There is much joy and satisfaction to be gained from our relationships
with our four-legged friends. But far too often we see headlines
about someone being seriously injured or even killed from a dog
bite or attack. Unfortunately, dog biting is an all too common problem,
one which all pet owners should take very seriously. While it may
be cute to watch a little toy dog snap and snarl, it’s quite a different
matter when the dog is a large breed when biting can be truly dangerous.
What’s important to understand is that all dogs can bite under
the right circumstances. This is a natural defensive behavior, and
it’s unrealistic to think that any amount of forethought or training
can completely eliminate all possibility of your dog ever biting.
However, there are steps you can take to reduce the risk.
Prevention – Choosing the Right Breed
Preventing a biting problem is much easier than curing one. The
first place to begin is before you even get a dog, by selecting
a breed that is not known or bred to be aggressive. Biting can be
an inbred genetic behavior trait in some breeds of dogs, and in
some cases is desirable. For instance, guard dog breeds like Doberman
Pinschers or Chow Chows are bred to be more aggressive. Herding
dogs like Border Collies or Australian Shepherds are bred to nip
at the heels of the animal being herded, which you or your children
may end up substituting for. The often snappish behavior of some
Terriers is a result of their having been bred to hunt out small
vermin and rodents. Even German Shepherds, normally benign working
dogs, if they descend from a line that has been bred for police
work, can harbor inbred traits that make them undesirable as pets.
So do your homework on breeds, and unless you need an aggressive
dog for a particular reason, choosing a calmer and more peaceful
breed is the first step to preventing a biting problem. Some small
breeds can be very “nippy,” so be sure you understand breed characteristics.
Even if you feel you do need a guard or working dog, investigate
any prospective puppy’s background very carefully, not just the
parents, but go back several generations, to ensure that his line
was not bred for or doesn’t include any traits you don’t want.
There is really no such thing as a “bad breed.” Most all dogs can
be properly trained and socialized to be gentle, tolerant, and predictable.
Your dog should be trained to obey basic commands: sit, stay, come,
and down. This alone could prevent many dog-biting incidents.
(The following information is general.)
Potentially aggressive breeds:
Llasa Apso: can be cranky with kids
Toy poodles: bite out of self defense
Dachshunds: not very patient
Rhodesian Ridgebacks: very dominant breed
Miniature Pinschers: “big dog” mindset in little body
Chihuahuas: prefer adults, not tolerant of kids
Chow Chow: one-person dogs, bite without warning
Giant Schnauzers: very dominant breed, will even challenge adults
Old English Sheep Dog: very protective of owner
Cocker Spaniel: very protective of owner
Rottweilers: very protective
Typically gentle breeds that have “bad boy” reputations:
German Shepherd: great with kids
Bulldog: gentle, playful
Rottweilers: can be gentle, affectionate
Great Danes: gentle, affectionate
Boxers: good with kids
Mastiffs: very docile
“Pit bull” is a bit of a misnomer. There really is no such breed.
Generally, “pit bulls” are a cross between a “bulldog” breed and
a terrier. They are also known as American Pit Bull Terriers, American
Staffordshire Terriers, and Staffordshire Bull Terriers. Most “pit
bulls” are not aggressive by nature and tend to be gentle, playful
and loving. However, there are those that have been bred and trained
to be aggressive. Even then, they are more aggressive toward other
animals, not people. Often, aggressive “pit bulls” have been abused
and/or neglected. Then the dog is to be considered very dangerous.
However, all dogs can be provoked to bite by:
1. Try to take food or toy away from him. Never bother a dog while
he is eating. The most common situation where a dog bite occurs
is while a dog is eating.
2. Playing “tug of war” with a dog. Many dogs interpret this as
aggression. If they “win,” they feel empowered. If they feel threatened,
they may try to retaliate.
3. “Surprising” a dog by sneaking up on him or startling him while
he is sleeping. Many times the dog’s defense mechanism will kick
in, and he will bite in self-defense.
