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Your Dog's Mouth is His Hand

Bite inhibition puppies

Think of all the things we do with our hands... We work with our hands, make crafts with our hands, we cook, clean, and care for others. We caress, soothe, give affection, hold, and embrace our loved ones. We also go to war with our hands. It is even possible to commit murder with our bare hands. We use our hands for the most intricate tasks and the most brutal violence. 

All the things we do with our hands, your dog does with his mouth. We don't teach our children grip inhibition, so why then do we insist on teaching puppies bite inhibition?

Your dog works with his mouth, he gives massage with his mouth, he embraces his friend with his mouth. Given the opportunity, he will catch, kill, carry and eat dinner with his mouth. These are all natural, normal, and instinctual behaviors. As normal and perfectly acceptable as anything we do with our human hands. To stop a puppy from exploring the world with his mouth, when this is the only way he has to do so, is really going against his very nature. And to stop a dog from the joy of biting, carrying, and chewing on objects that make him feel emotionally grounded and present in his body, this is just asking for trouble. 

Issues arise between human and canine when we discipline our dogs for using their mouths. Many people think it is imperative to teach puppies bite inhibition, but this is actually the number one reason why dogs become aggressive and act out with behaviors that are "inappropriate" in our human world. 

Muzzles on dogs

When we lead our dogs around on muzzles and gentle leaders, this is like putting handcuffs on a human and taking them out for a walk! How would you feel walking down the street with handcuffs on!? 

Since I'm telling you very explicitly NOT to teach bite inhibition, you might be wondering: What should I do when my dog puts his mouth on me? Well, first we must determine what your dog is communicating. When a human puts a hand on your arm, you know immediately what their intentions are: if it's friendly, platonic, romantic, flirtatious, caring, soothing, threatening, etc. In the moment, you always know based on your gut feeling: is this person playful, supportive, friendly, or are they being forceful and making you feel uncomfortable? So use your nervous system and gut feelings to gauge your dog's touch as well. Your dog should be able to put a soft mouth on you during play time, the way a puppy would use a soft mouth while playing with his puppy friends. 

If your dog puts his mouth on you in a fun, playful, and soft way, you MUST NOT correct them. You should mirror him by also being soft and playful. Most dogs will put a soft mouth on you as a way of embracing you as their friend, a way of making contact. Just because you feel a little nibble does not mean that your dog is turning aggressive and trying to eat you. We actually want to cultivate the dog's ability to use a soft mouth. Puppies play with a soft mouth (albeit sharp teeth!). They don't need to be taught bite inhibition because they already know how to use their mouths appropriately. Just direct them to a toy or chew object. For more support of this theory, you can read Meagan Karnes' article: "An Exercise in Frustration."

Your dog should also be able (and allowed) to execute a full-grip, full-pressure bite on a tug toy (the prey). This will develop his confidence and help him stay emotionally grounded. If you play with his prey drive, you can train your dog to do anything, because what they love more than anything is to bite. 

Here are some tips and guidelines:

1. Know the difference between soft-mouth and hard biting.

2. Never play or rough-house with your dog indoors.

3. Use a crate to keep your puppy (or second-hand dog) safe and out of trouble.

4. Allow them to express their drive outdoors, by channeling them to a bite toy. 

5. Don't correct or punish your dog for using his mouth, as this will make him "weird" (emotionally charged) about using his mouth, and surely create problems. 

6. Don't place your face or head close-by to your dog's head when giving affection. 

7. Don't gaze into your dog's eyes, or look lovingly into his face, as eye-contact can be emotionally loading for the dog.

And if you have a dog who is truly aggressive or reactive, call a professional!  Do not try to correct this behavior on your own, as a disturbed dog can certainly be dangerous. 

Most importantly, please remember to have fun with your dog. Play-training is the most effective training!

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