A labrador-poodle mix puppy recently went through our puppy program, and is now a regular daycare client.  I will call her Lucy for the sake of this blog.  As a young pup Lucy was reserved with her humans, nonchalantly moving just out of reach whenever they reached to pet her, and never asking for their attention.  During puppy play time she engaged and mostly participated in chase and be-chased games.  She never displayed blatant fear or stress while being handled or petted by people, but always wore  look on her face that seemed to say, “must you? Must you always do that?”  Her humans of course adored their “easy” puppy.  She never cried or barked in the kennel, entertained herself just fine, and best of all, never mouthed on their children, seemingly skipping right over that puppy biting period.  Medically, she was a perfectly healthy pup, so what could possibly be wrong about a dog that is never a bother, and never mouthed on human skin? A whole hell of a lot, as it turns out.

Ian Dunbar’s bite inhibition model teaches us the importance of allowing puppies to mouth on human skin, breaking them of this habit slowly, giving them feedback the entire way.  The pups learn good bite inhibition (or a soft mouth) through this feedback, and it is extremely important to allow them to go through this process.  At first pups are allowed all sorts of bites as long as the bites are not painful, then all bites with any sort of pressure are weeded out, and finally play-mouthing is put on cue, paired with a cue to cease play mouthing–or all mouthing on humans is erradicated.  A far-cry from the old days of “never let a puppy’s teeth touch human skin!” this method works. It doesn’t only work to curb puppy biting, it actually teaches dogs to inhibit their bites, if they are ever forced to bite–making injurious bites less so, and infrequent.  There is one draw-back, however, and that is what on earth do you do with that rare, seemingly angelic pup, who has no interest in chewing on human skin?

You must get that puppy to bite.  It seems silly and counter-intuitive to encourage a behavior you eventually wish to erase, but the feedback puppies receive about their mouths through early play-mouthing is absolutely priceless.  Bite inhibition can not be relearned later in life, and a well-socialized dog without proper bite inhibition is an even bigger danger to the general public than a dog who has never had proper socialization.  Owners of puppies that would rather not engage in play biting have a duty to encourage play biting while their pups are young.  I recommend doing so by playing with the pup with small toys (increasing the odds that the pup might “slip” and hit skin), run your fingers on the ground in a teasing manner (call this game “spiders”), and touching the pup’s mouth and face affectionately.  The point is to bring these kiddos out of their puppy shells, getting them to bite at us in play. 

Returning to Lucy, the mixed-breed puppy I mentioned earlier, she inspired this blog because her parents failed to engage her in such play (they didn’t want to, found it tough to see the point, and well, it was tough).  In their defense they tried, and they have done a good job with her otherwise.  For the most part she is a well-adjusted, well-socialized, well-trained dog.  She gets to go to daycare, does not pull excessively on leash, sits and waits and doorways and for her food bowl, and at face value is a “good” dog.  Unfortunately, even good dogs get put in tough situations sometimes, and that is precisely what happened to Lucy.  She was involved in a tangle where another puppy got his mouth caught on her collar (hence all daycare participants are required to wear quick-release collars).  The daycare staff member who stepped up to intervene was bitten by Lucy, since Lucy felt she was choking, and most dogs will bite when they are in such a state of panic.  And herein lies the difference between a dog with an inhibited mouth and a dog who does not.  A dog with proper bite inhibition would have bruised, or at worst scratched, the employee’s hand.  Lucy, a sweet-tempered, generally easy-going dog, bit her daycare supervisor’s hand so deeply, she exposed bone.  Had this been a different situation, one in which there were less dog-savvy people involved, or worse, had it been the children Lucy lives with, Lucy might not even be alive now, having placed such a serious laceration on a human being. 

So my point here is this: allowing puppies to receive feedback about their mouths is often a matter of life and death.  I can think of not one more important thing to teach a puppy, and yet it is misunderstood or even overlooked by the vast majority of puppy classes being offered to the public.  The first puppy classes I ever attended made no mention of teaching bite inhibition, and instead focused on stopping the annoying habit of puppy biting now, not later.  Some methods to stop puppy biting that I encountered were aversive, and others downright cruel.  It is absolutely unacceptable for dog “professionals” to take puppy owners’ money and not teach them about bite inhibition. 

You will not teach a dog not to use her only defense mechanism in times of panic, so the best you can do is to teach her to use it correctly.  The best lesson a dog can learn is that humans are delicate flowers, and we need not bite them too hard.