Michael is an avid pet-lover and content writer on topical themes related to dog care, training and behavioral development.
Confronting a Behavioral Problem
Around 4.7 million people are victims of dog bites every year in the US, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). A fifth of these cases (800,000) require medical attention. And if that isn’t bad enough, one still has to consider that these are the known or reported cases. One dog bite survey conducted in Pennsylvania, for example, showed the actual number differed from what had been reported to the authorities by an astonishing 36-fold.
The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality also did a study and discovered that 1,000 people land in emergency rooms each day as a result of dog bites. In most bite cases, the animal is known to the victim. According to the CDC, children make up the majority of victims, with 66% of bites being inflicted on the neck and head areas. Their injuries tend to be more severe owing to their size and the fact that they are not swift enough when dealing with the threat.
If the behavior goes unchecked and a dog does harm to a victim, the medical, social, and legal consequences for the owner can be quite steep. Aside from these, the behavior itself creates a wedge between the dog and its owner, who now struggles with the question of whether his animal can be trusted or not. There is also the added concern of the dog being put down or the homeowner’s insurance being canceled.
Irrespective of how insignificant a nip or bite may be at present, this is not a behavior that should be taken for granted. It should be attended to with the utmost sobriety. Tolerating the behavior is equal to exposing oneself to uncertain risk. The owner would be simply raising a mobile accident waiting to happen.
There are several factors that can cause a dog to bite including fear, overprotectiveness, and retaliation. If you would like to know how to stop your dog from nipping and biting, here are the five measures to take.
- Establish integration
- Understand the rules and laws
- Use effective diversions
- Prioritize discipline
- Exercise moderation
1. Establish Integration
According to Attorney Kenneth M. Phillips, also known as the most experienced lawyer and leading expert on dog bites, 61% of bite incidences take place at home or other familiar places. 77% of them involve close contacts like family members or friends.
A dog needs to be socialized from puppyhood in a comfortable environment where they can get used to people of different types. A properly socialized dog will have a balanced approach to relationships, having been accustomed to people and pets of different ages and mannerisms. If the puppy is not socialized properly, it may grow up to victimize both dogs and people.
Socialization should not be done randomly but in an organized manner. It is best not to introduce family members or even strangers to the dog all at once, in a manner that would surprise or overwhelm the pet. The process should be conducted in an orderly fashion: one person at a time. Similarly, expose the pet to other members of the local society such that they are not seen as menaces but as acquaintances.
Children always need to be supervised when they are handling a dog as they may not readily understand a dog’s body language, or correctly interpret a possible threat. It may be difficult for them to immediately distinguish between actions that please the dog and those that annoy, irritate or provoke it.
Where there is an opportunity, allow your dog to play with other dogs as long as they are friendly and healthy. Playing with them will cause it to learn bite inhibition or soft mouthing, which is the proper and moderate use of its teeth. Playing with well-mannered dogs will teach them to learn how to behave in the company of others.
This is the natural way that dogs learn acceptable behavior—through being moderated and disciplined by their peers. If a dog has not learned bite inhibition, it will not realize that it is exerting too much force when using its teeth, whether it is playing with people or other pets. Bear in mind that it is still possible for a dog to learn bite inhibition even if it was weaned too early as a puppy.
2. Understand the Rules and Laws
As the laws concerning dog bites vary from region to region, it is necessary to research what the regulations and ordinances are in your particular jurisdiction. This awareness not only helps you avoid surprises but also enables you to create training that is appropriate for your dog.
Pet owners don’t have to wait until they have been arraigned to familiarize themselves with the rules on pet behavior and interaction. For example, there are certain jurisdictions where the assumption of risk under the law of torts cannot be used as a defense in a bite case. In other words, the injured party can still claim and be awarded damages even though they undertook all the risks involved voluntarily, while interacting with your dog.
The one-bite rule that many states in the US have, for instance, means the owner is held responsible for injuries sustained by a third party resulting from his dog’s bite if he had prior knowledge of the pet being aggressive in the past. In some states like California, the rule does not apply, and the owner is responsible regardless of if his animal has had a history.
What legal systems agree on universally, is that the only way around a case is for the owner to prove that the victim was actually the instigator. This is where the show gets tricky. To show evidence that the victim actually provoked the attack, thereby bringing it upon themselves can be quite an uphill task, if not altogether impossible.
Typically, the cards are stacked against the owner and the matter is handled as a criminal offence, leading to penalties or even jail time. The owner may find themselves ordered to make restitution to the victim for resulting infection, permanent injury, loss of employment, medical expenses, rehabilitation, or all of the above.
This is why every member of the household needs to be educated on how to keep the pet from biting. If the behavior is curbed at home, family members will have protected, not just themselves, but outsiders as well. While the dog is undergoing behavioral modification, it is helpful to set up signs outside the premises like ‘Beware of Dog’ to inform members of the public and especially couriers, postmen, and other visitors they need to be on the alert.
3. Use Behavioral Diversions
The reality is that a dog can start mouthing, nipping, or chewing out of boredom. It uses its teeth as a way of exploring the surface of an object, to find out more about the texture or firmness. A puppy will want to explore things with its mouth in much the same way a human toddler does. This does not mean the puppy is deliberately being rude or aggressive or developing a complex. They are just playful, exploratory, or curious to see what your skin is made of.
Your puppy may be undergoing a teething period which is 3-4 months and this would be a time it should have chew toys. It could be a Kong, antler, or marrow bone which has something tasty in it. Just as with human infants, puppies will tend to soothe their gum irritation by chewing on things. However, remember that even if your puppy is at the teething stage, biting your skin should never be condoned or tolerated. If it nips at you out of curiosity, it needs to learn that this is not acceptable.