4. “Rough housing” with or other sudden movements toward the dog’s
owner. Many dogs will see this as an attack on his owner, and will
attack you to defend the owner.
5. Ignoring their warning! If a dogs barks ferociously or growls
when you approach his territory, bed, etc. and you continue, that
is an invitation to get bitten. They are warning you that they don’t
like that and stop. Listen!
6. Inappropriate touching. Dogs generally don’t like their ears,
tail, and feet tugged. Some don’t like being inverted up-side-down
and rubbed on their belly. This is a position of submission and
an aggressive dog will resist this “challenge” vigorously.
No matter what the breed, all puppies want and will try to bite.
Biting and mouthing are normal behaviors for puppies. Dogs don’t
have hands so they investigate objects and their environment with
their mouths. To a curious puppy, everything about the world is
brand new and exciting. He learns as he goes along. Playing is also
a normal learning behavior for puppies, especially play-fighting.
Play-fighting with littermates and other animals develops coordination,
reflexes, and physical skills. In addition, it helps them develop
social skills, and teaches them how to interact positively within
their pack. And it’s great fun for them.
Bite inhibition refers to both a dog’s ability to control the force
of his biting, and the training to reinforce that ability. If a
puppy is left with its mother and littermates for a proper amount
of time, they will be the ones to take care of his first training
as to when and where biting is allowed. There is a fairly short
window of time in which this can best be accomplished, which is
part of the reason it’s not a good idea to take a puppy from its
mother too soon. Puppies seem to learn a great deal about bite inhibition
and authority between five and eight weeks of age through play with
their mothers and littermates.
If you take a puppy when it’s very young, less than eight weeks
old, then you will have to be the one to teach him to inhibit his
biting tendencies. Puppies that receive little or no training in
bite inhibition, either from their mothers or their people, may
grow up to develop behavior problems.
For instance, if a puppy tries to bite his mother, she will yelp
very loudly, growl in his face with bared teeth, and then turn away
and shun him completely for a period of time. This gives him the
message, loud and clear, that if he bites he will get an unpleasant
reaction and then no attention at all. If he persists, the mother
dog will turn on him, again with a snarling growl, get hold of him
by the scruff of the neck with her teeth, and shake him sternly,
not letting go until he goes limp in submission. Really obnoxious
puppies are dealt with by mother dog knocking them over with her
paw, pinning them to the ground, and pinching them with her teeth.
If you have a very young puppy, or one whose training was for some
reason not accomplished in the natural way, then you must imitate
mother dog’s “yelp, shun, shake and pin” tactics if you want the
lesson about not biting to stick. If he bites you, yell, “Ouch!”
very loudly, or give a high pitched yelp as the mother dog would
do, grasp him firmly by the scruff of his neck, shake him (though
don’t lift him up) and give the command, “No Bite!” Hold him down
for a second or two, and then let him go and ignore him for several
minutes. Repeat as necessary.
If you don’t like or have success using this method, there are
a few others you can try. They include:
– Making a trade. Trade your arm (or foot or fingers) for an appropriate
– Instant muzzle. The second your puppy tries to bite your hand,
turn it around and grab his muzzle, holding it firmly closed for
a few seconds.
– Shake the can. Fill an empty soda or other can with a handful
of coins or pebbles. When your puppy starts to nip, startle him
by shaking the can or dropping it next to him, while at the same
time giving the command, “No Bite!” Praise him when he stops, and
give him something appropriate to chew.
– Metal spoon. There are two variations on this method.
” The first is to put some food or a treat on the end of a metal
spoon, and hold it up and slightly tilted downward, so the puppy
has to reach up. If he just grabs, his teeth will hit the metal,
and he won’t like that at all. In time he’ll learn to just open
his mouth and let you drop the food into it. Keep moving the spoon
closer to your fingers, so that eventually, he is opening his mouth
and letting you put food into it without biting your fingers.
” The other spoon trick is to bend an old or cheap spoon handle
over your thumb, keeping the bowl of it in the palm of your hand.
Then extend your hand out to the puppy, and when he bites, he will
bite the metal. Again, since he won’t like that at all, the idea
is that he will eventually learn not to bite your hand.
