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« On assessing blame vs focusing on solutions | Main | The costs of no kill animal control vs no kill shelters »

April 06, 2012


H. Houlahan

"And there's no way to teach dog bite inhibtion safely. There's no way to teach the dog bite inhibition toward dogs and other animals at all."

What a hot crock of shit.


H -- would love for you to elaborate.


"And there's no way to teach dog bite inhibtion safely. There's no way to teach the dog bite inhibition toward dogs and other animals at all."

Then I must be one freakin' amazing trainer, because I've rehabilitated a severely dog aggressive dog. You should see him in his off-leash play group.


Therese -- Dog aggression and bite inhibition are not the same things...

H. Houlahan

Well Brent, since I and scores of professional trainers I know have DONE IT, continue to do it, and indeed, make our livings at it, Dunbar is simply revealing that HE doesn't have the skills, tools, knowledge or chops to accomplish the rehabilitation and retraining of biters.

If someone wants to cripple his own professional practice through adherence to an ideology or a pet theory with no evidence behind it, that's his business. But the honest pronouncement then is "My methods won't fix your problem." Not "This is impossible. Kill the dog. I am the authority with the DVM, so stop arguing."

Let me ask you this.

When a police dog is cranking down on the arm of a gun-wielding felon hard enough to break an ulna, is he exhibiting bite inhibition?

And yet, the same police dog goes home and plays with his handler's toddler and pet beagle.

Funny how that works.

Central Ohio Dog Blog

From everything I've ever read by any reputable trainer or behaviorist, poor bite inhibition is the one thing that there's no scientifically-proven way to train out. Most folks who choose to take on these dogs typically pair socialization and training to decrease the likelihood that the dog would ever resort to a bite with active management of the dog, to prevent the kind of situations where a dog would resort to bite. It's also my understanding that, while you may be able to teach dogs to inhibit bite in play situations, this does not necessarily translate to real-life situations where a dog feels threatened to the point of bite.

Funny thing, a day or two after I read this interview with Mr. Dunbar, I received my first dog bite ever from a friend's foster pup. (How did it take so long?) My initial reaction was to look at my hand and think, "Huh, well this dog has one more thing going for it!" Bruised, but no broken skin. I was heartened by the experience rather than rattled by it, which just goes to show how comprehensive dog bite education and prevention could also significantly impact the emotional trauma of folks who experience bites.


CODB - your overview is how I've always understood it as well. There are certainly people who know more about this topic than I do, which is why I wanted to start the dialogue, but that has always been my understanding on bite inhibition and that it was usually worked around to keep the dog from being in situations where it bit again moreso than the bite inhibition actually being "cured".

Central Ohio Dog Blog

I am interested to hear descriptions of how folks would train this, if they do. The example H. shared, in my mind, is an example of how a dog can display different bite inhibition in play vs. trained situations. Neither the dog who is working nor the dog who is playing at home have their "fight or flight" response triggered, so the damage/lack thereof done in either of these situations isn't demonstrative of the damage the dog would do were their sympathetic response triggered.

I'd love to hear examples of trainers who have been able to successfully train a dog that had previously done serious damage when threatened (displayed lack of bite inhibition) to demonstrate inhibition in situations when the sympathetic system response is triggered. This is really interesting to me.


As a trainer I have worked with many puppy mill dogs who have no bite inhibition. They will bite and bite hard. Once they overcome their fear of humans and our taught that biting isn't the go to reaction for every uncomfortable situation they quit biting when they are not truly in danger. I have also worked with social aggression based on dominance,which is a little more challenging. Dogs have the amazing ability to learn new things all of the time, even bite inhibition.


Sheri - but teaching them not to bite, or to bite less often, is not the same as teaching them bite inhibition.

Jennifer Brighton

Having recently attended a 2-day seminar that featured Dr. Sophia Yin, I got the impression that it depends on WHY the dog is biting--is it genetically messed up, just plain mean, or is it related to fear? She said for 80% of dogs that bite or act aggressive, it is fear based. For dogs with fear aggression, I came out of the seminar understanding they can be helped.

But maybe bite inhibition is a totally different subject than aggression?? Our male pit-mix had no training when we adopted him from the shelter at a year old, other than the month he was at the shelter, and used his teeth on us the same as he would another dog. He in fact got my husband right between the eyes and drew blood. Two years later, I can say pretty confidently he would never draw blood or even think about biting us or really even putting his teeth on us. Granted the between the eyes was not aggressive. He was just playing rough and hadn't been taught you don't lunge at a human's face with your mouth open.

