How to Teach Your Dog Not to Bite
Concerned your canine friend might take a nip out of the neighbor? Sink your teeth into these tips
If your pet bites someone, it's not just painful for the victim; it's also expensive for the owner. Dog bites and other dog-related injuries accounted for more than a third of all homeowners insurance liability claim dollars paid out in 2014, costing in excess of $530 million, according to the Insurance Information Institute and State Farm.
Whether you’ve recently brought home a new pup or you’re trying to tame a biting problem in an older dog, experts offer these tips to help you keep you canine under control.
Just about any dog can be taught not to bite; the breed doesn’t matter. In fact, your dog's breed has little to do with his tendency to bite, according the American Veterinary Medical Association. This includes pit bulls, which are no more dangerous than other breeds. More important factors include the dog's training, gender and whether or not he was neutered.
Keep in mind that your kids should be involved in the training. “Older children would be more capable of this than younger children,” says Pam Reid, PhD, an animal behaviorist with the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals(ASPCA). “With younger children, adults can teach the dog not to bite and then teach the child how to enforce the rules.”
Put a stop to “mouthing” early on
Puppies and dogs often use their mouths when playing, biting their companions lightly in play fighting. Called “mouthing,” it becomes more dangerous as the dog matures, becoming stronger and less sensitive to peoples' reactions, according to the ASPCA.
“You can teach a dog at any age to modulate their bite, it's just more difficult with an older dog,” says Reid. “There's no age that's too early.”
To stop “mouthing”:
- If your pet bites during play, draw your hand or body back, give a high-pitched yelp (like canines do when hurt) and immediately stop playing.
- After a short time-out, start playing again. Let him know that biting isn't fun for you and that it will cause his fun to stop.
- If he starts to gnaw on your fingers, you can also distract him with a chew bone or toy to gnaw on.
Keep playtime gentle and non-confrontational. “It’s tempting when a dog is a puppy to play rough games or ‘sic’ them after people, but allowing this can create an adolescent dog who may not understand boundaries between play and actually biting or hurting someone,” says Theisen.
Socialize your new puppy
It's important to help your pet feel comfortable with the world outside of the safe confines of home. “If a new puppy owner can do one thing, get the puppy out into the world, expose him to other people and dogs, and teach him to take the world in stride,” says Reid.
KC Theisen, director of health care issues for the Humane Society of the United States, offers this advice: “Slowly introduce them to novel noises and situations while giving them praise and rewards for listening to you and staying calm. Also have them meet all kinds of people they might encounter: seniors, toddlers, people in wheelchairs or on skateboards and bicycles.”
Unless it's for training purposes, avoid bringing your dog into environments or situations he might find stressful. Dogs may not react well in noisy crowds, for instance, and scared or panicked dogs can bite as a defense mechanism.
“That might mean he misses out on the family reunion, but avoiding a frightened dog and a potentially tragic bite incident is always worth it for you and your dog,” says Theisen.
Engage in healthy play
Playing with your dog serves several purposes. “You want to have the kind of relationship where the dog trusts you, where the dog isn't afraid of you,” says Reid. “By relationship, I mean that a dog has behavioral needs, such as to play, and you provide an outlet for that.”
But be careful how you choose to play. Focus on non-contact games, like tug-of-war, the SPCA advises.And avoid or discourage games that involve chasing you, your kids or animals.
“From day one, play should always be centered around a safe toy and never directed toward people or other animals,” says Theisen. “If you have a dog who likes to chase, you have great potential for a Frisbee dog and should teach ‘fetch’ early on to make your relationship fun and safe.”
Related: Dog Toys: Which Ones Are Safest?
Get professional help for aggression
When biting isn't just normal play or defensive behavior, it may be a symptom of unusually aggressive tendencies.
“In general, a puppy that's biting in play is going to have a soft, loose body,” says Reid. “But a puppy or dog that is biting out of aggression will have a body that's stiff and tense. The puppy will seem more serious and upset. If a puppy is showing that kind of behavior, the owner needs to seek professional help as soon as possible.”
In such cases, the ASPCA recommends consulting with either a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist or a board-certified Veterinary Behaviorist. If neither is available in your area, look for a Certified Professional Dog Trainer with education and experience in aggression issues.
Dogs can indeed be man’s best friend. Just make sure yours doesn’t bite the hand that feeds him — or anyone else’s.