Biting - For Fun or For Real?
“Look at my arms!”, she said as she showed me the scrapes and tears. None were serious but there definitely was quite a selection and the woman wondered if she had a dangerous puppy in her house.
Unfortunately I couldn’t really assure her of a perfect future with this pup because its early history is unknown. The pup was found on the street and very much in need of care and love. Time and a lesson plan with the puppy is our only answer now.
Those needle sharp puppy teeth seem to be part of a program to teach puppies bite inhibition. But, that plan only works well if the pup is allowed to remain with the bitch and litter mates until at least 7 or 8 weeks of age. Puppies need to also test those teeth on humans to learn their thresholds of pain and to control their bites with people. We really are more sensitive than most dogs to puppy teeth games.
Some dogs and certain breeds of dogs have a naturally “softer” mouth but that doesn’t mean that Golden Retrievers and other “bird” dogs, considered to have “soft bites”, cannot and do not cause very serious damage if they bite. All dogs and all breeds need to learn the important lessons of bite inhibition.
It was clear right away that this pup became aroused with even minor physical contact. What would be pleasurable stroking to another pup very quickly escalated to “mouthing” and then pressure with those needle sharp teeth. She had growled a few times and snarled when she was pressured with a bit of restraint. My guess is that she lacked litter mate time as well as appropriate handling by humans.
It is essential to begin a program of positive reinforcement for any and all behavior that is desirable and avoidance of anything that will arouse this pup and give further reinforcement to the undesirable behavior. The more the pup “practices” biting the better she’ll get at it!
Any time the pup is handled food and some toys must be on hand. If the mouth aims for human skin a toy is offered as an alternative. When stroking her food is being made available in tiny pieces the entire time. If the pup gets aroused and totally refuses food or a toy she is put in her pen or otherwise separated from social contact for a minute or two. Not for an hour! Then the process begins again – and again and again, if necessary – until the light bulb goes on –Aha! X behavior results in removal from the people, the toys and the food. That’s no fun. The pup learns to offer the correct and rewarding behavior instead of being forced to do anything.
It is very possible she’ll never totally enjoy being pet and handled but hope for a good life requires being safe to handle for health reasons. Puppies and dogs must accept complete examinations. Complete in this case means each and every toe, the belly, under the arms, in the ears, and in the mouth. There should be a build up (as the pup’s tolerance improves!) of pressure on her body such as throat and belly just as the vet will have to do in order to complete a proper examination. And, she needs to be quiet and under control for periods long enough to groom and bathe. Proper handling and her proper response is essential.
If a handler decides to overpower the pup with the totally out of date approach of YOU WILL DO THIS attitude there is an accident waiting to happen. The same is true if the growling and biting is punished. It may well stop at that time because of fear but the cause of those behaviors has not been addressed. Often when one hears the comment that a dog bit with no warning it is because the warning signs had been punished in the past and then – BAM! – one day there is the long suppressed bite.
If we teach alternative behaviors and make those behaviors really rewarding to the pup we can develop acceptable default behaviors. Only time will tell in this case.
Incidentally, there is a flip side to the issue of separating pups too early from litters and that is leaving them too long with litter mates! Never take on a dog that has spent its entire life whether that is 6 months or 6 years living in a kennel environment.
*DOG – HUMAN BITE LEVEL:
Level 1: Growls, shows teeth, barks, stares, snaps, no contact (Human equivalent;
argument or warning)
Level 2: Single bite, saliva, no punctures, ½ as deep or less as dog’s canine
(Human equivalent; push/shove)
Level 3: Single bite, 1 to 4 punctures, ½ as deep or less as dog’s canine
(Human equivalent; assault, punch)
Level 4: Single bite, 1 to 4 punctures, greater than ½ as deep as dog’s canine or shakes, there will be bruising evident within 2 days for very hard bites
(Human equivalent; assault with bodily harm)
Level 5: Multiple bites, greater than ½ as deep as dog’s canine or shakes. Mauling.
(Human equivalent; same)
Level 6: Fatality (Human equivalent; same)
Dogs labeled 4 or higher are very dangerous animals. Even behaviorists with extensive experience working with aggression are not likely to attempt rehabilitation with these dogs.
*From The Canine Aggression Workbook by James O’Heare, Dip. C.B.