A dog with the propensity to nip or bite needs to have sufficient exercise of its mouth and jaws. If your dog has a habit of using its teeth on skin and items around the house, procure toys that are adventurous, fun, and engaging. There needs to be sufficient entertainment to turn the behavior around. Give it a chew toy as a diversion Immediately it bites on skin, furniture, clothes, or shoes. Redirect the behavior so the dog focuses its attention away from your hands, ankles, shin, or other items around the home.
The toys that you select need to be durable according to your dog’s age and strength. For instance, if your dog destroys a plush toy within a short space of time, there is a need to go for more resilient toys made of tougher material like plastic or rubber. This prevents your dog from searching for alternatives. The toys ought to be more rewarding and satisfying to the teeth than rugs, chair legs, window ledges, and door frames. Vary the toy collection if you notice your pet becoming disinterested. To reinforce the correct behavior, reward your dog when it chews on such toys instead of going for your skin. If your puppy tends to follow you around and nips at your feet, walk with a toy in your pocket, ready to use as a diversion.
A chew toy that has been lost should be replaced as soon as possible. Chew toys help the dog to develop bite inhibition. If the nipping habit is not stemmed during puppyhood while the teeth are still small, it can become tough and even dangerous to deal with later on when the teeth are fully developed. Remedial measures don’t have to wait until the pet has matured into an adult canine that can make full use of its neck muscles and jaws to both twist and mangle.
Possessiveness can be a strong motive for biting. Through conditioning however, a dog can be taught how to be calm and never agitated when it is interrupted.
4. Prioritize Discipline
There are different ways to discipline a dog. Some methods are to be avoided because they are counterproductive and result more in intimidation than actual correction. One effective way of disciplining your dog is by changing the mode of interaction. For example, if you are in the middle of doing something that interests your pet like playing a game or patting it and its teeth come into contact with your skin, your immediate reaction can be fourfold. Exclaim verbally, cease the activity, issue a stern ‘No!’ and leave, irrespective of whether penetration occurred or not.
Preferably, when you leave, walk straight into another room and close the door behind you. If the dog’s behavior was inspired by excitement or the spur of the moment, wait until it has completely settled down before returning to your place to resume the activity. Eventually, your pet will understand that the fun ends the instant there is contact between its teeth and your skin. If you stop the play each time contact occurs, the dog will quickly learn not to repeat the behavior. It will associate the effect (your departure), with the cause (the nipping) and modify its actions accordingly.
Why is this important? You will be reacting in exactly the same way another puppy or dog would if they were in the same situation. This will teach your dog that play with balance always continues, but play with aggression always ends. Nipping or biting should automatically be followed by a time-out. In this way, the dog begins to understand that the behavior is unacceptable and there are no exceptions. When all family members follow this pattern, it prevents the dog from receiving mixed messages.
Some owners apply deterrents on the spots their puppies have a habit of going for before interacting, like their hands, ankles, or shins. These sprays leave a nasty taste in the mouth and in so doing, dissuade the pet from the behavior. The puppy stops seeing the owner as a big chew toy and focuses its attention on real toys instead. However, bear in mind that spray deterrents are short-term solutions because the spray tends to evaporate and therefore needs constant reapplication. Also, one cannot rely on unpleasant tastes or smells alone to modify a dog’s behavior. The problem needs to be tackled at the core.
Many dog bites are food-related. A dog becomes aggressive because it has been disturbed while eating by someone who really had a friendly motive, for example, one who is simply trying to pet it. The way to deal with this is to train your dog to get used to eating in the presence of people and other household pets. Another way is to gently turn its head from the feeding bowl in a non-threatening manner. Repeating this exercise when it is feeding will help the dog come out of a tunnel vision mentality and be more accommodative of others around the home. Possessiveness can be a strong motive for biting. Through conditioning, however, a dog can be taught how to be calm and never agitated when it is interrupted.
5. Exercise Moderation
It is important to ensure that the dog you select to be your furry companion is one whose personality and needs conform to your lifestyle. Such a one would not be difficult to train and manage.
A dog’s day needs to have enough activities to keep it engaged and to burn any extra energy it has. Pent-up energy can cause a dog to become bitey, mouthy, or nippy. Even so, there is a need to be mindful of balance. A dog should not be overly excited, excessively stimulated, or out of control, as this can lead to the casting off of all inhibitions.
Wrestling with your dog can be fun, but it is essential to consider that an animal will not instinctively understand all the rules of a game. Some dogs are actually triggered to bite by rough play. Biting becomes their way of reacting to being jabbed or roughly handled.
Without proper training, a pet may not be aware of how delicate human skin is, and may go at it the same way it would a favorite toy. If your dog or puppy has a tendency to nip or bite, it would be best to avoid games such as wrestling, contact chasing, or tugs-of-war, as these tend to incite it into biting mode.
There is need also to have limits, especially if the dog is part of a large household whose members, including children, often want to keep playing and interacting with it all at once, or in turns. It is erroneous to assume that animals are built so differently from humans, they are without limitations and can keep on ticking non-stop. Much like any of us, a dog needs to have periods of rest and some alone-time so that it is not too overwhelmed. A puppy may actually nip or bite as a result of needing a break from all the people and activities.
If you sense that your pet has developed hyperactivity and is biting as a result, one way to stop this is to carry it back into its crate. Allow it to stay there with a chew toy or to take a nap if it so wishes. Alternatively, you could use a tie-down to keep the dog from following you everywhere and nipping at your ankles or shins, for a period sufficient for it to settle down and for normalcy to prevail.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.