Michael Baugh, CPDT-KA, CDBC
You don’t need a dog trainer to tell you this, but I will anyway. Getting bitten by a dog hurts, and putting the word “play” or “puppy” in front of it doesn’t make it hurt any less. It does, however, say a lot about the intention behind the bite. We sometimes call that the function of the bite. It’s basically what the dog is getting for his biting effort. Knowing that can help us stop the problem.
Dogs who bite out of anger or fear usually get relief when they bite. Whatever it was they were angry at or afraid of, goes away. If they were upset by an activity (being groomed for instance), the bite stops the activity at least for a little while. The function of biting is to stop something, or make something go away. These can be tricky cases for behavior consultants because part of the solution is to help the dog like the thing or activity that currently makes him bite. (More on that another time).
Dogs and puppies who bite while playing are trying to get something going. They don’t want you to go away; and they don’t want an activity to end. Instead, they want your attention, your full attention, now. The function of biting is to start something, or get something. It works too, doesn’t it? We may spend hours ignoring our dog, but the minute he grabs hold of our pant leg look what happens. He’s now the center of attention. We stop everything to attend to our little shark.
By the time I get called in on these cases, the dog in question is usually pretty good at getting people’s attention by biting. I like to look for what gets the dog started on his biting rampage. Sometimes it’s just the site of a person. Other times it’s a fun game that gets out of control. I also like to look at what happens immediately after the dog bites. Most of the time the dog gets a whole lot of attention. Remember, even scolding is attention. In either case, we’re actually teaching the dog to bite more.
What can we do about it? The answer is, a lot. First, steel up your nerves and take a deep breath. Biting in general is very impersonal. It’s just a behavior that yields a result. We can influence what starts the biting. If you know what activity gets your dog going, avoid it for the time being. (Example: if wrestling with your dog gets him started on biting, stop that activity). We also have control over many of the consequences of biting. If your dog is biting for attention, withhold that attention. I recommend taking the process a step further. The opposite of attention isn’t ignoring; it’s ending social contact altogether. Put the dog in his crate for a short time out. He’ll learn quickly that his teeth don’t get him what he wants, which is you.
We can and should also teach our dog good manners, proactively. We don’t want to spend our whole relationship with our dog reacting to his biting. Instead, show him what really gets your attention. In my household, sitting, attentive watching and coming when called get my attention every time. Tricks do too. I especially like it when my dog, Stella, rests her chin on my knee. Too cute. Shower your dog with attention for those good behaviors, and always be on the lookout for your dog doing something right.
(originally published in Houston Dog Blog)