a structure within that environment, be much more stable and calm. This is especially true for working dogs. I worked with a German Shepherd who was generally quite skittish and shy in all situations, with a potential for fear-biting if she was approached too quickly or felt cornered. I was successful in getting this dog to fulfill many of my requests by simply taking charge, expecting cooperation, and asking her firmly but gently to do things. Not only did this make things easier for me, she gradually became more confident and proud. When taking her into a store or public place, as long as she heard the "heel" command before going in, she would stay by my side and remain relatively calm. She could hold a sit or down position quite easily with this leadership structure in place.

In contrast, when the owner held the leash in the very same environment, she would feel sorry for this dog, and give her the "free dog" command. The dog would, without fail, start cringing and slinking about. This dog needed and wanted structure, which I could never get the owner to fully comprehend! (This dog had experienced a terrible upbringing, and the owner knew all the details, and was still projecting a lot of sympathy for the dog's past.)

These same principles can also work for dogs that are mouthy and try to get attention or dominate by biting on the leash or your clothing. This is disrespectful behavior! Focus, cooperation, consistency, and structure can do wonders to redirect behavior, including biting!

Health Examinations and Injured Dogs

Another area where biting can become an issue is when your dog is injured or needs to take medication, have teeth cleaned, nails trimmed, or eyes wiped. Personally, I think it's very important to be able to look in my dogs' ears and mouth and examine their paws at any time. I clean my dogs' teeth and ears on a regular basis, and they love having their legs and paws massaged and held.

I have worked with dogs that are resistant to having their paws examined or touched at all. In this event, I ask the dog mentally, "What if you were hurt? I would need to look at your paw to be sure you were ok, so please give me your paw now so that I can look at it!" If the dog resists, I insist, and say, "You have GOT to give me your paw. I'm just going to look at it, so please give it to me right now."

For dogs that are extra-sensitive or resistant, I might project, "Oh my gosh! I'm only going to LOOK at your paw, but I need to hold it. I promise it won't hurt." Then I stay there until I get to look at, touch and/or hold the paw, if even for a very short time. During these interactions, any mouthing, snapping or nibbling from the dog is discouraged verbally with "No biting." I don't move away, but I turn the back of my hand toward the dog's mouth if there is some possibility of a bite. As soon as I am able to touch the paw, even for a brief moment, I express my deep appreciation for the trust. "That's right. What a good dog." My expectations and strong request for cooperation reflect my compassionate leadership role in this interaction.

Of course, handling an ill or injured animal puts anyone at risk for a dog bite. Even your own dog may be in extreme pain or be disoriented and could bite you when under extreme stress. Be prepared for dealing with your injured dog by having a muzzle, scarf or bandanna ready to protect yourself in an emergency. A good dog first aid kit should supply instructions on using a homemade wrap as a muzzle, and reference books are available for more detailed information. If you are not well versed in canine first aid, it is best to call for professional help if you encounter an unfamiliar dog that appears ill or injured.

Heredity - Powerful Breed Dogs and The Guardian's Alpha Role

Some dog breeds have inherited physical and psychological traits that make them more likely to bite people or other dogs. Owner responsibility is key in preventing bites with any breed or mixed breed dog, but strong leadership is absolutely essential with powerful dogs so that aggressive tendencies are kept in check.

My neighbor (who has, thankfully, since moved) acquired a pit bull that had a history of dog fighting. I engaged him in conversation about his dog in an effort to find out more about his philosophy on dog training. I told him about Cesar Milan, the "Dog Whisperer," and his work with pit bulls and other aggressive breeds. My words fell on deaf ears, unfortunately. He proceeded to tell me that his dog liked to go after bigger dogs like my German Shepherd, and that if he were taking his dog for a walk and another dog approached, he would just have to "drop the leash" – giving his dog full permission to behave in whatever manner she chose – and all with full knowledge of this dog's violent past! He had actually been advised by another aggressive pit bull owner to remove himself from any altercation his dog became involved in and "just let the dogs work it out." What was he thinking???

If you decide to adopt a powerful breed, such as a pit bull, Rottweiler, German Shepherd, Akita, etc., then you legally assume responsibility for every behavior your dog exhibits. Dropping the leash is NOT an option! You must assume responsibility for being the alpha in your household on a 24/7 basis. You must also assume responsibility for socializing your dog and creating an attitude of acceptance toward humans and other canines. If you're not interested in this arrangement, then a different breed would be a better choice for you.

Teaching Children to Interact with Your Dog

A final factor that contributes to many biting incidents is the dogs' interactions with children. It is a sad fact that most fatal and roughly half of all serious dog bites are received by children. Children's natural behavior, especially at play, can invoke some dogs' instinctive herding or prey drive and increase the likelihood of a biting incident. Be sure to supervise your dog with all children and remove your dog if the situation becomes too chaotic or stressful.

As a responsible guardian, you are under obligation to teach your dog to respect both your own and other children. Since dogs commonly use biting as a form of correcting young pups and keeping them in line, you must be sure that your dog understands the "pecking order," and knows that children are above them in rank. Likewise, teach your children to handle your dog with care and respect, and as soon as they are able, encourage them to assume a dominant role by directing the dog with appropriate commands to reinforce their status.

Summary

Our dogs provide us with companionship, joy and comfort and accept us as we are. They are social animals that we have brought into our lives, expecting them to adapt to our environment, our needs, and our comings and goings. The responsibility we bear as their caretakers is to recognize their social nature, assume our roles as their leaders, and teach them how to be comfortable in our human world. That means socializing our dogs and providing boundaries and guidelines so that they can live in harmony with both humans and other canines.
With your help, your dog can learn to discriminate between acceptable and unacceptable behaviors and become a good canine citizen in your home and out in the world.

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The articles and information in the Holistic Healthcare Library are presented for informational purposes only and are not intended as an endorsement of any product. The information is not intended to be a substitute for visits to your local veterinarian. Instead, the content offers the reader information and opinions written by our staff, guest authors, and/or veterinarians concerning animal health issues and animal care products.

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