Beautiful Beau is a big strong Chocolate Labrador. He’s 9 months of age and his teeth hurt. With no impulse control, his biting and grabbing of my clothes would have been nearly constant had not the lady held him back. It was a struggle for her.
I have to call it ‘biting’ because he was using his teeth with some force, but there was no aggression behind it. No growling or hostility. There wasn’t fear either though possibly the level of his arousal involved more than just pleasure to see me. He will have been uncertain as well.
Jumping, biting and no impulse control has become his default response for dealing with the excitement he feels.
Both the lady and her adult son are accustomed to being bitten when Beau gets too excited. He bites sufficiently hard to bruise but not to break skin. He was an unusually nippy and bitey puppy. Like many people, they will unwittingly have encouraged teeth on human flesh through play – contact sports using their hands.
No impulse control.
A stitch in time saves nine, as they say. If, from the outset when Beau was a little puppy, both jumping up and grabbing with teeth were consistently and persistently met with no reinforcement but an acceptable alternative offered, he wouldn’t be doing it now.
Tug of war played properly is a much better game. Puppy has to learn that if teeth even unintentionally touch flesh, all fun immediately stops. He then learns to be careful.
Usually dogs like this will have very high stress levels and constantly be ready to ‘explode’. This doesn’t seem the case with Beau. His home is calm. Generally he’s no more excited than any other 9-month-old Labrador, but when he does get aroused, it’s always teeth.
Beau is given plenty of enrichment and he’s not left alone for too long. He doesn’t do the usual things that build stress in a dog such as excessive barking, getting over-excited before a walk and panicking when left alone.
It’s all around people
He has no impulse control around people. When someone comes to his house or if they meet people when out on a walk he morphs into a different dog.
Why does he find people quite so stimulating, I wonder? He has been very well socialised from the start.
The lady so much wants to have social walks with her lovely dog and to invite friends round, but she can’t because he bites them! Things are getting worse. Could this be that she herself is becoming increasingly anxious? As I sat with her in the kitchen, I could feel her very understandable tension and anxiety. If I could feel it, then so would Beau.
Having been rehearsing the biting and jumping for months since he was a small puppy, it will now be learned behaviour – a habit.
How can we break it?
Learned behaviour – a habit.
What we have to work on is both the cause of the behaviour as well as the behaviour itself – and this cause is over-excitement around people and no self-control when aroused.
To succeed, Beau must be prevented from rehearsing the biting anymore in every way possible. It simply has to be made impossible. Without an experienced professional actually living with them with nothing else to do than work with Beau, I can see no other way than extensive use of a basket muzzle to begin with. When he gets his ‘rough’ times at home with his family, when friends visit and when he’s out and likely to encounter people, his mouth has to be taken out of action.
This will be much better than banishing him.
A basket muzzle is best because he has freedom open and close his mouth, to drink and to eat treats. If introduced properly so that it’s always associated with good things, he shouldn’t mind it too much. I know this could be controversial.
Without now being hurt, they must now teach him different habits and better ways of getting attention. He also needs better ways of relieving his quick-building arousal and frustration levels. In removing the ability to bite from his repertoire, they need to supply replacement activities and outlets.
I suggested a gate for the kitchen so at times when he’s likely to use his teeth or when people come, he can go behind it with something acceptable to chew until he has calmed down. Use of ‘No’ and ‘Down’ can only increase his frustration whilst in a way being reinforcing to him as well.
When I was there, Beau held lead on harness to prevent the biting of me, we constantly used his food to reinforce every moment of desired behaviour. He sat, he got food. He lay down and was silently rolled a piece of his kibble.
The emphasis must now be on reinforcing the behaviour that they DO want. People, when out, will be kept at whatever distance is necessary while they work on his self-control using positive reinforcement. He will learn that sitting or standing calmly brings dividends but this is only possible when not too close.
Jumping and biting is simply Beau’s default both when aroused or when feeling unsure of himself – both at home and when out on walks.
We shouldn’t underestimate the effectiveness of a dog having something in his mouth where the teeth are, whether it’s a ball, something that squeaks or even a bone! It all depends – all dogs are different.
What actually is excitement anyway and is it always pure joy? Wouldn’t we feel excited on a Big Dipper? Wouldn’t we be feeling scared before a bungee jump and isn’t that part of the buzz?
As Beau gains some self control and is helped to calm down around people, the muzzle can be used less and less until it’s no longer necessary.
NB. For the sake of the story and for confidentiality also, this isn’t a complete ‘report’ with every detail, but I choose an angle with maybe a bit of poetic licence. The precise protocols to best use for your own dog may be different to the approaches I have worked out for Beau. Finding instructions on the internet or TV that are not tailored to your own dog can do more harm than good as the case needs to be assessed correctly. One size does not fit all so accurate assessment is important. The muzzle idea may be totally inappropriate in another case. Everything depends upon context. If you live in my own area I would be very pleased to help with strategies tailored to your own dog (see my Help page).