During this year’s World Cup, the Uruguayan soccer player Luis Suarez took a bite out of the Italian defender Giorgio Chiellini’s shoulder towards the end of a match between the two countries. Suarez’s chomp was unprovoked and caused a split reaction from the globe’s armchair pundits: Half of them mocked little Luis’s bite on social media, while others labeled him an animal possessed with the sort of base instincts that have no place in the sporting arena.
With this being the third time Suarez has bitten a soccer player, it got me thinking: If he’s prone to behavior befitting of an animal, could a professional dog trainer recommend canine techniques to curb his instincts? Handily, my editors at Dogster HQ pointed me in the way of Annie Phenix, CPDT-KA, who as a former soccer player herself was happy to muse on Luiz’s chompings.
Annie explained that dogs usually learn “bite inhibition” from their mother and siblings, and that they can also “learn it as young puppies when they puppy-nip their humans and are shown that it hurts by various methods, including yipping in a high pitch yelp or simply by standing up and walking away from the little biter for a short timeout.”
Without being able to confer with Mama Suarez, it seems this early inhibiting stage passed Luis by. Also, his bitten opponents have acted with great restraint, so it seems he’d prove impervious to the effects of someone simply walking away from his dark deed. That being so, I moved on to asking Annie how you’d deal with a dog who proves resistant to the first-wave of non-biting training techniques.
Annie burst into life: “Puppies are so easy to train! If a human can’t demonstrate without harming the puppy that their sharp little teeth hurt, they need to find a force-free trainer to help them communicate with their dog. In no circumstances should owners be throwing the dog or puppy on his back to prove to him who is boss. That just scares the dogs and it confirms for him that you are crazy and quite untrustworthy.”
It seems Luis Suarez actually has been subjected to lavish doses of force-free training — and subsequently exploited the leniency. After reviewing Suarez’s bite at the World Cup, the sport’s governing body, FIFA, handed down a mild punishment: A nine-game ban from playing for Uruguay and a four-month ban from all footballing activity (which helpfully includes the next couple of months when he’ll be on his summer holidays).
In the aftermath, Suarez also seems to have finagled the situation to push through a reported $100 million transfer from his club team Liverpool to Barcelona. This amounts to less a punishment as Christmas come early. So I asked Annie how the idea of using treats to reinforce behavior would factor into the situation.
Annie responded by saying, “There is a very true statement in dog training: ‘You get what you reinforce.'”
So giving a cookie to little Fido immediately after a nip is reinforcing a nip. Instead, use a very brief pause (three to five seconds) when the puppy bites too hard, or better yet redirect those nips onto something he can bite hard on, such as a quality chew stick.” Insert joke about Suarez playing with a chew stick in his mouth. (To be fair, one of the less wacky suggestions has been for him to be mandated to play with a mouth guard at all times.)
With Suarez seeming immune to traditional dog-training techniques, I decided to delve into psychological waters. The main theory attempting to rationalize Suarez’s errant behavior links back to his upbringing: The wonky lore goes that while growing up in the rough and tumble barrios of Salto, he was forced to learn the ways of the trickster in order to survive, both on and off the soccer pitch. So when he acts out during a game, he’s simply reverting to his roots.
I asked Annie about issues that may affect feral dogs. “We know that all of a dog’s most important life socialization takes places by the time they are 16 weeks old,” she said. “So those first four months are critical for learning about their world.
“We can slowly with behavior modification help many dogs who were not properly socialized during that critical time,” she added, “but we are playing catch up, and sometimes the dogs never do catch up.”
Whether or not Suarez is capable of catching up, the feral defense doesn’t convince: As a generalization, most football players grew up poor and and learned the game in raggedy areas. But most football players don’t bite people. Maybe because if you bit someone in any game of street soccer you’d receive a swift punch to the chops for your troubles — and quickly learn to never exercise your gnashers again.
At this point, most common dog training techniques seem like they’d wash over Luis Suarez’s head. So I decided to introduce a wildcard into the socialization of Suarez and ask Annie whether adopting a dog might actually help Luis curb his own biting instincts. And if so, what breed would be most soothing for the modern snap-happy footballer?
Annie wasn’t having any of it. “I would worry that Mr. Biter Suarez would not be a good dog owner as he clearly has impulse control issues of his own, and I worry he would use his chompers on a dog as well,” she shot back. Annie then recommended that Suarez needs to play with a muzzle, take anger management classes, and ultimately needs to be retired to “a farm far, far away from other humans.”
I didn’t get to quip whether euthanasia would be another option.
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About Phillip Mlynar: The self-appointed world’s foremost expert on rappers’ cats. When not penning posts on rap music, he can be found building DIY cat towers for his adopted domestic shorthair, Mimosa, and collecting Le Creuset cookware (in red). He has also invented cat sushi, but it’s not quite what you think it is.