Anyone who has a puppy seems to be aware they need to teach their puppy "bite inhibition". This is a widely acknowledged theory that says puppies have very sharp teeth because they have weak jaws and during this early stage, they need to learn that biting hurts. The recipient puppy squeals and the biting stops. Ultimately, this is said to develop good bite inhibition. The puppy softens his bite so he can continue to engage with other puppies. In other words, if they need to bite as an adult, they won't cause injury.
I have long questioned the advice to squeak if your puppy bites because, in my experience, this causes the puppy to go into an excited biting frenzy. The only way it actually works is to scream really loudly, and then this interrupts the puppy because it gets startled. However, after a few times of hearing the yell, most puppies just ignore it and carry on biting! The ones that it stops permanently probably already have - or go on to develop - fears of loud noises. Not good.
If this is the case, how is it that dogs can still cause injury when they bite despite attending good training classes teaching this theory. Also why is it that even though raised with litter mates, some dogs still go on to bite hard? Theoretically, they all had the correct education, and yet, they can still deliver damaging bites.
I started thinking about this a bit more after attending a webinar by the amazing Sarah Whitehead, owner of the Clever Dog Company. Sarah and her team researched this theory and studied many litters. What they found after studying many hundreds of puppies was that NOT ONCE did a squealing puppy cause the biting behaviour of the biter to stop. Not once!
In my experience, how damaging a bite is depends on the emotional state of the dog at the time of the bite, and is regardless of how well the dog was socialised as a puppy or how much the owner tried to teach their dog bite inhibition.
I must emphasise, I DO NOT KNOW THIS FOR SURE because, as far as I have been able to find, there is no peer reviewed scientific study on this subject.
We do know the following:
Scary or painful punishment increases the risks that a dog will bite. There is much research supporting this.
In my experience, the following also affects how hard a puppy or dog is going to bite:
1) Arousal level. If the puppy is highly excited, frustrated or angry, they bite down harder. I have experienced this in training dogs and noticed that excitement or frustration increases how hard their mouth is when taking treats. This quickly reverts to a softer mouth when you address the training context to reduce excitement or frustration.
2) If a dog is afraid and is unable to run away, they can bite hard. They have no choice. I am assuming that the tension around the jaw that would occur during this strong emotional state is why they bite harder. Also, perhaps there is an element of anger that they cannot escape. Think about how you behave when you are angry. Imagine two teenagers play fighting. Then one gets hurt. What happens next? They become angry and start hitting harder. It's not play any more, it's anger. People hit each other harder when they are angry. Perhaps they also hit harder when they feel they cannot escape so try to do more damage to the assaulting party so they can escape. Could this motivation also apply to dogs? I'm pretty sure it can, but I don't KNOW this for sure.
3) Don't play too roughly with your puppy so that they have to increase their bite strength. If you play too roughly, they can become over stimulated or cross and then bite hard. Do not let your puppy learn it is OK to bite you! Practice makes perfect.
4) Make sure you let your puppy have a good sleep routine. Pups should have 1.5 hours sleep followed by 1.5 hours of being awake throughout the day. This is a good suggestion and has helped many of my clients. Regulate the puppy's energy budget and they find it easier not to get over aroused. By alternating between sleep and gentle activities, pups don't get under stimulated and bored either. Sleep is important for many things and can certainly help reduce bitiness and helps soften the bite by reducing arousal levels.
5) Puppies need down time. They need to learn to be calm among all the other important things they are learning at this stage, don't forget this bit.
5) Some of the worse bites I have come across involved predation. The dog meant to kill the target and was just following a job description. There is low arousal in these bites but the dog intends to kill the target so the bite is hard and damaging and often includes shaking the target in the mouth. It is probably the shake that causes death, or the target location of the bite (throat). This behaviour would not be modifiable. A predating dog would not use a soft mouth.
If you were expecting answers, sorry to disappoint, I don't know. But personally, I do not believe that dogs ACQUIRE bite inhibition from us. Don't get me wrong, dogs clearly do acquire bite inhibition, or are born with it. There may be genetic elements as some studies have found lack of bite inhibition to run in lines - but could this be due to emotional arousal rather than bite inhibition per se? Look at the way dogs jaw spar with each other. If they didn't have bite inhibition, they would harm each other. Social species do not try to hurt each other unless resolving conflict; then they go to great length to use threat signals rather than actually use aggression. I'm not questioning whether dogs inhibit their bites, I'm questioning whether we humans have a role to play in teaching dogs to have bite inhibition.
Letting people believe they can proof their dog against damaging future bites if they teach bite "inhibition" is, I feel risky. People may take greater risks with their dog in the belief that their dog could never bite hard because they taught the dog to have a soft bite. I think the best way of ensuring your dog does not deliver a hard and damaging bite is to do the following:
1) Don't use methods that make your dog afraid or angry. They are likely to bite hard if they feel they need to defend themselves.
2) Live with your dog in a way that ensures they don't become over aroused. Manage their expectations, treat them fairly, set boundaries, make sure they know what is expected of them. Let them have freedom to be dogs and let them have a happy and enjoyable life. This would ensure arousal levels remain reasonably low. Socialise them carefully and properly so they are not afraid of other dogs and people etc.
3) Expose predatory breeds to other creatures from a safe (far off) distance from the earliest age possible. If you haven't been able to do this much before 12 weeks old, then it is probably better not to. By then it is probably too late. No I don't mean socialise your dogs with rabbits, non resident cats, sheep etc. This is not possible nor is it ethical as this could trigger predation and would cause stress to the other animals who may perceive dogs as predators. But ensuring your dog sees these creatures from a distance from which they are not triggered to chase and educated to calmly ignore them, should help to reduce the risk they would later predate. Continuing to ensure you have your dog under good control (or for livestock - on a lead) around other animals for life is really important. Predation is something that can lie dormant and be activated suddenly when the perfect storm occurs. Never assume your dog will not predate. Any dog and any breed could be triggered to predate given the right circumstances.
This article is to provide food for thought. I don't know the answers, but in the absence of any robust scientific evidence that states dogs acquire bite inhibition, I'm going to challenge this theory as it really doesn't make sense to me. Any dog can bite hard if in pain, scared or subjected to a series of triggers that create the perfect storm and we should not let people believe otherwise.
If anyone has any scientific evidence, I would love to hear about it.
This information is not designed to be prescriptive nor provide advice regarding any dog I have not seen for training and behaviour counselling. I take no responsibility for actions taken in response to this article. This article should not be used as a substitute for professional advice.
Denise Nuttall B.Sc (Hons), M. Res