To Bite or Not to Bite

by Roger Hild - Tsuro Dog Training

 

The dog's mouth is an incredible instrument that he uses in many ways and for a variety of reasons. Like any instrument, the more one practices with it, the more proficient one becomes in its use. It would be presumptuous and arrogant to suggest that dogs that bite haven't been taught bite inhibition. Put another way, teaching bite inhibition will not necessarily prevent dogs from biting. Dogs are pretty much the expert on how, why and when they will use their own mouths.

Hunters have long recognized a genetic component to bite inhibition, and have always selected for a "soft" mouth. This selection combined with appropriate training made for an ideal hunting companion in the field. Similarly, the shepherd selected herding dogs that used their mouths in a manner that, once trained, would make them useful with the stock.

A quick web search on "bite inhibition" produced many references, the vast majority of which (from the top of the list) related to Dr. Ian Dunbar's philosophy and his "ouch" technique. His method was intended to provide feedback to the dog with respect to how it is using its mouth, the impact it is having on the one being chewed, and to condition him to use it differently. This technique is built on "conditioning" theory (something that I am usually less than enthusiastic about).

Conditioning theory would hold that the bite is a learned/conditioned response to certain stimuli. Working from that theory then, the goal of the technique is to condition an inhibited bite response, through a four-step process:

  1. No hard bites
  2. No pressure at all
  3. Mouthing is OK until told to stop
  4. Dogs may never initiate mouthing

It is hoped that once a dog is so conditioned, he will respond to bite-eliciting-stimuli in the reverse order i.e. wouldn't use his mouth — but if he did it would be brief and soft or inhibited.

I do find the process valuable as a feedback tool and therefore I include it as part of a training program for owners with new puppies. Many times with a puppy the biting/mouthing is interactive rather than reflexive. Within the family context, bite inhibition training helps define some rules as to how the dog can use his mouth and has proven helpful in teaching young dogs what I will allow and what I will not tolerate. I do find there are some shortfalls in the technique as described by Dunbar — the most noticeable being the time-outs are inadequate for stopping the behavior in some dogs. Some dogs require a stronger aversive in order help inhibit and ultimately stop the biting.

A mistaken belief seems to have evolved that if bite inhibition has been sufficiently conditioned the dog will not bite or at worst will display only a soft mouth. Unfortunately, this simply isn't the case. Personally, I don't think this process adequately addresses the cognitive element — the choice and intention to bite — or the fact that many bites are not simple 'stimulus-response' learned behaviors. It is quite likely that many bites are internally motivated and are more likely related to sources such as an emotional state, a drive or as part of an interpretive process related to an external event.

In collecting my thoughts on this subject, it became necessary to revisit Dunbar's observations and hypothesis. He was looking at the young dog within a defined social setting (a pack of some sort) and looking to apply similar rules to a family setting. Watching the dog's interactions with other dogs, it becomes evident the dog uses his mouth a lot and receives a lot of feedback. This learning seems specific to each member of that pack and is not a generalized response. The young dog seems to learn the level of tolerance for each pack member and will bite some harder than others and some he won't bite at all. This response is not truly inhibited or static, even towards dogs he interacts regularly with, and in a dispute he sometimes responds with a much harder mouth. Bite inhibition training is useful then, in those instances where the goal is to teach the dog to inhibit in accordance with his intentions. It was not suggested as a means to get the dog to respond, in an inhibited manner, when the intention is defense, to inflict injury or kill.

One of the things that really concerns me is the willingness to make prognostications about a dogs rehab ability or trainability, based solely on some vague notions about the dog's bite inhibition. The fact is there are many dogs, condemned to die because of such a prognosis, alive today because they benefited from a second opinion and a more effective, balanced training approach. Of far more value is an assessment that determines under what circumstances the dog is willing to bite. As an example, maybe the dog is very tolerant of handling, tolerates strangers etc. but this all changes around food where the dog will bite.

In order to understand what can provoke the dog to bite, a carefully taken history combined with observation under a variety of circumstances is indicated. Initially those circumstances are avoided and a training approach is undertaken to establish structure and leadership while promoting pack harmony. As leadership is established, further assessments should indicate better control and deference to the leader's judgment. Interestingly enough, once this relationship has been established the trainer often discovers that the dog's motivation to bite has been greatly reduced or eliminated. With the motivation to bite gone, the trainer will likely discover the dog does in fact have good bite inhibition.


Reproduced with permission from the author, Roger Hild, Tsuro Dog Training