If you have an adult dog who has not learned to control his biting
and aggression it is helpful if you can determine the reasons for
your dog’s aggressive behavior. Though often overlapping, aggressive
behaviors can be roughly divided into four types:
1. Play biting occurs when the “cute” behaviors have been allowed
to go on for too long, and the dog has become habituated to bite
as a playful gesture.
2. Dominance. If your puppy or young dog growls when you approach
him at his food dish, or growls or snaps when you try to groom him,
or behaves aggressively toward other pets or your children, snapping
or nipping, he is attempting to establish his dominance. He is trying
to assert his position in the “pack” order, and he wants to be top
3. Territorial aggression might show itself in a tendency to bark
at the mailman, for instance, or to chase cars or bicycles, or spray
urine to mark his territory. This is the type of behavior that often
results in a dog biting the meter reader or the mailman.
4. Fear. This is a problem with extremely shy or timid dogs, who
are very fearful, especially in new situations and with new people.
This can be frustrating as they can strike out without warning and
snap or bite if someone reaches for them or tries to pet them.
Though it is far preferable to have prevented such behavior in
the first place, there are nevertheless some methods you can try
to correct even established behavior. Of course, the younger the
dog, the more likely you are to be successful. Patience, consistency,
and persistence are of paramount importance.
For play biting, refer back to the part on bite inhibition for
puppies, and making it not fun for your dog to bite in play.
– Stop playing any and all roughhousing games such as tug-of-war
or chasing games. Don’t let any games become too intense, and try
to prevent your dog from becoming too excited, as that is often
when biting occurs. Keep play sessions short.
– Give your dog plenty of opportunities to chew appropriately by
providing him with sturdy bones and chew toys.
– If your dog growls or bites in play, say “No Bite” in a loud,
firm voice, and immediately stop playing. If any toys were involved,
take them away. Completely ignore your dog for a few minutes, and
then resume play. If he bites, do it all over again. Repeat this
as often as necessary. When your dog gets to the point of obeying
the “No Bite” command without additional correction, be sure to
praise and reward him.
– Try putting something bitter or hot on your hands. Then, when
your dog bites you and backs off from the bad taste, praise him,
and immediately give him something appropriate to bite, like a chew
toy. One tip is to only put the nasty substance on the backs of
your hands, so as not to get the taste on any treats you many hand
out as rewards.
In the case of a dog with a dominant biting problem, the only solution
is to make yourself the pack leader (alpha dog) in no uncertain
terms. The dog must be at the bottom of the pack. You absolutely
must be willing and able to dominate every aspect of your dog’s
life, or you have lost before you’ve begun.
Refuse to tolerate his dominance aggression:
– Never, ever, under any circumstances, let your dog win a showdown.
Be absolutely and consistently in charge, and never weaken that
– Do not let him eat until you command him to come, and give him
– Make him sit and heel before being petted, or going outside, or
getting into or out of the car. It’s not the sitting and heeling
that’s so important, as establishing the fact that you make the
rules, and he must do as you say. An aggressive dog will always
exploit any weakness on your part, so don’t show any.
– Crate him during meals, and do not let him eat until you have
– When you play games like “fetch” or “tug of war,” do not let your
dog end up with the ball or rope when you are finished. Keep it
yourself, even if you have to wrestle it out of his mouth. Remember,
you must win!
– Do not let your dog sleep in your bedroom or on your bed – reserve
this space for your family, and enforce the boundaries.
– Buy a muzzle and keep it on except for feeding and giving treats.
– Try to alter any objects or people that seem to trigger aggressive
behavior. For example, if your dog is occupying a living room chair
and growls when you approach, then forbid him the chair – no exceptions.
Or if he growls at one family member, then make that person responsible
for his care, as dogs do not usually bite someone on whom they rely
for food and water. Of course, especially if this is a child, supervise
very carefully so you can step in if necessary to protect that person
from being bitten.
