Q: What can I do to make my dog stop biting the heck out of me?
A: This is a common question of many dog owners.
All dog biting springs from the same source rooted deep in canine behavior. To answer the question properly, I divide the people asking into three categories according to the age of their dogs. Methods of correcting this problem differ if the dog is a young puppy, around a year old adult (teenager), or a two-to-four year old adult. Beyond the age of four years old, most dogs who have viciously bitten someone have been euthanized or otherwise disposed of.
Biting is very basic canine dominance behavior used from the time a puppy is able to move around in its litter. Biting among wild and domestic canines is used as communication to establish standing within the pack. This pack may be an extended family of wild canines, a litter of puppies with its mother, or your pet dog intermingling with your family. Dogs live so well with humans because they regard all the members of your family as fellow pack members.
If the biting dog is a puppy under six months old, the biting is very correctable. Pups this young rarely bite hard enough to break skin, and many people start out thinking their new pup is simply playing. Your young pup may or may not have risen to the status of pack leader within its litter of puppies. Moving into your house, the pup is introduced into a new pack and is unsure of his ranking within the group. No matter the reason for biting, young pups should never be allowed to playfully use their teeth on human skin.
There are hundreds of tapes and books available on how to train your dog. While tapes and books are a start, there is no substitute for face to face sessions with a qualified obedience instructor. Puppy kindergarten and basic dog obedience are good classes to take. Professional trainers can not only answer the question of why the pup is biting but can show you how to use various exercises to communicate to the new pup that the people rank above it in the pack. Most of these exercises mimic the way your pup was disciplined by his mother and other litter members. Performing these exercises tells your pup that you are the leader in a manner well understood by dogs. A good trainer will also go over small changes you should make in your everyday life. These changes may mean little to you, but to a dog they govern every aspect of life. Establishing a correct relationship between a pup and its human family will lead to years of enjoyment of each other’s companionship.
A list of Dog Owner's Guide training articles is available in the Manners and training section.
Older puppies (around a year old) who have intimidated their owners through their early puppy months will progress to what most refer to as “play biting.” By this stage, the biting no longer looks like a cute puppy game; even if the dog is not breaking the skin, the problem is becoming serious. The dog is making it clear that, as far as he’s concerned, the owner is stepping out of line. However, with obedience training, and by learning to modify certain daily living behaviors, this is still quite correctable. A formal obedience class, with a qualified instructor, will teach you to substitute desirable behaviors for the dog’s aggression, and how to modify existing behaviors. Such seemingly unrelated things as the games you play with your dog, where your dog sleeps, and when he is fed may be contributing to the biting problem. Allowed to progress, play biting can become vicious biting.
Obedience training is the quickest way to overcome play biting. A dog that learns to obey commands begins to understand that he cannot bully people. Management of biting teenaged dogs includes many of the same or similar techniques that are used with puppies: sit before getting petted or eating; no freedom to roam the house unattended until he learns to come when called; use of a crate for time-outs and when he cannot be supervised; no games (tug-of-war especially) where he wins; and no sleeping in a family-member’s bed.
(More on obedience training)
This is the category where you hear on the news about a dog who “turned on his master.” In reality, the owner was never the master; and the problem did not develop over night. These dogs have gradually reached the status of pack leader. In the dog’s eyes he owns the house, and all the possessions within, and it is his responsibility to protect his pack. If they gave in to the younger dog’s play bites and stopped doing obedience or grooming because the dog didn’t like it, the humans in the family may be demoted to subordinate pack members.
Dogs who achieve pack leadership will relish an opportunity to bite, drawing blood if necessary, if they perceive a human as getting out of line. Dogs who have reached this stage are dangerous and a liability suit waiting to happen. Most of these dogs end up euthanized or given away (to a good home); in the latter case, the problem is passed on to an unwitting new owner.
All is not lost, and dogs who reach this stage can be corrected. A qualified obedience instructor or dog behaviorist must intervene. The humans in the family must adopt a new regimen of behaviors to interact with the dog. The professional’s suggestions must be followed to the letter, because there is little margin for error. This modification period is usually more hard work than the humans care to undertake, and Fido will find the process unpleasant too. Special considerations must also be taken during the retraining, to confine Fido to prevent him from seriously biting someone. The family must also understand that the changes in day-to-day living with Fido apply for the rest of his life.
Yes, dogs bite, and for good dog reasons. Correcting the problem early, learning to communicate, and establishing a proper relationship will prevent heartache later.
This page is a part of the Dog Owner's Guide internet website and is copyright 2021 by Canis Major Publications. You may print or download this material for non-commercial personal or school educational use. All other rights reserved. If you, your organization or business would like to reprint our articles in a newsletter or distribute them free of charge as an educational handout please see our reprint policy.
We will be modifying the Dog Owner's Guide site with new and updated articles in 2021 as well as new booklists so check back often to see what's new!