Many people have heard, read, or even seen the advice to bite your dog if it bites you. Allegedly, inflicting this same tit-for-tat behavior on your dog communicates that biting is bad and prevents future biting. But this isn’t true.
Biting your dog if it bites you is an ineffective correction and training method. It can cause more problems than it resolves, and may even lead to increased aggression. In order to stop your dog from biting, you need to address the root cause of the biting.
Finding out why your dog bit you and taking steps to prevent this in the future is the correct way to respond to your dog biting you. Biting your dog back won’t accomplish either of these goals and may damage the bond between you and your dog.
Owners may feel a variety of emotions when their dog bites them: fear, anger, surprise, and even confusion. However, it’s important to try to stay calm and provide correction. If you’re unsure why your dog bit you or it was an act of aggression, de-escalation is especially important. Conversely, biting your dog back is an irrational act that does more harm than good for many reasons.
Why You Shouldn’t Bite Your Dog
Biting your dog is an ineffective and potentially harmful way of trying to prevent the same behavior in your pooch. Instead of getting the outcome you want— no more biting— you may be causing the opposite and encouraging aggressive or inappropriate behavior.
You’re Punishing Your Dog, Not Correcting Them
The terms ‘punishment’ and ‘correction’ may seem similar, but actually have very important differences. Punishment is when aversive training is used after a dog has exhibited “bad” behavior— in this case, biting. Punishment is used to reprimand a dog (often physically) for past behaviors. But correction is used to communicate what the dog did wrong (i.e., biting is bad), reprimand them for it during or immediately after, and prevent future repetitions and effects of that behavior.
Punishments and aversive training methods include:
- Biting your dog anywhere on their body, including ears and legs
- Spanking your dog on their hind quarters, head, or nose
- Yelling at your dog or otherwise using a very loud, aggressive tone
- Hitting your dog using your hands or another object
- Shaking your dog by their scruff or bodily
- Choking your dog or otherwise cutting of their air
- Hanging your dog using their leash or other instrument
All of these can cause negative side effects that can be worse than the initial bad behavior of biting.
Alternatively, correction methods that are more successful include:
- Scolding the dog in a firm (but not loud) voice
- Putting the dog in a timeout outside or in a specific space
- Taking away toys, treats, or other valued items
- Ignoring the dog or taking away attention
Keep in mind, correction needs to happen during or immediately after the undesirable behavior has occurred. The examples above are all what you can do after your dog bites you instead of biting them back.
Biting Your Dog Can Cause More Problems
When your dog bites you and you bite them back, you may be causing more problems than you solve (if you solve any, that is). Many people think that biting their dog will have two main benefits: it communicates that biting is bad and that the owner is in charge. In reality, neither of these are accomplished.
Instead, you may be causing other future issues. Biting your dog is a form of aversive or negative training that can cause behavioral, emotional, or psychological issues in your dog. These types of training methods can damage the bond you have with your dog and make them less likely to view you or interact with you in a positive manner.
Side effects of biting your dog and using negative training methods include:
- Increased aggression – because you’ve used a physical show of force on your dog, they may view you as a threat, which could lead to more aggression and biting.
- Insecurity and fear – for the same reasons, your dog may now be insecure around you or fearful of your presence because they associate it with a negative memory.
- Confusion – if your dog doesn’t understand why you bit them, it won’t resolve the behavior; instead, they’ll just be confused and unsure about what you want.
- Withdrawn personality – even just one use of negative training like biting your dog back can cause them to withdraw and refrain from showing their true personality around you.
These are just a few of the side effects you may be accidentally causing. All of them result in a damaged bond between you and your dog and a lack of trust.
You’re Addressing the Behavior, Not the Cause
Though you’ll need to correct your dog’s behavior when they bite, to prevent future biting you’ll need to find out why your dog bit you. Biting them back won’t accomplish this. Instead, it just addresses a symptom of the problem. Take a hard look at your surroundings and behavior when your dog bit you. Also look at your dog’s body language. Try to identify some possible causes of why your dog bit you.