But he is very gentle now. Wouldn't you call that learned bite inhibition post-puppyhood?


Jennifer - No, that is not bite inhibition. That is learning when it is proper to use your mouth or not use your mouth. That isn't the definition of bite inhibition.

H - Your example is not bite inhibition either. Neither is Sheri's example. Retraining a dog to know when to bite and when not to bite is different than retraining that working dog clamped down to the ulna to soft mouth that same arm. We're talking about taking that dog and teaching him that when he bites the criminal, he is only to bite down until he bruises and not to the point of breaking the skin.

Have either of you taught dogs, and if so how, to bite LESS HARD (for simple definition)? Have you taken a dog that has bit to the point of stitches and taught him in that same situation to only bite and release so that no mark is left on the skin?

It's all in the definition of bite inhibition. I find that the term itself is universally misunderstood, even by people who call themselves trainers (and this isn't a knock on anyone - it simply shows how far apart the training community can be even on something as vital as definitions).

Anyone can train a dog when to bite and when not to bite. That isn't what is being discussed here and isn't what Dr. Dunbar meant at all.

Retraining the amount of pressure is the issue. When you have a fear biter, it's far easier to train him to feel safe in certain situations. But if this same fear biter has already given someone a nasty gash and been rewarded for it (by being left alone), how are you retraining that dog in case it ever reaches that point again to not bite AS HARD? To not break the skin?

I'm not saying that it can't be done. I'm wondering how it's done when the dog has already learned the amount of pressure for the last four years in repeated bites. How do you teach the dog to not bite AS HARD?

H. Houlahan

I effing train the dog NOT TO BITE. Whether he has bitten "hard" or just "nipped." This is not rocket science. Trainers have been doing this since there were dogs. Non-trainers just kill the dog.

Funny thing, the uncorrected "nipper" has a habit of escalating to "real bites." Key word, uncorrected. The best predictor of a future damaging bite is the consequence, or lack thereof, that the dog experiences immediately following the first "nip."

This nonsense about "They will ALWAYS bite, so if they bite hard, it's irredeemable" originated, as near as I can tell, in Dunbar's fevered imagination.

As did the foolishness of encouraging puppies to mouth humans in order to "teach bite inhibition."

If the dog believes he has the right to use his teeth on human flesh, he will decide how hard to use it depending on circumstance. He won't majickally reason that he can only use 5 psi of force when he's panicked or enraged. Codswallop.


But the issue here isn't about training the dog not to bite. That's common sense.

The issue is the definition of bite inhabition and whether it can be taught to adult dogs.

You can't attack him and state that you are teaching bite inhibition to older dogs when you're changing definitions and that isn't the case.

What he's saying is true. You can't teach a dog to bite less hard when they've been doing it for years.

That's the issue. He's not maligning the profession by stating a fact. I would hope that people are intelligent enough and have enough common sense to realize that you teach a dog not to bite regardless of age.

But if you have a dog that has given you 200 stitches, it's not a dog you want to keep around for liability reasons should the training fail (as it's bound to because we can't predict every single thing that is going to happen nor can we 100% control everything in the dog's future interactions). My own father learned this the hard way. No matter how many corrections he and the trainer gave the dog over a month of intensive training, it does no good when an unpredictable situation arises. A cluster of events in a single morning led up to the dog getting out of the house and getting hit by a car. All that fear of my father and "training" weren't enough to overcome the pain of a broken back and the fear of a crowd of people - when he picked the dog up, it reverted right back to the bite first and my dad still wears the scars almost two decades later. Had that been a good Samaritan picking up the dog, the legal liabilities from that bite and the resulting surgeries would have been financially devastating to my father. They "effing" trained the dog NOT to bite, but they could not rework the bite inhibition.

The dog isn't going to magically reason that he can only use 5 psi. The dog is going to just DO it at the rate he's done it in the past. Had my dad's dog been taught bite inhibition as a puppy, the bite to his face would have been less. That's the point that Dr. Dunbar is trying to make. It's not magical reasoning at all. Dogs DO bite sometimes in rare, unpredictable situations. Every dog has the potential - and not every situation is accounted for unless we're all walking around with crystal balls.

