Recently, I was commiserating with a trainer friend of mine. One of her clients had contacted her to let her know that they had surrendered their dog to a shelter because the dog had bitten their ten year old daughter. My friend, shocked to hear this, pressed for details. It turned out the dog had gotten loose in a busy area, the daughter had grabbed him, and, startled, he turned around and bit her. The bite left no marks, so it was what trainers refer to as a “grab-bite.”
My friend was devastated, and I was too, once I heard the details. The owner felt she had done something right by relinquishing the dog, citing that she “couldn’t take chances” with her children. As a parent myself, I understand that – but what this client didn’t understand is that her (now former) dog had shown her that he absolutely could be trusted with her kids.
How could I say this about a biting dog? Wouldn’t a dog with no bite history be better for a family with kids? My answer is: not necessarily. Bite inhibition is a concept that is well known in the training field, and it refers to how inhibited a dog’s bite is – in other words, how much pressure they generally use when they bite. Do they leave bruises? Punctures? Scrapes or no marks at all? If and when a dog does bite (and remember, anything with teeth can bite – including your sweet dog) one of the most important factors is how much they inhibit their bite. Dogs with excellent bite inhibition, such as the one in the scenario above, are exactly the kind of dog that you want to have around kids. They are polite enough to express their discomfort (and dogs ARE allowed to express discomfort; they are living beings) without doing damage to the person knowingly or unknowingly inflicting that discomfort. Growling, snapping, and biting are the only ways that dogs have to communicate to us that they are scared, uncomfortable, or in pain. It is far, far preferable to have a dog that can inhibit a bite when he is pushed over threshold than a dog that does any kind of damage.
Bite inhibition is generally learned when dogs are very young – beginning from the time they start to nurse. Puppies who suckle too hard are taught by mom that it will make her go away. Then, as pups begin playing with their littermates, they learn that biting too hard makes the game stop – well-socialized dogs will continue to learn this as they grow. You can also help teach your puppy (or adult dog!) to learn bite inhibition with these excellent suggestions from Pat Miller, Dr. Ian Dunbar, and Melissa Alexander.
Coincidentally, just a few days ago, one of our dogs grab-bit our toddler. Our son, who is 20 months old and learning how to interact appropriately with dogs, was petting her gently one moment, then grabbed some fur and pulled the next moment (I was sitting right next to him.) Our dog, understandably startled, turned around and grab-bit him on the arm. Her bite was so inhibited that our son laughed when it happened. We did not re-home her. We didn’t scold, punish, or otherwise respond punitively. In fact, I praised her as I ushered the offending toddler away from her. I was grateful for her tolerance. I would never, ever expect any animal to tolerate being startled and hurt, and she communicated that in an appropriate way – without inflicting injury. Her bite inhibition was impeccable. THAT is the kind of dog that I want around my kid because when mistakes happen (as they often do) nobody ends up in the hospital.
Until a dog bites, you don’t know what their bite inhibition is like. Obviously, our goal should be to never, ever place a dog in a situation that forces them to respond defensively – if you see preliminary signs that they are uncomfortable with something, you should work with a force-free trainer to change your dog’s association with whatever the anxiety-inducing trigger may be (never punish growling or snapping, either – your dog may learn that form of communication doesn’t work and skip straight to biting.) But if your dog does bite without inflicting injury, be grateful – that is the best possible bite scenario. Perfect bite inhibition is a trait that should be praised, not punished.