The Importance of Teaching Puppies and Your Kids About Bite Inhibition
by Lynn Stacy-Smith
If you’ve raised a puppy, the words “razor-sharp puppy teeth” probably make you shudder and think back to those days of puppy rearing when you felt like you had adopted a baby dinosaur instead of a puppy. In fact there’s a meme that circles social media periodically that compares a puppy to a T-Rex that makes everyone who has ever raised a puppy nod along knowingly as they remember the scrapes and scratches all over their hands and arms from those sharp little teeth.
Puppies and adult dogs, lacking thumbs, play with each other with their mouths in games of “bitey face” and wrestling. If you have had multiple dogs in your home, chances are they have played their own version of what we call “bitey face”, which is when dogs play with open mouths or bite and pull on each other’s jowls, ears, necks. Sometimes they lay down and have a lazy game of just sparring with their mouths, other times there is wrestling and rough-housing involved, and sometimes they add in “zoomies” in which they race around the house or yard at top speed in a game of chase.
These games are normal parts of playing together and you should be able to tell when your dogs are playing versus fighting. If you have questions about your specific dogs, as always I would encourage you to talk to a professional dog trainer. There is also some interesting and important information at this link from the American Kennel Club that I recommend: http://www.akc.org/content/dog-training/articles/are-they-playing-or-fighting/.
When you adopt a puppy, chances are they have spent the last six weeks wrestling with and play-biting their siblings and even their mother. One of the most important parts of raising a puppy is to teach him or her that they cannot play with humans in the same way that they play with other dogs.
Teaching your dog “bite inhibition” means teaching them that they should not bite humans and that if they do, that they should use a soft bite that does not harm the human. In my opinion, this falls under the top 3 things that you must teach your dog, along with house training and the “sit” and “wait” commands.
Other humans in your home can often make teaching bite inhibition difficult because there is some sort of human instinct that overtakes people and causes them to wiggle their fingers in front of a puppy’s face. I cannot tell you the number of times we had to correct our children during puppy raising; it might have been more times than we had to correct the actual puppies. I have also encountered total strangers who did the same thing to my puppies, to the point where I had to tell them, “We are teaching them not to bite, please do not wave your fingers in my puppy’s face!”
Jax was particularly difficult when it came to bite inhibition. He was persistent in trying to play with us by chomping down with his razor-sharp teeth with the full force of his mouth. In addition to Jax’s persistence at trying to play with us with his teeth, our human son (who was twelve at the time) was the worst of all of the kids at wiggling his fingers in front of Jax’s face.
When it came to Jackson’s puppy days and his bite inhibition education, the words “Get your fingers out of the dog’s face!” came out of my mouth more times than I could possibly count. I am surprised Jackson did not learn what it meant I said it so many times. Finally one day I lost my patience with our human son when he shrugged my comments off with an overly cocky tween comment, “big deal, he’s a puppy!”
“Yes, if a fifteen pound puppy bites your hand, it’s cute. If an eighty pound male Labrador bites the hands of one of your friends because he thinks it’s how he plays with kids, then he could even end up being put to death as an aggressive dog, SO GET YOUR HANDS OUT OF THE PUPPY’S FACE!!!!” I scolded him.
Thankfully Jax learned not to bite in play or at all, he learned to take his treats gently, and we’ve never seen him in (or put him in) a position where he needed to bite to protect himself. His snuggle time is on his terms and while he will drape himself across our laps, he does not usually like to be hugged for too long or held very tightly, and he will either get up and walk away or turn his head and lean the opposite direction. We respect his body language that the situation is not pleasing, and we stop before he needs to even remotely resort to a soft bite.
Our teenagers have also learned how to play with puppies and dogs. By experiencing first Jackson’s and then Tinkerbell’s puppy training, they know that you do not wriggle your hands in front of a puppy, you play with them using toys and playing fetch or tug-0-war, and that the dogs are to put the toys on the floor or the ground instead of reaching into their mouths to get them. They know that if a puppy is trying to nip at you, you give them a toy instead of a body part to chew. They also know that most dogs don’t really like to be hugged or petted from above, and that as far as a dog is concerned, those actions are rude or aggressive.
It is important to teach your children why you are teaching the puppy not to bite hard or at all and the implications that not teaching your puppy this important information could have as your puppy grows into a full grown dog. I highly recommend that you supervise their play even if they are tweens or teenagers so that you can correct both the puppy and the children when they exhibit undesirable behavior and reward them when they play in a way that both the puppy and the children will grow up knowing how to play in a way that does not encourage biting.
Make sure you ask your puppy class trainer or beginner obedience instructor on tips and methods for working with your own dog. Here are some other good resources on the “how-to” side of teaching bite inhibition: