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Biting (including nipping and playbiting)


Puppies should always be taught bite inhibition from their first interaction with you, it's so important for their future. Some people play games with their dogs which involve letting their dogs bite them, though not hard, but there are good reasons for discouraging dogs from using their teeth on humans in any way, including mouthing and nipping. A dog that bites strangers may have to be put down, and dogs can and do hurt people by biting them. This is especially true for children, who can be hurt by a bite that an adult might hardly feel.Pups do need to learn not to bite hard, and to do this they need to be allowed to bite, but they can do this with other dogs, rather than with people. It makes sense not to allow any playbiting, mouthing, nipping or snapping, and never, ever, let anyone roughhouse your pup and encourage him to playbite. It's easier to prevent playbiting than to cure it once it has become a habit.

Some people suggest saying 'Ow' and ignoring the pup after a bite, but this often doesn't work. A method than has been extremely effective with many pups is simply blowing a raspberry when they are having a relaxed chew of your hand. Make sure you do this in a gentle, low key way. Have pup close while you are sitting, pup starts to chew, you blow a very gentle raspberry in the pup's face. The pup stops, tries again, you blow another raspberry. The pup will usually then lick you. Give long, firm, calming strokes to show you are friends with the pup, and to reward him for the licks. Licks are much better than bites, because they show deference. Don't try blowing loud farty raspberries with a manic pup, or you'll probably just encourage more wild behaviour, do this when pup is relatively calm and just having a reflective chew of your person.

Pups do need to chew, so give him something more acceptable to chew than a human. They also like to engage in pretend chases and kills. Running will tend to encourage playbiting, because the pup may see your ankles, or shoelaces as prey, so move your hands and feet slowly if he's in this mood, or focus his attention on something else. A game with a permissible biting object, like a tug, that he can chase and 'kill', channels the same prey instincts away from humans. If you teach the pup to 'drop' the tug, then throw it as a reward for the drop, this teaches the pup some self-control, and if he brings it back to you for more, the game also teaches him to co-operate with you. Some pups have a manic moment at a particular time of the day, and that's when they can get overexcited and playbite, so anticipate this, and give your pup a tug game, a game of hide and seek, or a 'hunt the titbit' game to occupy him in a more productive way.

Risks to strangers

Bites inflicted on strangers are more serious than those inflicted on you, after all, you chose to have a dog. Prevention is much better than cure - you may not get a chance to cure a dog if the police are involved. Socialize your dog with people of all kinds, including delivery people. Regular delivery people may be prepared to throw titbits at him from a safe distance, so he makes friends with them. Don't let pups run free and bark at strangers, or they may get kicked and start biting to defend themselves. Make sure your dog is always supervised when he is outside, or that the garden is secure and locked, so no stranger can enter, or poke their fingers in. Keep the dog secure, eg on the lead when strangers are about, if there's any risk of his biting.

Dogs may nip children who tease them, or just stress them out too much, or adults they see as threatening. Protect the dog from badly behaved children, and make sure he always has an escape route from them. Most dogs will back off from badly behaved children, and if they can't back off, they may feel they have no option but to defend themselves. Socialise your dog with adults, and protect both children and adults from him. A solid recall is also important, because you can call him out of trouble.

Some reasons why dogs may bite

Dogs may try to bite their owners to retain a 'stolen' or found object. See Possessiveness on suggestions to deal with resource guarding. An adult dog that bites to prevent an owner from sitting on a couch or going past in a passage represents a serious threat. You can train 'off' or tell the dog to move along the passage, but you also need help from a professional who can teach you how to do this.

Dogs may also bite simply because they are overexcited. Always to get your dog to sit before you throw a ball as they will often jump to get at the ball, and nip, and can even break the skin. This is especially important for children, since their skin damages easily. Handling dogs can get them overexcited and mouthy. This is especially true if they haven't been handled much, or have been handled in a way that winds them up. Long, firm strokes usually make dogs calmer. Many dogs like being stroked this way, but if dogs aren't used to it, they may start getting mouthy if you do it for too long. Keep sessions short, with a close eye on the dog's body language, and stop if the dog shows signs of being overexcited. Getting a dog used to being handled is best done when the dog is relaxed after a walk. If he gets overexcited while being handled, make sure that only sensible people handle him, and that they follow the rule of always stopping if he starts to get overexcited. If this is a persistent problem, or you've taken on an adult dog with little experience of being handled, and are not sure how to go about it, an experienced trainer can help.

Dogs may also bite out of fear, and panic bites tend to be more severe, because the dog has lost control. Very spooked dogs backed into a corner may well bite, so putting a hand near them is making the situation escalate. Dogs are less frightened if you squat at their level and talk to them gently, than if you tower over them, though a very spooked dog is best left in peace to recover some self-control. Over the long term, teach the dog to trust you.

Biting may be a reaction to pain, which may make the dog irritable, or there may be a sore spot that you unwittingly touch. A vet check is important if your dog suddenly starts to bite. Brain tumours and other medical conditions can change a dog's behaviour. Any dog that has bitten a human should be muzzled when being seen by a vet.

Dogs and children

The consequences of bites are more serious when children are bitten, and because children are often the same height as the dog, they are more likely to be bitten on the face, while adults are more likely to have their hands bitten. Some dogs are clearly a risk to children, even ones they know, especially young dogs likely to get overexcited, and dogs unused to children or unused to being handled, who may panic. Just because a dog behaves well with adults is no guarantee that the dog will behave well with kids, who can be quite scary for dogs. There are bullet-proof dogs who can cope with just about anything that kids can do, but most dogs benefit from supervision when kids are around. Kids can do things to dogs that are clearly not sensible, like suddenly bending over and kissing them, hugging them tightly, grabbing them by their collars or ears or tail, or grabbing objects they are chewing ... Some kids are clearly a risk to dogs, especially kids who pay no attention to adults telling them how to behave with dogs, and who like winding dogs up. Very young children of course need to be supervised for their own protection. 

Assessing dogs that bite

Dog bites can vary in severity from a gentle nip that doesn't break the skin, to a hard bite that causes serious injury. However, the severity of the injury isn't the only issue, it's also important to work out how easy it is to avoid future bites, and to prevent problems from escalating. A dog may bite out of panic to escape from someone who seems dangerous, especially a dog unused to much handling who is grabbed by someone they don't know well, or a dog tied up that can't escape from a stranger who wants to pet the dog. Yet the same dog can be safe around sensible people, being too timid to go up to people unless they are trustworthy. What may be more risky is a dog capable of going up to strangers and nipping them, even if the nip causes no damage.

You do need to have your dog assessed by a professional if he bites. Find someone you can trust who has a good track record in tackling this problem. At minor levels, such as persistent playbiting, threats using air snapping, or nipping of trouser legs, help early on can prevent the problem escalating. Training can help a lot, combined with ensuring that a dog isn't put in risky situations, such as being in an enclosed room with unruly children, but there is no guarantee that a dog will never bite again. Furthermore, some dogs, such as those which inflict unpredictable, severe bites on a human body or face, are not suitable as pets. However, many dogs can be taught to co-operate over giving up objects, or being subjected to intrusive handling, making it much less likely that they will bite in the future. This is best done with the help of a very experienced trainer who understands dog behaviour, or a behaviourist. A vet check is essential if you see a trainer, in case the problem is medical.