I think what Dr. Dunbar is trying to address more than anything is that shelters are putting down dogs that don't need to be killed just because they snap or bite. We are at a point where many reasons are used by shelters to kill dogs. When I read this, I thought the whole point was that this is a weak argument. So the dog got stressed out when the kennel worker came into the cage and snapped when he tried to do (insert whatever the situation). Dr. Dunbar is stating that this is ALWAYS a death sentence for dogs in these shelters (it certainly is at our local kill shelter where any reason is looked for to put the dog down and open up space for the new ones coming in). I think the point he was making, albeit a bit poorly, was that this does not have to be the case if the dog is simply snapping and not biting to the point of causing injury. You can work with the former dog and send it home without worrying that your shelter is going to be sued for everything it has. The latter, you cannot because when that dog bites, it's doing thousands of dollars in damage.


The difficult part about Dr. Dunbar, for me, is (and always has been) his delivery. He's done a lot of good work, and has a lot of great information to share, but I personally struggle with feeling like what he has to say is couched in a manner that comes across as snobbish. I also get that feeling from the other professionals in his circle. I can chalk that up to my own personal inference, but it still makes me wonder how relatable he then is to other people in other geographic locations. People in his own circle, or in the part of the country where he resides, or those with the same mindset as he, probably don't see it this way, but how likely are folks from other areas and other walks of life to be receptive of what he and his peers have to say? If someone really wants to help a dog (and educate a person) the person they are trying to teach deserves as much care and consideration as the dog is getting. He wouldn't hit a dog over the head with its own mistakes, so why does it always seem like he's berating or talking down to the human involved?


I was hoping this conversation would touch more on this section:

"Forbes: Most people don't want any part of a dog that bites.

ID: When I met Ashby, I fed him some food. He took the food and he bit me.

When I met Claude he was going to be euthanized the next day because he had bitten someone at the San Francisco SPCA. I looked at the woman's arm and there wasn't any damage at all. So I went in to see him and started pushing his buttons, which was pretty easy. Touch his collar, you get bitten. Touch his butt, you get bitten.

He bit me fourt times. I said "Great, we'll take him." Why? The bites don't hurt. We have a dog who's scared and reactive, but he's safe. And he's proven safe. Four times he's gone off and hasn't caused any damage. "

I think it is great that Ian Dunbar would take this animal, since he knows dog behavior. But, should a rescue expect the average customer (the 95% of folks who just want a family pet, and don't want to learn too much on dog behavior) to take this animal home as-is, and be safe in the long run? And, if they do, could the rescue be harming their own long term reputation?


Jenn, you stated "The dog is going to just DO it at the rate he's done it in the past." I have to disagree with you on this one and agree with H. The dog gets to decide how much force is needed in a given situation. For example, years ago my own dog attacked another dog over a toy and put a hole in the other dogs nasal canal. About five years later he want after another dog and after a loud and physical fight there was not 1 puncuture wound on the other dog. And twice, during his 13 years, he airsnapped at humans.

I think it is misleading and unsafe to look at one incident and decide the dog will always bite at a particular level. Of course, this is just my opinion and I have no scientific studies to back me up. But then again, I think Dr. Dunbar's stance is opinion as well. If not, I would love to see the study info. Was there a group of puppies that were raised in the same environment with the same life experiences with a control group being taught bite inhibition while the others weren't?

There are a lot of urban legends in training and I truly believe the statement that 'teaching bite inhibition to puppies will keep them from delivering injury causing bites later in life' is one of them. But of course, if someone has the study results to back up this claim, by all means, prove me wrong.



I completely understand where you're coming from.

On the one hand, if the dog has nipped and not done damage, Dunbar's notion is that it can be safely rehabbed and then rehomed.

On the flip side, a dog that has caused severe damage cannot ever be fully trusted.

I am curious about how much is too much though and at what tolerance we should have in a shelter environment for ill behavior.

Jennifer Brighton

Sharon, I saw the same behavior in my dog. When we first got him from the shelter, he made my other dog and any dog he played with squeal when he would grab their necks and bite too hard. It took some months, but I still believe he learned a form of bite inhibition. Inca never squeals now when they play. He has never drawn blood, though, so I guess Dr. Dunbar would say he had good bite inhibition from the outset. But it's obvious he is now inhibiting his mouth/teeth during play and has learned to control himself better since he plays more gently.

Brent, that's a hard question you ask about how much is too much, but an important one. I've met people who have adopted shelter dogs that lash out either at humans or other dogs. Many of those people do not have the financial resources to hire a trainer or simply don't realize they should seek help for their dog. It seems that there is a lack of adopters who can responsibly deal with dogs that may cause severe damage, so that leaves the rescue community in a quandary. Too bad we didn't all have the resources that Best Friends does in Utah.