Be sure to follow standard procedures of dog training by observing
and promptly rewarding any signs of submission from your dog, such
as laying his ears down against his head, or lowering his head and
curling his tail around his body, or refusing to make eye contact.
Praise him and give him with treats. But don’t praise him and love
him out of the blue for no reason at all, no matter how affectionate
you might feel, as this will just confuse him.
In order to avoid a situation where the dog obeys only you, but
is still aggressive toward other family members, you may have to
train them too, particularly if you have a family member(s) who
is passive or submissive. For instance, it’s common to see a situation
where a dog will obey the husband in a family, but completely ignore
the wife or children. Don’t let this happen. Encourage your family
members (with your supervision) to also establish their dominance
over the dog, using the same methods, and promptly praising and
rewarding submissive behavior.
Eventually, step it up a notch, to include training the dog to
let you hold his paws, or hold his head still, or hold him down
in a laying position. Again, always promptly praise and reward the
If your dog exhibits territorial aggression, some of the specific
steps might differ a bit, but essentially the main approach is the
– The first step is to assert your dominance as leader of the pack,
and establish the hierarchy of the pack, with every other member
of your family in order above the dog, who is at the bottom. If
you do this systematically and consistently, your dog will look
to you for direction when, for example, someone comes to your door.
If you accept the person, your dog will too. If you are fearful
or alarmed, your dog will be too.
– Get a few friends or neighbors to help you out by approaching
your house and cautiously feeding your dog some treats. Or ask a
willing friend to take your dog for short walks on a leash. The
idea is for the dog to accept your leadership as to who is and is
– Clearly establish the limits of your dog’s territory by fencing
your yard and making sure he knows where he is and is not allowed
– on the porch, for instance, but not the front steps; or on the
sofa, but not the bed.
– If your dog chases cars or bicycles, take a ride, arming yourself
first with a squirt gun of some range, loaded with diluted vinegar.
Drive slowly and when the dog gives chase and/or tries to nip, squirt
him decisively, between the eyes if you can, saying “No” firmly
each time. Do it again. Eventually he will get the idea that it
is not fun to chase a moving vehicle. If necessary, repeat the lesson
with a bicycle, tricycle, scooter, or whatever other conveyance
he likes to chase.
– If he chases your children, arm them with a squirt gun and have
them repeat the exercise as above, firmly saying “No” every time
the dog tries to nip. If they are very little, then you watch for
the behavior and do the squirting and give the command yourself.
Dogs who bite out of fear have likely missed an important window
of opportunity for socialization when they were very young, were
born to a mother who is also shy, or else have an inborn genetic
leaning toward timidity. The best way to correct this type of behavior
is to try to re-socialize a timid dog so that he is not so scared.
If you can increase his confidence, you can decrease the likelihood
that he will bite out of fear.
Some ways to do this are:
– Watch for signs your dog is uncomfortable, scared, or angry. Dogs
don’t know how to cry, so a frightened dog’s instinct is to bite.
– Socialize your dog. Keep him on a short, tight leash. Introduce
him to many different types of people and situations so that he
is not nervous or frightened under normal social circumstances.
Shy or fearful dogs can react defensively when approached by unfamiliar
people. They may try to keep strangers away by growling, snarling
or snapping. These behaviors must not be ignored. No dog should
be allowed to get away with acting aggressively towards humans.
The fact that your dog is shy is no excuse to condone growling or
biting. You must instantly and effectively reprimand such behavior.
As soon as your dog stops acting aggressive, praise him because
you want your dog to think that his obnoxious behavior causes you
to get angry – not that the presence of the stranger brings on the
– Feed him only from your hands, taking care, of course, that he
is not agitated or in an unfamiliar situation that could result
in your being bitten.
– Ask your veterinarian about using a prescribed tranquilizer to
calm your dog while exposing him to anxiety-inducing situations.
If you have tried all the above methods for training your dog not
to bite and nothing has worked, the only choice you may have left
is to manage him so that he does not bite you or anyone else. Some
ways to do this are:
– Muzzle him. Depending on his degree of aggressiveness, you could
use merely a soft fabric muzzle, or a sturdy leather one. For large
or extremely aggressive dogs a steel and leather muzzle is the only
kind strong enough.
