By: Sara Ondrako, Certified Canine Behavior Consultant
Dog bites are typically associated with confrontational and aggressive behavior. Sometimes, this is an accurate portrayal of why dogs bite. Other times, however, dogs may bite for happy reasons or due to fear and anxiety. Regardless of the motivation, any dog bite can be dangerous, especially when delivered to a small child or older person.
Let's look at common reasons our pups use their teeth, whether they are “aggressive dogs” or not, what you can do about it, and, just as importantly, what not to do about it.
Nipping or Biting for Attention
Sometimes, dogs grab a person by the pants or nip at their hands as they walk by to get their attention. Generally, that results in the person giving the dog attention - mainly in the form of "no!" or "ouch!" and pulling away. Still, the dog's behavior resulted in engagement from the person, so they are likely to use their teeth again, given that they got a response. The same goes for unwanted behavior to greet people, such as when your dog jumps up on a visitor. Though a dog may not initially use their teeth when greeting people in this way, it can evolve that way over time.
To combat attention-seeking biting, increase the attention you give to your dog when they are calm, not jumping, and not using their teeth. Attention-seeking nipping is a cry for more one-on-one interactions with their favorite person; your pup is expressing that their need is not being met. Engage in healthy play activities with your puppy, such as tug, frisbee, fetch, and dog training. When the teeth come out, completely disengage from your dog and become boring (not moving hands, not speaking, not engaged) until they stop and offer a different behavior.
If your dog tries harder with teeth when you disengage, separate your dog by tethering them to a fixed object, such as using a hands-free leash to clip them around a table leg. Once your dog has calmed down, practice approaching them. If your dog begins to jump and try to grab with teeth, take a few steps back and wait for calmer behavior again before re-approaching.
Lastly, teach your dog the "place" cue to help them physically calm down when new people visit before letting them say hello.
Play Biting for Fun
Dogs regularly interact with each other using their mouths during playtime, so this is normal and appropriate behavior for a playful dog to exhibit. However, even play biting can lead to harmful outcomes. For this reason, avoid allowing your dog to play-bite you at any time. Our canine companions are intelligent and will quickly realize that using their mouths or teeth during human play is not okay.
Any time your pup pulls out their teeth, stop the fun. Grab an object, such as a tug toy or stuffed animal, and redirect their teeth to that object. When they grab the item, encourage them to bite or mouth it by teasingly pulling it back and changing your body language and tone to upbeat, happy, and playful.
If you have a dog that has been play-biting for a while, it will take some time and repetition to learn that using their teeth on the skin is not okay, even when being playful. Therefore, each time your pup starts using teeth on the skin, immediately stop the game, disengage, and wait for your dog to stop before re-engaging them and offering an appropriate toy to bite.
Biting or Nipping When Scared or Nervous
Often dogs that have trepidation about a situation can use their teeth to express that concern when other, more subtle communications are not working. Dogs are individuals; while some dogs love all people or other animals, it's rarer than one may think. Most dogs have some selectiveness and will display subtle signals that they don't want to be friends with everyone. Often dogs will start nipping at people approaching them if someone enters their space when they don't want that boundary crossed.
Nipping or biting when anxious or scared is a defense mechanism that communicates "stay back" and that the dog is trying to create space and distance between themselves and what is troubling them. This includes times when they don't know the source of the concern, such as with loud noises like fireworks or gunshots that they can hear but not see. Frightened dogs may bite a nearby object or a housemate out of fear or even bite or chew themselves as a coping mechanism to self-soothe.
For dogs that bite out of fear, anxiety, or timidness, the goal is to make them feel more comfortable so they don't use their teeth. Listen to and never punish growling, which is a communication that typically happens before biting. Work with a behaviorist or a Certified Professional Dog Trainer that uses positive reinforcement and trust-building-based methodologies to ease your dog's stress and teach you how to notice the subtle signs your dog may be giving before the teeth come out.
Increase your dog's enrichment when you know their stress levels may increase. For example, if your dog is anxious about visiting the park due to the commotion on the playground, find a spot a fair distance away and give your dog a long-lasting Yak Chew or frozen treat for them to focus on. This creates a positive experience at a safe distance from the action, which can help decrease stress.
Some dogs have difficulty controlling their excitement (arousal), leading to impulsive behaviors. For example, a dog playing with a flirt pole may become so energized that they start grabbing at anything moving - including the person holding the object. The behavior isn't truly a reaction to the person working with the dog but rather a result of being overstimulated. Additionally, hyperactive dogs with excess energy are often more likely to inappropriately use their teeth because they have multiple needs not being met, such as physical exercise, structured play, or enough time with their person.
If this sounds like your pup, the first step is to address any of their unmet needs. Then, help your dog learn how to control their arousal, which will decrease this type of biting. Practice reinforcing calm behaviors in general. If you participate in high-arousal activities with your dog, practice slowly increasing the excitement to control the climax. Call your dog in and out of that activity with a higher-value reward for stopping.