- Overexcitement – When you and your dog play, is your dog getting overexcited and/or overstimulated? If this is the case, your dog may be crossing boundaries and engaging in rough play that is inappropriate or harmful.
- Fear – Did your dog become scared of you, another person, or something in their surroundings? If your dog feels scared, their “fight or flight” reflex might kick in. If flight isn’t a viable option, it’s possible they bit you in an attempt to defend themselves from a real or perceived threat.
- Pain – Is it possible that your dog is in pain and their biting is an expression of that? It may be that your dog doesn’t want to be touched in specific spots or in general. This can be a result of a natural pain, like arthritis, or pain resulting from an injury or surgery.
- Protection – Was your dog trying to protect themselves, another person or animal, or an object from their surroundings? Protective tendencies may kick in when your dog feels the need to protect something, such as their food or a family member.
- Frustration – Is your dog biting to express their frustration with a situation? Dogs that are overwhelmed with a situation they can’t escape, such as an overenthusiastic dog or child with “grabby hands,” may bite in order to express or relieve their anxiety and stress.
- Instincts – Is your dog a breed that has strong hunting or herding instincts? If so, your dog may have a natural tendency to nip, which can easily lead to biting. This is commonly directed at legs, ankles, and hands.
All of these reasons may be why your dog bit you. If you can definitively identify the reason, address it to prevent future instances of biting. If you can’t figure out why your dog is biting you, consult with a training professional and your veterinarian.
It’s Not an Effective Corrective Method
Biting your dog back or using other physical forms of punishment isn’t going to prevent your dog from biting you again. Instead of biting or spanking them, try other forms of correction and prevention:
- Teach bite inhibition – bite inhibition is your dog’s ability to control the force behind their mouth. This is the difference between playful mouthing and serious biting. If your dog bit you accidentally, it’s useful to teach bite inhibition. When your dog bites again, try stopping playtime, ignoring them, or “yelping” loudly or sternly reprimanding them. You can also reward them for correctly mouthing or playing with you.
- Substitute a toy – when your dog bites you, take away your arm (or whatever part of your body was bitten) and substitute in an appropriate object they can bite. This can include toys, treats, etc. After your dog bites you, immediately correct them and provide them with what you would prefer they bite.
- Use appropriate contact – if you play with your dog by roughhousing, wrestling, or engaging in another physical form of play, consider stopping it. Your dog may be getting overexcited or misconstruing what behavior is appropriate. Try encouraging noncontact forms of play, such as tug of war, or contact forms of play where the rules are very strict and easy to understand.
- Institute a time out – when your dog bites you, give them a signal (a stern “no” or yelp) and then put them in a time out session that is 30 – 60 seconds long. This can come in the form of putting your dog outside or in a specific space like the kitchen. It can also mean you turning your back on your dog or ignoring them.
These are all effective correction methods that are more likely to stop your dog from biting. However, all of these methods assume that your dog bit you without malice. That is, your dog didn’t intentionally mean to harm you or attack you. If they did, you’ll need to refer to the previous reason and identify and remove the underlying cause of your dog’s aggression.
Whether or not it’s intentional, if you can’t identify why your dog is biting you and resolve the issue, talk with a licensed trainer or other professional. You should also consult with your veterinarian to make sure the dog isn’t biting as a result of a health-related issue.
The Possible and Problematic Origin of the Advice
Biting your dog and/or your dog’s ear to establish dominance seems to be an old wives’ tale with no discernible origin. However, some of its roots can be traced back to more concrete and controversial sources. Biting a dog is reminiscent of the methods advocated for in dominance training. Dominance training revolves around establishing owners as the dominant or “alpha” member of their household. It often focuses on negative reinforcement, punishment, and other corrective training methods.
