Play Biting

Here is a not-so-trivia question for you…. Of all the things that your young puppy needs to learn pronto is…

1. To interact with friendly adult dogs.

2. To avoid eating foods that can make him sick.

3. To control the pressure of his bite on human skin.

If you checked number #3 you deserve a golden star on your forehead. If you thought # 1 or 2 as the most important, please keep on reading!

One of the concepts pet parents have the highest level of confusion is if they should allow or not allow their puppy (under 5 months of age) to bite them on the hands so that they can give the puppy feedback about bite pressure. If you have ever seen a group of sibling puppies growing up you can very easily observe that puppies will constantly play amongst themselves, and within play comes bites to their tiny playmates. If, however, these “bites” are too strong, the playmate will immediately yelp and move on to a “better” playmate. The puppy that just got admonished learned that if she is too rough she will lose her play companion.

The education of your puppy should continue when you bring him home – especially if your puppy was a single puppy since that important feedback from litter-mates was not available to him.

Here is why is it absolutely crucial that you teach your puppy to gage bite pressure. All dogs under the “right” circumstances can and will bite. Let me repeat myself: All dogs under the “right” circumstances can and will bite. In fact all animals with teeth are equipped to bite should they feel threatened and in need to defend themselves. Your lovely puppy is no exception!

By teaching your puppy how to learn to bite “gently” without exercising pressure with its jaws, you are stacking the odds in your puppy’s favor that if he ever bites anyone the damage will be minimum to none! Can you see the importance of this?

It is interesting to me that whenever people are reporting a bite; they concentrate on the breaking of skin as to quantify the severity of the bite. Sure that is an indication that a dog has made contact with a body part. And it is telling of something about the “pressure” exercised when biting. I would argue that as important, if not more, is to know if any contusions (black and blues) resulted from the dog bite. The presence of a contusion and  when it first appeared will give relevant information about the pressure used when biting.

We can’t take the bite out of the dog, but we can and we should teach our puppy to inhibit the pressure of its jaws.

In order to do so allow your puppy to put its mouth on your hands. Only your hands; not your face, hair or clothing and let your puppy play-bite with you.

If your puppy is play-biting with a soft mouth – you can barely feel its sharp little teeth on your skin, praise your pup and continue with the interaction. If your puppy play bites hard enough that you can feel pressure from the bite, immediately yell out “Ouch” and move away from the interaction- leaving your puppy without a playmate. 🙁

This exercise should be done daily. With as many family members as possible. Older children should also join in under the close supervision of an adult.

Now, how do you know what is acceptable jaw pressure? Here is a guide that can help you:

Rate how hard your puppy bites:

1 – You can feel it, but barely.

2 – There’s some pressure, but you barely flinch.

3 – Wow, those little teeth are sharp, but it’s tolerable.

4 – Ok, that hurts a bit. It might even leave a mark.

5 – Ack! That hurts and your hand is now bleeding.

For one week, time your puppy out if she gives you a level 5 bite. The following week, time out anything that is a 4 or above. Continue this process until your puppy consistently delivers only level 1 bites.

Remember that consistency is key here. Walk away from your puppy every single time your puppy is biting you past the acceptable-bite pressure.

Now, what if your puppy is not a puppy anymore (roughly 5 months – 24 months of age)? Or is in fact an adult dog (2 years and beyond) can you still teach your dog to bite soft?

The jury is still out on this point. But most likely not! You can most definitively end all positive interaction with your adolescent or adult dog when they put their teeth on you.

For example: you are playing tug with your dog and you feel some teeth making contact with your hands. End the game. Put the tug toy away for 24 hrs. Teach your dog to control its mouth. If again you are consistent in delivering an all “fun ends” consequence when your dog puts its jaws on you, your dog most likely will learn that under those circumstances (playing tug, chasing, taking a treat from you, etc.) he must exercise control and not even place a tooth on you. You must end the fun interaction in a timely manner and be consistent – no second chances for at least 24 hrs.

The problem is that there is no way of knowing if your dog learning those fun interactions end when he places his teeth on you will translate to an adult dog not exercising excessive pressured when biting.

I still think is worth a shot to teach our dogs, regardless of age to exercise caution with human skin.

There are non-accurate studies or data that I am aware of, that could shed some light as to if a dog that learned bite-inhibition will also exercise little pressure when biting another dog.

What we do know is that human skin is much more delicate than dog skin – especially on those breeds that have hair or some sort of skin-roll like the Shar Pei.