Tug-of-war is an excellent example of an alternative behavior for which you can train your pup to use their teeth appropriately. Start by calmly offering your pup the toy and tugging gently with little to no verbal excitement. Next, provide calm encouragement such as "good" or "that's it," ask your dog to let go of the toy, and then - as the higher value reward for letting go - re-engage with an excited "yes!" to start the tug game again, this time with a little more excitement.
Practice quickly bringing your dog out of high arousal states and rewarding their ability to get better at calming down between high-energy activities. You can also add in brain work when playing a high-intensity game such as long-distance fetch to keep them in a thinking state of mind rather than an impulsive state of mind.
If your dog is simply too worked up, it's okay to give them a timeout in their kennel. If you kennel your dog, keep them in the same room with you to avoid the timeout from being a punishment but instead, use it as a break to regain calm just as you would the baby gate. Try offering your pup a calming chew to help when they have difficulty self-regulating. Use calm, positive reinforcement as they come down from their over-excited state.
Biting out of Frustration
Displacement aggression is an excellent example of biting out of frustration, which doesn't necessarily have anything to do with the victim of the bite. Displacement aggression occurs when combative behavior is targeted at an innocent party. It can happen when a dog is excited about something but cannot get to it, such as a person walking by or a playmate on the other side of a fence. When the dog gets very excited but cannot access that person or thing, they bite the closest thing to them out of frustration, which may be another dog or the person holding the leash.
There are a few ways to help support a dog that exhibits this frustration-based biting behavior. You can practice impulse control exercises, provide adequate stimulation to redirect their attention, and safely manage the environment to prevent injuring a person or other animal. Enlist the help of a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant or Accredited Dog Trainer to coach you through the steps you can take to stop displacement aggression.
Never punish your dog by hitting, yelling, hurting, or alpha-rolling them. This can worsen their aggression and lead to more severe bites or full-on attacks. Instead, teach your dog a solid "leave it" command to interrupt the displacement with a specific direction. This gives you a moment to redirect your pup and encourage them to take their frustration out in a positive way, such as on a toy or with a quick jump in the pool for a swim.
Breed-Specific Biting or Nipping
Some dog breeds, such as herding breeds, are specifically bred to use their teeth as part of their job. Suppose you are the lucky pet parent of an Australian Shepherd, Border Collie, or a Pembroke Welsh Corgi. These breeds are genetically predisposed to using their teeth - especially when trying to control a situation. It's essential to do your breed research to understand what your dog may be driven to do based on their breeding history. For herding dogs, biting is only a cause for concern when they can't do the job they've been bred to do, and begin seeking alternative ways to use their teeth.
To combat undesirable biting in herding dogs, you'll want to provide an outlet for their innate drive. Set the parameters for them to use those teeth (on objects only) when playing specific activities like frisbee catch and herding games. Then, encourage them and get them excited to participate in those appropriate teeth-friendly games. When not engaged in those specific activities, interrupt and redirect their teeth to a toy for independent play, and stop the human-dog play at that time. Consistency is crucial to help dogs understand when to have fun with their instincts and when it may be unacceptable.
Oh, those not-so-cute sharp needles attached to those so-cute new puppy bodies! Puppy biting is another utterly normal behavior that happens for many reasons. This is the stage where your puppy learns what's appropriate to put their teeth on and what is not. Puppy biting happens up to about six months of age. It is usually caused by soreness from teething, exploring with their mouth, learning bite inhibition (when and how hard to apply pressure), and playtime.
Older dogs don't typically retain puppy-biting behaviors unless their pet parents failed to address it during puppyhood. Adult dogs lacking adequate guidance and learning from mom and littermates during early puppyhood may also have poor bite inhibition. In this case, you should incorporate a touch target in your training sessions, rather than a hand target, and toss your treats away rather than delivering them straight from your hand to their mouth.
Most puppy nipping can be managed relatively easily when pups are provided alternative things to bite, like chew toys, so they don't bite stuff you don't want them to, like your shoes. If your puppy does bite you, avoid letting out a yelp, scolding your puppy, or holding your dog's mouth shut; these responses can lead to other undesired outcomes, such as increasing biting or scaring your puppy.
When to Get Help With Biting
If you've tried some of the methods in this article and are struggling to lessen unwanted biting or nipping, the sooner you get help from a professional, the better. It's also important to involve someone skilled in animal behavior if your dog is biting due to guarding, reactivity, anxiety, or other behavioral issues that lead to more severe use of teeth than the occasional "oops" from excitement.
Remember that good behavior is subjective since some biting and nipping is normal between dogs and dogs and other species (as in the case of herding breeds). A dog that bites is not necessarily aggressive and can learn to cohabitate without the dog nips with some parental guidance. As pet parents, it is our responsibility to help our canine companions understand, using ways they can comprehend, when it's appropriate to use their teeth and when it is not.