If you work with, or just walk a large, black, German Shepherd around in public places, you will eventually be asked, “Does your dog bite?” I guess that’s to be expected. Owners of Pit Bulls, Malinois, and several other breeds suffer just the same line of questioning. Time was, I would assure the questioner that my dog was definitely not a Biter, and yes, they could pet him. Well, hindsight is 20/20, and I may have done my dogs a disservice. Education has lead me to another path, and my answer to that question is far different today. Not because Hans nailed some poor unfortunate, thank goodness, but because I’m more tuned into the true nature of the dog. And you may not like what I’m about to expound on here, but facts are facts, and it will serve us all if we take responsibility for the predator on the “other end of the leash”.
The next time I speak to a group about dogs, or dog bites, or whatever, the response will go exactly this way, especially if it’s a group of children:
“Mr. Vaughan, does your dog bite?”
“Thank you for that excellent question! Let me answer it this way. How many of you have a dog at home?” The audiences always have more dogs than not. “My answer is this: Yes… undeniably, unequivocally, absolutely, and honestly, my dog bites. And whats more, so does the dog you have at home that licks your face when you get home, and sleeps on your bed. All dogs can and will bite!”
There will be gasps from the front row, and from school administrators worried about liability of such a beast loose in their school. First, because Hans will probably be sitting nearby, off-leash, with that German Shepherd look on his face. Secondly, because very few people believe that their Cocker Spaniel has any notion of biting anyone or anything.
The response I’ll give has a two-fold purpose. First, I don’t want any child, or any adult to suffer a dog bite. They are singularly unpleasant, and tend toward scarring and infection. Please be careful when you approach any strange dog that you don’t know.
Secondarily, but far more interesting and perhaps more controversial, Your Dog Bites Because It’s a Predatory animal, and it enjoys Biting. It’s the end result of his Predatory Drive. Chase a ball, bite it. Chase a rabbit, bite it. Find a bowl full of kibble, bite it. Wave little hands in front of a puppies face? Probably gonna bite it. And therein lies the problem.
The question before you as your dogs leader is this? ” How do I allow my dog the natural outlet of biting, without the biting being inappropriate at best, and tragic at worst?”
We struggled with this when we first had our German Shepherd, Hans. He is a working dog and has the instinct to chase and bite. The interesting thing was this: Hans never bit me. Not once. However, my poor wife carried some bruises and bite marks that would horrify a coroner. The bites were never delivered in aggression, but always happened when she would attempt her version of play. Run away from him with the ball, throw the ball and chase him when he wouldn’t give up the ball. When he did bite, she would grab the dogs snout and say, “NO!” gently but firmly. Hans saw that as a challenge. Our 6 month old German Shepherd got a reputation with my wife. “Why doesn’t he bite you???” she would cry.
Well, we figured it out eventually and Carol has since become a very fine trainer, but she learned the hard way. It had to do with how I played with, and responded to his instinctual behavior. Our play involved allowing him to fulfill the ultimate release of his instinctive behavior to hunt, that is to bite something. When he was under a year of age, I used a five foot long, flexible fiberglas rod with a string attached to it. The business end has a chamois cloth tied to it. We would flip that chamois around around like it was crazed, and Hans’ job was to catch it. The game finished when Hans was told to release the prize. When he did, the game could resume, drop the chamois produced another round of catch it. He picked up the game and the “Out” command very quickly. This game also built his prey drive into something that could be readily utilized into his training. As he grew older, I used a 24-inch , two-handed ,leather tug toy. The idea was to grab the tug, bite it hard, and take it away from me. I always allowed Hans to win this game after a bit of wrestling, and he became confident, and he knew when and what he was allowed to bite. As an aside, this game also taught me how not to get bitten during this exercise. I learned his approach, the look in his eyes, and his timing. We developed his “out” command during this play consistently. He will drop anything he has in his teeth upon command, and I do mean anything. We practice this “out” even with raw turkey drumsticks. Did the play create an aggressive dog? Absolutely not. And we’ve found a way to do what comes naturally to a predatory canine. Teaching not to bite by teaching when and what to bite.
After his first year of life, we moved into bite sleeves and decoy work. He loves these exercises, and he has tremendous recall off an attack, because we allow him to do what comes naturally in the first place.
Many will give the advice, “When a puppy bites, grab his snout and prevent him. In my observation, you are retarding his instinct by doing this, and he’ll become frustrated quickly, leading to continuing problems. You are better off to do what his litter-mates did when they bit each other to hard, give out a blood-curdling “Yip!!” that says, :That’s too hard!! Stop!!!” The dog will often step back from you, shocked. This is how you speak dog…Dogs teach each other the limits of biting, very early.
The key to outliving your puppies “biting/nipping” habit, is to teach him that biting is only for certain toys, and certain times. The way to control it is natural…Find an activity that allows him to use his teeth for the purpose that God gave them to him. As always, the secret to most dog training, is too spend the time necessary to work with, and understand your dog. Find help when you have questions. It will allow your dog to be his best!