Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Dogs and their Teeth

Bite inhibition refers to the degree of pressure a dog applies when she wraps her teeth around someone. Evidently that is über-important, because having mouth control, or lacking it, makes the difference between no teeth marks, a slight bruise, or injury.
The common belief is that bite inhibition is set in young puppy hood, and although it is true that littermates stop playing, and elders reprimand when the little brute is rough with her teeth, it doesn’t mean that from then on, for her whole life, in every situation, the level with which she bites is invariable.
I argue that bite inhibition isn’t a constant, and only partly determined by early experiences. The other two factors are inherent disposition and intent.
By disposition I mean that cautious born dogs are naturally more careful what they do with their teeth than confident ones hardwired to taking risks.
By intent I mean that mouth pressure is very much under the dog’s deliberate control. For instance, a bite directed at someone - person, dog or cat - the dog has no social bond with, or is not dependent on, can be less inhibited because there is no need to keep that someone around, or alive. Let me give you an example.
Not long ago a client called me because her 95-pound pooch injured a person quite seriously. The victim was the owner’s business associate and not a complete stranger to the dog, but also not someone who appeared to be of any relevance. The owner purposely tried to instill a neutral association to people in general, and had asked everyone but close friends and family to follow the Dog Whisperer’s advice: no touch, no talk, no eye contact. The expectation was that the pooch would learn to perceive humans at large as irrelevant encounters and leave them alone. That approach was only somewhat successful because he remained alert, and occasionally barked and growled at one person or another, but never bit until the aforementioned business partner raised his arm; inadvertently, talking with his hands to add clarity to something he verbally explained. In a flash, the dog lunged up and inflicting a wound that required a good number of stitches.
I confess that, unlike some trainers, I do mind when a dog bites me. I feel just like the next person: it’s not pleasant and can put me out of working order for a while, and because I am tad obsessed with my work that is a big deal. Knowing the level of damage that dog had caused, I requested that he be leash-managed (not leash-corrected) and muzzled when I arrived for our appointment in the client’s home. When I entered, he seemed under physical control, but was hyperacutely aware of my presence and growled at my every move. “Seemed under physical control” might give you a hint what happened next. The owner, annoyed with his dog's behavior, yanked on the leash, which riled him up more and he lunged forward, and the person lost control. At the same time the ill-fitted muzzle came off. I spare you the details how I felt when the dog charged in my direction, but thankfully I wasn’t emotionally unstable for long cause he was more interested in sniffing my backpack on the floor than getting rid of me.
The panicked, and at the same time angered by his dog’s resistance and disobedience, owner caught up quickly and, before I had a chance to tell him to let his pooch sniff, grabbed him by his collar to pull him away, and he, objecting to that interruption, swung around and seized his arm - but didn’t clamp down. Not even a tooth mark. He didn’t injure on purpose, because the owner is a social group member and important for his survival. He means something, and the business partner didn’t and could, from the dog’s point of view, be harmed. Inhibition with one, but not the other, is intent rather than something born with or acquired as a pup.
Deliberate reserve was also the case with an owner-surrendered German shepherd I once assessed at a humane society. Calm and relaxed when I entered his run, his mood shifted instantly when I reached for his collar to clip the leash on. He jumped, took hold of my leash arm and tensely held a position of: paws on my chest, arm in his mouth, while directly staring at me. Although there was very little pressure, it was unmistakably a warning for me to stop what I was doing, and he did not release until I lured him back to the ground with a treat in my other hand. Why he didn’t bite harder still mystifies me, but perhaps he never had to make a stronger, clearer point because people heeded to his subtlety. Despite the lack of injury he was, in my opinion, a dangerous dog.
The argument that it is the degree of damage that distinguishes a safe dog from one who isn’t doesn’t fly with me. A dog who warns a lot is a risk. Of course, one who only bites once but sends his target to the hospital or vet clinic is more hazardous, but in a society that finds growling unacceptable, a dog who only intimidates or gets into minor scraps, but all the time, isn’t tolerated. There is more. Dogs that attack often typically have a heightened sensitivity, a strong startle reflex, and an overreaction to a wide variety of stimuli. Easily set off, they can be a challenge for the layowner. When pressured, the arousal level goes up, bite inhibition down, and a more serious bite incident might be just around the corner. The realistic outcome for a biting dog, regardless of inhibition, often is euthanasia - or worse a lonely life in a run somewhere, being physically abused, or being passed on from place to place to place.
I haven’t met a dog yet who hasn’t got any control over his mouth to a certain degree. A naturally hard dog can be gentle when it matters, and a soft biter can clamp down hard when overwhelmed with a situation. Anytime a dog’s teeth connect with a human or inflict injury to another dog, the owner should seek professional help, but not with the goal to learn how to punish harder than the dog can bite, but how to create the kind of environment that makes her feel like she doesn’t have to.
Aggression is never the cause, but always the symptom. The symptom that something in the dog’s life isn’t working for her. To investigate what it is that isn’t working, and to find solutions how it works better, is my idea of professional help. The dog trainer’s role should be to coach owners how to create an environment that is harmonious and rewarding for every member in the social group. Yup, that takes effort. It is much easier to hand the pooch over to someone who “fixes” the symptoms, like we might bring the car to the mechanic or laptop to the computer geek, than to address and change the cause(s) for aggression. Fortunately for dogs more people than you might think are up for the task. Sometimes we hold owners to a low standard – and we shouldn’t. I expect a lot from my clients, and am rarely disappointed. When they have the “tools” - in quotation marks because I am talking about a philosophy and lifestyle choice rather than certain kinds of collars, they apply and implement them.
Although every dog has the potential to bite, and will in a perfect storm situation, a safe (in the dog’s mind) environment, combined with specific training that teaches her alternate to biting behaviors when she’s charged up, communication between dog and owner that works, and savvy management, are the best insurance that she won’t become a liability.


  1. You raise really good points--I'm happy to read this discussion.

    The thoughts I've had on this subject have been prompted by my two most recent foster dogs, a pit bull mix and a white shepherd. The white shepherd, Lars, was shy and fearful and vigilant--as I understand applies to many of his breed--and bit my boyfriend quite severely (he did find a home that I consider to be a good and safe one for him).

    The pit bull mix is highly aroused, and mouthy, but when his mouth comes down it is like butter--all lips, no teeth. I really attribute that to his breed, though I don't know what specific training he got before he came to me..and I know there are some PBs that are not so soft-mouthed.

    Anyway, thanks for the great post!

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  3. An excellent read and article as usual. Your biggest fan. M.J.

  4. Thanks Kirsten and Mike.
    I agree that most Amstaff/Pits are super soft mouthed with people.
    Interestingly, many friendly Labs are not - dogs that should be soft enough to carry a bird without leaving bite marks.