Mouthing and nipping may be taken as normal behavior in a puppy, but when your grown dog carries on this way, you should take it as a sign that you need do something about it. A quick look at the statistics on dog biting in the US is quite sobering, enough to spur you into action if you have a troublesome canine with a biting problem.
Consider this: the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) reports that over 4.7 million dog-bite incidents happen annually in the United States, of which 0.8 million require medical attention, with almost half of the cases involving children.
What’s even more concerning is that most dog bites happen in situations where the victim is familiar with the dog (75% of dog bites occur on the owner’s property), making it all the more important to educate people – as well as children – on what to do to prevent getting bitten.
Table of Contents
- Why do dogs bite?
- Some of the reasons why dogs bite include:
- Practical examples to stop your dog from biting
- Other methods of curbing biting behavior
Why do dogs bite?
According to Dr. Sophia Yin an animal behaviorist, the most common reason why dogs bite is fear. She says:
“Generally, fearful dogs start off by trying to stay away from the things that scare them. But as they are confronted with scary situations repeatedly, they can learn that offense (barking, snapping, biting) is their best defence because it makes the scary people go away.”
You can tell when your dog is feeling threatened or anxious by reading his body language, which is quite different compared to when he’s mouthing, play biting or nipping. When a dog is fearful or anxious he will cow a little and pin his ears back. The fur along his back may stand up, and he may pant even when he’s not hot. Direct eye contact and baring of his teeth may be another sign that he’s about to bite, so you should be on the lookout these signals.
As a pet owner, you should be aware of any stimulus that may cause your dog anxiety. Your canine friend is likely to be nervous in new surroundings, around people he hasn’t met before, or for other reasons we shall look at more deeply.
Some of the reasons why dogs bite include:
The wrong kind of greeting
When people approach dogs they tend to make 2 basic mistakes: 1) they fail to recognize that the dog is afraid, and 2) they assume that the dog will automatically be friendly to them, and so they greet and interact with a strange dog in a way that makes him uncomfortable
When you see a dog you don’t know walking around the last thing you should do is walk up to him and put your hand out for him to lick and sniff at. If the dog is not well socialized he’ll interpret reaching out in this manner as an act of aggression.
Protection of the dog’s possessions
A nervous dog can bite anyone who comes close to its food, owner or favorite toy. Dogs tend to mark and protect their territory and are naturally possessive. One of the common signs of possessive behavior is food aggression, which makes the dog pose a threat even to the owner during meal times.
Protection of their young ones
A dog that has given birth to puppies can turn into a biter even if she’s well trained, so it’s always good to be sensitive to her maternal instincts. You should, therefore, exercise great caution when handling her puppies. Likewise, children should be warned against approaching newly-born puppies when they’re around their mother. Getting your dog and its litter somewhere to stay where it feels safe – with minimal noise and distractions – can take away the dog’s fear and need to bite.
Old and grumpy dogs
Older dogs, like older people, tend to get grumpier with age. Old dogs can, therefore, be irritable causing them to bite anyone who comes near. If a dog is blind or deaf from old age, he may be caught off guard by a passer-by and bite.
Lack of bite inhibition techniques
Puppies bite not out of malice, but because they haven’t learned bite inhibition – they can’t control the force of their mouths. Young dogs learn to use bite inhibition while playing with each other because excessive biting will usually be greeted with a yelp followed by interruption of play; so the if the dogs want play to continue, they learn soon enough that they have to keep their biting under control. Dog owners can give dogs toys to nibble at to teach them bite inhibition techniques.
The dog is sick or injured
Sick or injured dogs can bite as a reaction to the pain they’re experiencing. It is wise to handle your dog with extra care if he’s suffering from orthopedic or skin conditions which can cause him to be irritable. Other health complications like hormonal diseases can also create increased aggression around food, or increase your dog’s appetite making him more likely to bite during meal time.
Prey drive problem
Dogs are hunting animals which sometimes perceive people as their prey, the same way they view squirrels and other animals. When you’re jogging or cycling it’s always good to be on the lookout for dogs because you can trigger them to give chase when you run or cycle past them. If you ever find yourself in such a situation the best thing to do is to stop moving and stand tall as you face the dog. You will find that usually the dog will lose interest and move on after a few sniffs at your ankles. If the dog attacks the best thing is to curl up into a ball and protect your face and hands.
Practical examples to stop your dog from biting
As a pet owner, the last thing you want is your dog causing harm to someone else, which can lead to financial penalties or criminal lawsuits. You, therefore, need to be proactive in teaching your dog to control his biting behavior.