The Koehler method of training, named for trainer William “Bill” Koehler, is deeply steeped in traditional and dominance training methods. Despite being introduced in the early 1940s, it is still by far the most popular form of dominance training. Koehler was a trainer that worked with military dogs, “difficult” or “problem” dogs, and even served as the head animal trainer for Walt Disney Studios. Among other accomplishments, he is credited with publicizing obedience training and its possibilities. As animals he worked with starred in prize-winning films and the dogs themselves won awards for their performances, the public became more aware of how they could better train their dogs.
However, Koehler’s training methods favor punishment. This means that dogs would receive a negative or aversive treatment after exhibiting a behavior the owner finds undesirable, such as digging or biting. He theorized that punishment would discourage the dog from continuing “bad” behavior.
Some examples of the negative reinforcement methods he used included:
- “Choke chains” – These types of collars have blunt tips on the inside of them, which cause a pinching or “choking” sensation when they are pulled tight. They were used on dogs that excessively pulled on their leashes, encouraging the dog to stay close to its owner.
- “Throw chains” – These chains were used to control dogs from a distance. If an owner called its dog and the dog didn’t respond, these chains were used to hit the dog in its rear. At the same time of the hit, the owner pulled the leash to force the dog to return to its owner’s side.
- Spanking – Spanking could be accomplished with a hand, belt, or other flat object such as newspaper. It was used to discourage dogs from a variety of “bad” behaviors. A more common behavior it was used for was excessive barking. If a dog barked and didn’t heed the order to stop, spanking was used to reinforce the order.
- Nose control – Controlling the dog’s nose was alleged to show dominance, as it gave owners an easy point of power over the dog. It was used to discourage a variety of behaviors, but was often recommended to stop digging. Owners were advised to fill the holes with water and hold their dog’s noses or head underwater.
Such techniques are just a few examples of Koehler’s methods. They focus on exhibiting control over the dog by using physical force. It is not unbelievable, then, that this method gave rise to other, similar tactics such as biting a dog to establish dominance.
An interesting and somewhat strange link between Koehler’s method and this dubious advice comes in the form of the 2002 Disney movie “Snow Dogs.” In the movie, the main character is repeatedly instructed to bite the ear of his unruly dog in order to curb its aggressive behavior. The main character finally bites his dog, and though onlookers express incredulity by claiming they were joking, the dog submits to the owner and its aggressive behavior stops.
Controversy Over Training Methods
Though dominance training and Koehler’s method were widely popular— and still are, in many circles—and successfully used to train hundreds of thousands of dogs, they are increasingly less common. These training methods and the devices they employ are often considered abusive at worst and ineffective at best.
A common critique of dominance training and Koehler’s method is that they fail to address the root causes of “bad” behaviors. For example, if a dog was prone to digging to relieve boredom, his method would stop the dog from digging but not resolve the underlying issue of boredom. In turn, this could potentially lead to other “bad” behaviors later on. Using the same example, the dog stopped digging, but may have started chewing shoes instead because it was still bored. The symptom is cured, but not the underlying cause.
There is controversy in the training community about how much force is needed to control and train a dog, or if it’s needed at all. In addition to this, there’s contention about how reliable different training methods are. The two sides, proponents of positive reinforcement training vs proponents of negative reinforcement training, generally focus on the following two viewpoints:
- Pro-Positive Reinforcement: claim methods like Koehler’s are unethical and can cause physical and/or emotional trauma to the dog, leading to other behavior issues later on in addition to potential emotional and psychological trauma.
- Pro-Dominance and Negative Reinforcement: claim that other methods are ineffective and unreliable, especially in high-stakes situations, such as when a dog gets off leash runs into a busy street.
But no matter what training methodology you ascribe to, it’s clear that biting your dog is not an effective training tool. It doesn’t prevent your dog from biting in the future and it doesn’t resolve the reason your dog bit you in the first place. There are plenty of reasons why you shouldn’t bite your dog, but this is the most important one: it doesn’t work.
Instead of biting your dog, focus on using proven and effective correction and training methods.