– Contain him. If your dog is an aggressive guard dog, rather than
a pet, you may have no choice but to contain him while people are
around, if you want to be absolutely sure he doesn’t bit anyone.
You could tether him with a chain or other sturdy tie; or keep him
in a run or outdoor kennel; or secure him indoors in a crate or
confined to a particular room or area of your home. Contain him
or else take a chance on someone being bitten, and possibility of
fines and lawsuits.
– Euthanasia. This is extreme but if your dog has already bitten
viciously, and is a full-grown, adult dog, especially a large breed,
the most humane thing to do may be to have him euthanized. Consider
that he will not enjoy a life of constant confinement, nor will
you enjoy peace of mind, having to always be on guard lest he get
loose and bite again. This is the most extreme solution, and not
to be taken lightly, but if your situation warrants it, it can save
you much grief in the end, as well as possibly save a life.
Of course, the best thing to do is be aware of the potential problems
inherent in biting behavior long before matters can ever get to
an extreme state. As you can see, recognizing and understanding
the importance of proper bite inhibition is the key to preventing
and correcting any biting problems, whether they stem from play
or aggression or fear. Establish your dominance from the start,
give yourself and your dog the benefit of obedience training, communicate
well, be consistent, correct any problems the instant they appear,
and you and your dog will enjoy a peaceful, happy and loving relationship
for many years to come.
The Bottom Line:
Train your dog. Accompanying your dog to a training class is an
excellent way to socialize him and to learn proper training techniques.
Teach basic commands. Train your dog. Teach basic commands.
One cause of biting is pain. If you suspect pain as the cause,
see your veterinarian immediately. Keep your dog healthy.
License your dog as required by law, and provide regular veterinary
care. Make sure you have him vaccinated against rabies and other
diseases. Spayed or neutered dogs are much less likely to bite.
An unneutered dog is more than 3 times as likely to attack. Often
this alone will do a great deal to reduce unwanted aggressive behaviors,
Dogs are social animals. Spend quality time with your dog and make
your dog a member of your family – dogs who spend a great deal of
time alone in the backyard or tied on a chain often become dangerous.
Dogs that are well-socialized and supervised are much less likely
Just as humans do, dogs protect things they care about such as
their food and favorite toys. They also protect spaces – their own
and their owners. Eating and sleeping areas, yards, porches, and
parked cars are all commonly defended by dogs.
The vast majority of dogs are safe, reliable companions. But even
a friendly dog may bite if threatened, angry, afraid, or hurt.
Never leave a baby or small child alone with a dog.
Always walk your dog on-leash.
Get your dog used to having you touch and groom him at an early
age. Dogs have to have a lot of care and grooming throughout their
lifetime that involves touching, stroking, holding, or restraining.
He may only be warning you with a growl, but if you let it be there
will come a time when you have to give him medication or otherwise
restrain him, and he’s liable to bite.
Properly socialize your puppy. Before the age of 4 months, your
puppy should be introduced to all of the things he’ll see in his
adult lifetime. (If not then it’s likely he’ll be terrified of those
things later when he encounters them.) Socialize him beyond the
normal casual encounters with people, by exposing him to a wide
range of different sights, sounds, and textures.
– Textures could include pavement, rugs, cement, sand, grass, gravel,
linoleum, and dirt.
– Sights would include other animals, trees, insects, men with beards
and/or mustaches, women and men with hats, people in wheelchairs,
people with canes, teenagers, traffic, the veterinarian, toddlers,
vacuum cleaners, cars, bicycles, stairs, etc.
– Sounds may include loud thunder, traffic, airplanes, trains, the
sounds of children playing, music, and normal household sounds.
Introduce him to everything! If the dog is not afraid of it, he
won’t try to attack it to defend himself. A well-adjusted dog is
not a biting dog.
There is no way to guarantee that your dog will never bite someone.
But you can significantly reduce the possibility of it ever happening.