Firstly it’s important to realize that biting can be quite a natural instinct for a dog and there are many behaviors which can act as a trigger. If your dog is biting, it’s important to establish if it’s non-threatening or threatening behavior, so I think it’s helpful to look at both what and why first. This will help set a suitable course of action for how to stop your dog biting in the future.
What is your dog biting?
Depending on what your dog is biting, the behavior may range from a mild annoyance, to a costly habit or a form of aggression, which will be much more of a problem for both you and your dog.
If your dog is biting things around the home, please take a look at my article on why dogs chew furniture. Whether it’s actual furniture, your new shoes, or it’s own toys or bedding, the root cause is likely to be similar.
What if your dog is biting you or other people?
Let’s first establish that even if your dog is biting living things, as opposed to inanimate objects, there are still different reasons why they could be doing so.
Let’s take a closer look at them one by one:
This is a common behavior in the puppy stage, when a puppy is teething. Yes, they are just like children in this respect! It helps soothe their gums and growing teeth if they gnaw on something.
A puppy’s teeth are extremely sharp and you will know about it if they are “mouthing” on your hand, for example. The best thing to do in this case is make sure you have plenty of puppy chew toys available, and substitute one of these every time your puppy tries to gnaw on part of you. Some can be kept in the fridge, as just like human infants, a cold sensation can really help relieve the teething sensations your puppy is feeling. Chewing on the lead is also quite common at this stage, until they pass this phase.
It is quite common for a growing and developing dog to want to play fight occasionally. This will be a very natural progression if you have let your puppy “mouth” on you while they have been teething, but can very easily get out of hand.
However, all dogs can have a tendency to play fight, it’s just as they get older they will take more of a lead from you or other people. For example, if you are playing tug with your dog and start to make aggressive noises yourself, and pull your dog hard, then expect them to treat it as a rough game as well. This can easily end up in biting, even accidentally as your dog tries to grab more of the toy you are pulling on. I would advise against rough play with a dog, as it’s very difficult to predict when the line gets crossed and you can actually encourage biting.
A dog that is in pain will be a lot more sensitive and grouchy as a result. If you liken it to people who don’t get much sleep through backache, or toothache, or have an ongoing chronic pain. If you’ve experienced this yourself, or seen it in others, you’ll appreciate it’s pretty hard to stay happy and cheerful 24/7! It’s just the same for a dog. Their tolerance for things that may annoy them is a lot lower and they may be more temperamental.
It’s really important that everyone in the home, especially children, are made aware of a dog living with chronic pain to help avoid “biting accidents”. They should be encouraged to know where best to pet the dog, where not to touch it, and when to leave it alone. An acute injury may also prompt a biting reaction, even if your are trying to help your dog.
I remember my father being bitten by one of his working collies when I was a kid. It was working with some sheep and mis-judged a wire fence as she was jumping over. She got her back leg caught and was hanging upside down in agony. My father rushed over to help her and disentangled her leg, but she bit him on the wrist because it hurt so much. Rosie was perhaps the most placid working collie my father had, but it just goes to show that pain can lead to unexpected behavior in a dog. of course, this isn’t the kind of biting you can stop – it’s unpredictable, only occurs in exceptional circumstances and is completely out of the ordinary for your dog. But I did want to highlight it, especially since it’s not the dog’s fault!
Very similar to pain above, but you can help minimize any biting as a result through sensible behavior around your dog. Fear-biting tends to mainly happen in the family home, and around children.
It’s really important that any children in the house know not to sneak up on a dog and pounce as it’s sleeping. Dogs do dream and you don’t know what’s going through their mind as they sleep. You also don’t know how deep their sleep is, so surprising dog that’s not expecting it can cause a fear-related bite.
If your dog becomes possessive, then biting can be a way they express it. It could be possessive behavior over their toys, or they could be over-protective of you as their owner, or a member of your family. Either way, this is not desirable behavior and you will need to do something about it.
I would hazard a guess that it’s unusual for a dog to develop this if they have been with you from the puppy stage, and you have gone through through bonding and training together. Where I think it’s more common is with rescue dogs. You may not always know what their background is, and even the behavior they may show at a shelter could be different to what they show once home with you. It could be they are so grateful to you for their new home, they become very protective of you and don’t want to let other people near. You can get help with dog training here, but if you are having problems with an older or rescue dog, please seek professional help.
It wouldn’t be sensible for me to offer advice here, and a better approach will be to get one-on-one help with your dog in your own home.
This is a type of possession behavior, but for very different reasons.
Growing up on a farm, we were always taught to never approach any animal with their young – especially animals of the larger variety! I still hear occasionally of farmers who are trampled by an angry cow who thinks the farmer is threatening their calf. The maternal instinct is no less strong in dogs, and if they feel their puppies are threatened, they may well bite you or anyone else who approaches them.
Children are attracted to puppies like magnets, so it’s even more important you educate them not to approach them, especially when they are very young. Once they are bumbling around on their own legs, the mother should become more relaxed with human contact though.
If your dog is biting due to aggression, then you need to take action and fast. Please get professional training help from a dog behavior expert. There are plenty of them around, and whilst it may cost you a little, the price is a lot less than if your dog seriously bites another dog or a human. And it’s usually children who suffer the most damage from dog attacks.
There are signs that go with this type of aggressive biting, which are good to know for your own dog, but also in other dogs you may come into contact with. These are the things to keep an eye out for:
- their tails will tell you quite a lot
- raised hackles above their shoulder and neck – their fur will look like it’s standing on end
- showing their teeth
- flattened ears that are pinned back
- showing the whites of their eyes
- non-social behavior, such as freezing in response to a touch and a direct stare, can also be a pre-cursor to a bite
I hope you have found this useful. I’ve tried to take a look at various reasons for dog biting, to help you understand why they may do it. I also wanted to identify that there are common reasons for non-threatening biting, and this is not something you need to worry about too much. It’s really the possession and aggression biting that need to be corrected as soon as possible, and preferably with professional help.
If you would like to share your own experiences, or have anything you want to share, please do so below.