11 min

How To Nip Dog Biting In The Bud

Does your dog bite? Learn what causes dog biting, how to prevent it, and how to reduce the frequency of dog buti

Courtney Elliott

Updated April 06, 2023 • Published April 04, 2023

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How To Nip Dog Biting In The Bud

Having a dog that bites can be stressful, especially if you don't know what triggers it. Whether it's simple puppy nipping or reactive biting, it's important to understand why dogs bite so we can implement training methods that decrease the number of bite incidents.

We spoke with behavioral veterinarian Dr. Vanessa Spano to understand why dogs bite, how to reduce the frequency of biting, and how to react if your dog bites you.

Why do dogs bite?

Biting is a part of the canine behavioral repertoire, and as such, it can never be eliminated, although there are ways to try to reduce the frequency and intensity. 

"Biting can be indicative of multiple underlying motivations, including fear, feeling territorial or protective (of a particular companion or resource), play (often inappropriately), impulse control, attention-seeking, and predatory, amongst others," says Dr. Spano. "It is not unusual for the motivation to be multifactorial, especially in anxious patients."

Types of dog biting behavior

There are different bite level scales that have been published by experts like Sophia Yin and Ian Dunbar. A low bite level can include snapping of the mouth towards a target, such as an individual, but not touching or breaking skin, while the most intense bite level can result unfortunately in death of the victim. 

There is also "mouthing" behavior, as dogs may exhibit oral exploration of a target.

"Mouthing is often seen during play and attention-seeking behavior, however it is usually problematic and unfortunately, inadvertently encouraged during early socialization when pet parents play inappropriately with puppies' mouths, using their fingers or limbs instead of a more appropriate outlet, like a toy," explains Dr. Spano.

During the critical period of socialization, a puppy should learn appropriate bite inhibition during play. 

How to stop dog biting

Biting is part of canine behavior, so nothing will ever take away the risk of a dog biting.

"Asking a dog to never bite again is like asking a person to never yell or be anxious again," explains Dr. Spano. "I am not saying that makes biting okay; it does not. Often times, biting is unfortunately dangerous. But any trainer or individual that promises a program where he/she will teach your dog to never ever bite again is lying and leads to unsatisfactory results, which further worsens the welfare of the dog. Expectations from the pet parent must be appropriate from the beginning in order to set the family up for success." 

It's rare that a dog will bite unprovoked, and it can be very easy to miss the warning signs that a dog is going to bite.

"Much of the public does not understand dog body language..."

"Much of the public does not understand dog body language, and so more subtle signs of fear, territorial concerns, and anxiety that are 'warning' signs are often being exhibited by the dog—they just go unrecognized by the pet parent," says Dr. Spano.

If biting is a manifestation of underlying fearful concerns, Dr. Spano notes that early warning signs include yawning, lip licking, whites of the eyes ("whale eyes" or "side eye"), holding a forepaw up, tucked tail, backing away, piloerection (or "hackles" going up), barking, growling, snarling, and lunging.

"It is possible that a dog may bite without many of these warning signs, but that is often due either to a history of punishment-based training—for example, they were 'shocked' or 'pronged' out of earlier warning signs and are now too afraid to exhibit those warning signs out of fear of experiencing an unpleasant sensation—or because they did exhibit those warning signs much earlier on but they went ignored," says Dr. Spano.

The best thing to do is prevent and identify triggers. Here are a few examples that Dr. Spano provides:

  • If a dog is territorial, decrease liability by putting him away when guests are present or not having guests over.

  • If a dog bites when being touched, don't touch him.

  • If a dog bites when he has a resource he is protecting, prevent him from gaining access to that resource; if that is impossible and the resource is not dangerous to the dog, don't take away the item. "This is not 'giving into' the dog," says Dr. Spano. "This is simply not allowing the dog to rehearse aggressive behavior, making him believe that he needs to become more and more aggressive in order to prevent something from happening that he doesn't like."

Dr. Spano explains that the most reinforcing thing a dog can do to get someone or something away from them is to bite.

"Don't put them in a situation where they will continue to practice that they need to bite in order to get their point across," notes Dr. Spano. "If for some reason this is impossible, not only should the dog be carefully desensitized and counter-conditioned to wearing a muzzle by an appropriate trainer, but you should also seek consult with a veterinary behaviorist." 

How to react if your dog bites you

In the immediate, do not yell, reprimand, or punish the dog—especially if there are impulse control concerns, this will actually worsen the issue.

"The more intensely you react, the more intensely the dog may react back."

"The more intensely you react, the more intensely the dog may react back," says Dr. Spano.

Get out of the room as soon as possible and shut the door behind you to allow the dog time and space away to decompress. Keep towels and blankets easily accessible around the home in case the dog doesn't let go or is lunging for you—you can toss the towel over the dog and get away. Most importantly, the victim should seek medical care and the pet parent should consult with their veterinarian and a veterinary behavior specialist. 

How to prevent dog biting

While there are ways to decrease the likelihood of biting, there is no surefire way to guarantee biting won't ever happen. Here are some quick dog biting prevention tips from Dr. Spano:

  • From puppyhood, do not play with your puppy's mouth; instead, provide appropriate outlets like chew toys and puzzle feeders. 

  • Pet parents should receive education using scientifically-sound dog body language so early warning signs are recognized. Do not allow your dog to get to the point where he is so fearful that he feels the need to bite in order to get his point across. If the dog is exhibiting earlier, non-injurious warning signs, reinforce the dog for exhibiting these signs by identifying the trigger, taking the dog away from the trigger, and not exposing the dog to the trigger in the near future. 

  • Ask your veterinarian about an appropriate behavioral trainer or veterinary behaviorist to work on a behavior modification protocol so that your dog can learn appropriate coping mechanisms when anxious and set up a safety and management plan. 

  • Dogs with an underlying, genetic anxiety disorder will be more likely to bite in the future, so recognizing the early signs of anxiety from the get-go and setting them up with an appropriate psychological plan moving forward are imperative. The appropriate trainer is like the psychoanalyst—there to help manage the behavior and teach coping mechanisms. The veterinary behaviorist is like the psychiatrist—there to diagnose, formulate a plan, and consider pharmaceuticals if indicated. 

If your dog bites, your first step should always be your veterinarian. A veterinarian can help point the pet parent towards veterinary behaviorists (educated under the American College of Veterinary Behavior [ACVB]) and behavioral therapists who know what they're doing, including those educated in learning theory, applied behavior analysis, and positive reinforcement. Credentials such as CPDT-KA, CDBC, and IAABC-ADT are good things to look for. 

"Sadly, some of the most severe cases of aggression or learned helplessness I've seen are from dogs who have been trained by 'balanced trainers' (who engage in both punishment-based training and positive reinforcement), and from trainers who engage in unethical techniques including shock collars, prong collars, leash popping, alpha rolling, kneeing, and hitting, amongst others," says Dr. Spano. "Trust your gut. If you are in a session with an individual employing such techniques, ask yourself 'would I allow my child to endure this type of therapy (training)?'"

If you have questions about your dog's behavior or want to better understand next steps, reach out to the experts at Pawp—we're here to help 24/7.

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