My shelter was very careful in who they adopted my Domino to and he didn't have any bite/fear/aggression issues. He was, however, an unruly handful and back then I couldn't imagine him with small children or someone who was not strong enough or dedicated enough to help him discover the wonderful dog that was waiting to emerge. I've often thought it takes a special person to take on a dog with real issues. I think those special people are the minority, so where does that leave those types of dogs and yes, how does a rescue shelter deal with those dogs?

Jennifer Brighton

Jenn, I understand the point you are making and personally don't have enough dog experience to know whether an older dog that has bitten its whole life, is able to be taught to not bite, ever, or bite less hard. That's why I follow Brent's blog and many others, including Dr. Dunbar's. To learn about these things from a variety of people I admire.

I guess for a dog like that, the solution would be that it would have to be muzzled whenever it was out in public or simply kept away from the public by a responsible person who fully understands the ramifications of being such a dog's guardian.

A Facebook User

So, is a police dog somehow defective? It is "reactive"... which is a stupid term because it doesn't mean a darn thing... and it has an uninhibited bite... it bites people all the time. Unfortunately, this isn't an area that I feel Ian Dunbar should be giving advice. I think his comments are illogical and ignorant, and discredit him as an "expert".

Jennifer Brighton

This subject of bite inhibition and whether it can be trained in adult dogs who have a bite history got me curious, so I Googled. I found mostly Dr. Dunbar's bite inhibition articles, but here's an interesting take. While it doesn't address the question, this trainer when working with puppies or dogs that may have a bite history focuses on what she calls "bite prohibition" and believes the term "bite inhibition" can be misleading.

To quote her, "You cannot safely teach a dog to bite softly in a
situation he wants to escape from. The only safe bite is no bite."

A Facebook User

I think we should also address that shelter evaluations are NOT VALID. The dog is coming in, often unwell, stressed, separated from it's territory and pack. Then you threaten it with stupid tests and it defends itself. Way too many dogs are put down that are just acting normally for the situation.


I also think it depends on how each individual defines "bite inhibition". We're taught to squeal like puppies any time teeth makes contact with our skin, in order to teach "bite inhibition", but really we're teaching "no teeth on skin- ever!". Is, then, the definition of "bite inhibition" more about the dogs Dunbar discusses- those that "bite" or nip, without bruising the skin? Because that kind of action is what we've been taught are "warnings"- the dog's way of communicating to us with increasingly more intensity, until an actual bite occurs.

And then there are those involved in Schutzhund training, who discuss how it is actually very difficult to TEACH a dog TO bite, and bite correctly as definted by that sport. It's a very emotional thing, biting, and in that case the dog has to learn what kind of bite and when to use it.

Is, then, bite inhibition, more about the emotions the dog is experiencing during an event in which he/she uses his/her mouth?

I still have a difficult time sorting out what, exactly, Dunbar is trying to say- struggling to get past his ego to the point of the article, and feeling like he ought to spend as much time trying to communicate clearly with the humans involved as he does the dogs, but I do concur that when I initially read the article last week I was a bit annoyed at the heavy attention to puppies and possible bias toward older dogs. Yes, for those of us who have puppies, we have an opportunity to teach them early and possibly avoid future incidents. However, that doesn't mean any dog that is not a puppy is beyond help. In all, I really think it depends on the dog as an individual, and that we cannot afford to make any generalizations. Rules of thumb are great, but every dog is different, with a different learning style, much like humans.


Essentially, Dunbar's point (and one of the links at the bottom of the post is to a good article that more clearly articulates the point) is that dog can control the level at which they bite. Pretty much any mid-sized or larger dog has the ability to break a human arm with their bite if they chose to -- but most choose not to. Essentially, his point is that it is a learned trait to control the force of a bite. And yes, that if a dog nips, but is never corrected, or the fear is pushed, this could escalate, but that the dog has the control of this bite behavior.

Dunbar states that this ability to control bite pressure is learned primarily at a young age, primarily among a dog's littermates because they learn what pressures "hurt too much". However, if it is not learned (because a dog was pulled from its litter too young and then isolated), the a dog will tend to exert far too much bite pressure -- and that there is no way to safely train an adult dog not to exert too much pressure because it will take you getting bitten multiple times, often severely, in order to teach it. This is different from teaching a dog to bite altogether.

In the police dog example, this dog would have to be extremely skilled to be able to exert different bite pressures in different circumstances -- but they do bite firmly in order to hold a criminal, but not so much to, in most cases, break bones or cause permanent damage.

And Facebook user, I'd note that while not everyone may agree with everything Dunbar says, I think any rational person would say he is for the most part credible when it comes to his points of view.

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