We’ve already seen in the article on Reinforcing Good Behavior in Your Dog how positive reinforcement can benefit your dog. When dealing with fear or aggression, dog specialists emphasize using 2 approaches which are anchored on positive reinforcement. These are:
- Desensitization and classical counterconditioning
- Use of appropriate replacement behaviors
Desensitization and classical counterconditioning (DS/CC)
Although the words may sound big, the idea behind this method is a simple 2 step procedure whereby:
- You expose your dog to whatever it is that induces fear (a person, or other stimuli) to the point where he no longer views the source of fear as a threat – you desensitize him.
- At the same time, you keep your dog in a happy state by including things the dog likes such as treats, toys and play during the exercise.
At the end of the day, you try to increase the level of stimulus – for example, the closeness of a stranger – as you continue to keep your dog’s emotions positive. Eventually, your dog learns to associate the stranger with good feelings.
In order to be successful, there are some vital elements that should not be left out.
- The stranger/visitor must stay below the threshold of scariness, by acting as if he’s not aware of the dog’s presence. He may do this by looking sideways, even as he gives the dog treats.
- Treating should happen at the same time the stranger/visitor stands close to the dog, and the treats should be given rapidly and then slowed down as your dog adjusts to this environment.
- The stranger/visitor must not move too quickly or suddenly as he might scare the dog
Use of appropriate replacement behaviors
The second way of changing your dog’s aggressive behavior is training him to carry out activities which run counter to his fearful displays – the appropriate replacement behaviors. The replacement behavior must be something he enjoys doing. For example, if he’s in an environment where he’s feeling threatened, such as a first time trip to the park, you engage him in games with his favorite chew toy (like in a tug of war game) and show him constant affection with treats and praises. This way your dog focuses on you the entire time, instead of barking or lunging at a stranger.
Avoid punishment when training your dog
Positive reinforcement is always preferred over punishment when training your dog because using a choke chain or electric collar only makes him associate pain with whatever it is you’re trying to get him to accept. As a result, your dog may learn to hide his fear so as to avoid punishment but may lapse into biting the next time he meets a stranger.
Other methods of curbing biting behavior
Food and toy aggression
When your dog’s biting is brought about by protectiveness over food or toys you need to start training him early by teaching him commands like “Leave it” for playthings. When it comes to food, teach him how to sit and wait while you put the food down for him. You can approach the food bowl from time to time and add treats as he eats just to show him that it’s okay when someone comes close to his bowl. It is also advisable to teach your kids not to bother the dog while he’s feeding.
Teach your dog bite inhibition
You can let your dog mouth on your hands as you play with him, and continue this way until he bites hard. Once he does this, give a yelp like a dog to let him know you’re hurt and let your hand go limp. He’ll be surprised by your reaction and will stop biting and probably lick you. If he doesn’t you can always shout “Leave it!” with a harsh voice. Once he obeys your command you should reward him and resume play. Repeat this process two more times and take a break. If this doesn’t work, use time outs in between the mouthing games.
Engage him in energy burning playtime
Sometimes a dog’s aggression is caused by pent up energy in confined spaces. The best remedy in such circumstances is getting your dog to burn energy and relieve stress. Exercising is three or four walks daily. You will realize that your dog is biting purely because they are bursting with steam and energy. Fortunately, there are several doggy day cares that you can take your dog to so they can be taken through exercises, in case you are busy.
Don’t play rough with your dog
Engage in noncontact games such as fetch with your dog, rather than wrestling which only encourages aggression. Playing tug of war is a good way of preparing him to manage his aggression and temptation to bite. But watch out when playing with tug toys, as you must be in full control of the situation at all times. Whenever his mouthing becomes excessive you should have a chew toy in hand and use it to redirect him away from your hands and other body parts.
Socialize your dog
Dogs are social animals who need regular contact with humans and other animals to overcome abnormal behavior like biting. Spending considerable time with your dog in the company of family members, friends, and other animals is a good way to build strong human- animal bonds especially when play is involved.
Identify other factors that create fear in your dog
It may very well be that your dog is not only fearful of people but of sounds as well. If you notice that he cowers, barks or runs in circles because of a loud noise or other distraction, you should take steps to calm him. If he is ruffled by loud sounds, he could also react fearfully when he meets strangers during a walk.
Get plenty of toys
If your dog likes gnawing on you, you can also get him different types of toys – especially chew toys made of rubber – to keep his mouth busy.
Get a dog specialist
If you feel you can’t handle your dog’s aggression, it’s always good to get professional help from a certified animal specialist who can train your dog to follow basic commands and control guarding behavior. You can also find out if his aggression is the result of a medical condition by consulting a qualified vet.