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Raising Fido: acquired bite inhibition (ABI)

Updated: Apr 20, 2021

If someone asked you “what is the most dangerous dog,” what would you say?

There are a lot of opinions available with a quick google search and often the opinions revolve around certain breeds. What if I told you that the answer isn’t inherently any particular breed or size of dog, but that it is in fact any dog who has not acquired bite inhibition. Bite inhibition refers to a dog’s learned ability to control the pressure they apply with their mouth (aka jaws) when biting so as not to inflict injury.

Adolescent and adult dogs who do not have an inhibited bite can pose a threat to people and other animals because if they ever do bite it is likely there will be damage. This is the point where a dog’s size then matters – the bigger the dog, the more serious the injury will be of course.

What if I told you that the most dangerous dog isn’t inherently any particular breed or size of dog, but that it is in fact any dog who has not acquired bite inhibition.

Prioritizing the acquisition of mouth control is vital for all dogs, but especially those who will be around children or other small animals. We never want our dogs to feel like they don’t have a choice other than to bite to express their feelings, but if they ever find themselves in that position, knowing that they have good mouth control can make all the difference for the individual involved and the dog.

Playful mouthing is normal behaviour and a soft mouth is a key development area to focus on throughout puppyhood, during which puppies rehearse species-specific skills in preparation for real life. Your pup’s adult teeth will begin the process of pushing out their milk (aka baby) teeth between 8-12 weeks of age. Over the course of the next 14 - 30 weeks 28 baby teeth are replaced by 42 adult teeth. This timeline means the bite inhibition clock is ticking from the moment you bring home that bundle of knives…er.. I mean joy ;P

I can hear you now… “Jodi, my pup’s teeth are SO sharp, is this normal?” You’re right, puppy teeth are very sharp, they have even acquired the oh so cute nickname of “landshark”. The leading hypotheses surrounding why puppies’ teeth are so sharp has three components:

  • to aid the process of weaning off mom’s milk

  • to provide the ability to start eating meat without yet having the necessary jaw strength on board

  • to assist with learning mouth control aka bite inhibition (!)

(quick fact: despite popular myth dogs are actually omnivores not carnivores)

Yes, you read that right! Because puppies lack the jaw strength to inflict any real injury it doesn’t take much to make a playmate go “ouch” followed by a pause (albeit however brief) in the action which sends direct feedback to the mouthing pup that if they want play to continue then next time be a little softer and you’ll get to keep playing. It is critical for dogs to learn how to use their mouths without injurious force before their true jaw strength develops, and this is mostly achieved through the act of play-biting.

“When humans forbid play-biting, puppies don’t get feedback on their jaw strength and are at higher risk to grow up without this important line of defense against aggression. Dogs with poor bite inhibition are more difficult to treat for any kind of aggression problem because of the dire consequences of any re-offenses along the way. When they bite, they inflict worse damage than soft-mouthed dogs. It is therefore extremely wise to allow soft play-biting from puppies and to target the harder bites with immediate non-violent consequences, such as time-outs, to teach the puppy to bite softly before teaching him to not bite altogether.”
Jean Donaldson – Founder & Principal Instructor, The Academy for Dog Trainers

One of the best things you can do for your pup’s mouth control development is to enroll them in a puppy only class that offers free-play with other suitable puppies in a controlled and sanitized environment lead by a certified rewards-based trainer.

Anecdotal data collected over decades has led several renowned trainers to suggest that it is extremely unlikely a dog’s bite can be modified to be softer under all circumstances once they have reached adulthood, which is approximately 2 years of age for most dogs. For a dog to humanely co-exist with us it is imperative that they learn how to control the weapons with which they have been born; and since pups are often removed from their litter at 8 weeks of age the onus falls to pet parents to provide appropriate opportunities to safely learn this skill. So now you’re thinking, “ok Jodi, that’s great there is an evolutionary reason for my puppy’s shark mouth, but that doesn’t change the fact that it hurts, so what do I do?”

It’s important to notice the difference between when your pup is mouthing and when they are nipping. I recommend that adults (no kids please) practice soft mouthing with puppies. Adults are better equipped for a variety of reasons including timing and consistency for when to redirect to a chew toy, or clearly executing a timeout for a bite that is too hard – similar to how a puppy playmate would provide a clear consequence when the fun comes to a screeching halt.

Let your puppy softly mouth you and if/when your puppy begins to mouth too hard then…

  1. Redirect your puppy to a chew toy or tug toy to continue playing.

  2. If your puppy continually ditches the toy redirection then try a “backwards timeout”. Say “ouch” and then you immediately leave the area to a place where your pup cannot see you anymore, and cannot follow you, wait about 10 seconds then calmly come back out and let your pup try to engage with you again more softly. If your pup bites too hard again, or starts up with nipping clothing, repeat the protocol – be very matter of fact about marking the hard mouthing with “ouch” the instant it happens (no need to be scary with this though) and immediately leave so that it will become clearer to your pup via repetition what it is that is making the fun stop and that they have the ability to keep it going.

Mouthing on skin should be entirely faded out by 20 weeks using the same protocol on progressively softer mouthing and then for teeth touching skin at all.

Nipping is not something we would be wise to foster in our dogs at any age so when it comes to nipping/tugging at clothing or otherwise Nickala Squire, CTC of Carefree Canine says this is her go to protocol:

  1. Address the root cause (lack of puppy play, lack of toys to sink teeth into, lack of exercise and/or enrichment); and

  2. Teach a “leave it” cue working up to real clothing items used as distractions.

By design, puppies are built to explore the world using their mouths. Having a good understanding of this will make transitioning to life with fido much less stressful. And training your puppy to bite softly may just be the most important skill they ever learn–one that keeps both Fido and the people they encounter safe.

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