One of the things I love the most about my beloved Rottweiler, Walker, is his very soft mouth. He is two years old now, so he only gets to use his mouth on humans when he’s been given the okay to do so. When this happens, you would think the boy has no teeth at all, because you can barely feel them.
This is not by accident, nor is it a genetic trait. Walker was trained as a puppy and an adolescent to control his jaw and be extremely careful with human skin. He also learned that when playing with other dogs, one should never bite down too hard or the other dog will yip, stop playing with you and perhaps give you a bit of a scary correction. This is called “bite inhibition.”
People often misunderstand bite inhibition or get it confused with “bite threshold.” The misunderstanding comes when they think inhibiting bites means not allowing a puppy to bite at all. Teaching bite inhibition is actually the exact opposite. The way to teach it is to allow, and even encourage the puppy to bite human hands frequently. This is the only way that we can give feedback and teach the puppy to bite softly.
Bite threshold is very different from bite inhibition. A dog’s bite threshold is a measure of what it takes, how much stress a dog will endure, before feeling the need to bite. To use human analogies, it is similar to how much stress or perceived threat a human could handle before resorting to physical violence. For some, being cut off in traffic is enough for them to reach for a gun. Others can take quite a lot of conflict without ever considering the use of physical force. Likewise, some dogs feel so threatened by the presence of a stranger, they will bite that stranger. Other dogs can endure severe physical abuse while never resorting to biting the perpetrator of that abuse. The point at which they decide to bite is the dog’s bite threshold.
Bite inhibition is about the pressure applied when the bite happens. A dog who has learned to play-bite softly is likely to do very little, if any, damage in the case of a real bite. And let’s be clear, “good” dogs may find themselves in situations where a real bite is, or at least seems, necessary — just as very good humans may find themselves in a situation where physical violence is the only way to defend oneself.
Think about this. You’ve got two dogs in the shelter (which is where a percentage of puppies will end up). One of them has bitten 10 people, but has never broken skin. All of the people this dog have bitten have walked away with nothing more than a bruise or less. The other dog has only bitten two people, but both of them ended up in the hospital with deep punctures, stitches and trauma. Which of these dogs will be safe and easy to adopt?
Imagine an owned dog who is left unsupervised with a child (it happens). The child is poking, prodding and pulling at the dog. The dog has nowhere to escape and has exhausted all warning attempts, so he bites the child. Given the sensitive nature of child skin, the child is left with a bruise. However, the child is not disfigured, in need of stitches or even bleeding.
Besides these high-end reasons for teaching bite inhibition, it’s simply nice to have a dog that you can play with safely and allow mouthing on cue without fear of being hurt. It’s also nice to have a dog who can play safely with other dogs and won’t do damage even if there is a doggy argument or all-out fight.
Bite inhibition is easy to teach, but to do it effectively it must be taught in the first five months of a dog’s life. We have to start in puppyhood, which is another reason that puppy classes are so important. We teach bite inhibition by allowing and encouraging puppies to bite our hands, but giving feedback when they bite too hard. This can be done by yipping like a hurt puppy, or simply saying, “OW!” We then stop moving and playing for just 30 seconds or so, resume playing and repeat as needed. As a puppy gets older, we respond to softer and softer bites. We want to make the puppy believe that we are highly sensitive beings who have to be treated very gently.
Puppies also learn to inhibit their bite by playing with other puppies. Other puppies will give the same feedback as I’ve described, and your pup will learn that they will get more play time if they are gentle with their friends. Older dogs might give a scarier correction for obnoxious puppy biting, and most pups will want to avoid that in the future.
As your puppy grows, around the age of five months, you should begin to respond negatively to all bites that were not initiated by a learned cue for mouthing. This means the dog will learn that mouth play is only allowed and pleasant when the owner says it’s okay to play that way. Even when given permission, feedback will be given, and the game will stop if any of the bites are too hard.
It was very important to me that Walker learn to control his mouth and only use it when given permission. Additionally, and perhaps sadly, it was important because of his breed. Should a 125-pound Rottweiler walk up to someone and playfully put his mouth on her hand, she could perceive this as being bitten. I had to be sure that Walker knew the cue for mouth play and that he used his mouth carefully. It’s also important that a dog this size is able to deliver a real bite, should he feel it necessary, without doing any damage. Can you imagine how scary my dog would be if he didn’t know how to control his mouth?
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About Cindy Bruckart: Nature-loving Oregonian who isn’t impressed with limits. Always willing to bite off more and worry about the chewing later. Farmer, writer, happy camper, dog trainer, and avid dark, twisty drama series watcher. Telling stories since she could talk, her childhood nickname was “Windy Cindy.”