Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Ian Dunbar Seminar: Socialization and Bite Inhibition

If Ian Dunbar has a soapbox, it’s socialization. He believes that all behavior and temperament problems in dogs can be prevented if we adequately socialize our puppies. This starts from the day they’re born and continues until the day they die.

The socialization period in dogs is fairly long, starting when the puppy is around four weeks old, and extending roughly through the twelfth week. (Some experts place it further out, closer to 14 to 16 weeks.) During this time, puppies are learning what’s normal and safe in the world. Anything they don’t experience is likely to be classified as dangerous. As a result, we need to expose our puppies to everything we possibly can to ensure that they will grow up to be non-reactive adults.

Ian emphasizes socialization to people- after all, a dog fearful of other dogs can avoid them if necessary, but will be forced to live with people for the rest of his life. To this end, Ian recommends that puppies meet five new people a day during the socialization period. (Of course, he should also meet as many other dogs as possible.) After that, he should meet three new people or dogs a day for the rest of his life in order to remain socialized.

Socialization is not about having lots of experiences, though. It’s about having lots of good experiences. All food should be hand fed so that it can be used to classically condition the puppy to love people and other dogs. While we should phase out treats as rewards for good behavior, we should continue to use food to classically condition our dogs for life.

That said, it is impossible to socialize a dog so that he never has an undesirable response to something. There are an infinite number of variables: different types of people, objects, and situations can come together in unpredictable combinations. We need to socialize our dogs so that they love people, but when we find the socialization opportunity that we missed, it is how our dogs respond that will matter. If (when) he bites, he must not cause harm.

This is accomplished by teaching our dogs good bite inhibition, and Ian’s soapbox about bite inhibition is interwoven with his soapbox on socialization. In fact, he’s created a handy chart to demonstrate this (click to embiggen):

As you can see, while the lack of socialization affects the quality of a dog’s life, the lack of bite inhibition can cost the dog his life. After all, those are the dogs that do serious damage if and when a bite occurs. I almost think the most dangerous dogs are the well-socialized ones with poor bite inhibition. Although they are far less likely to bite than a poorly-socialized dog, when they do, it will not only do significant damage, but it will also come as a surprise.

Ian outlined four stages to bite inhibition. He believes each step is necessary, and that you should follow the order closely. You’ll notice that in the early stages, puppy biting is allowed. It’s important to note, however, that this biting should happen on hands only, not on clothing. It is impossible to gauge how hard a puppy is biting when it’s on an inanimate object. Allowing the puppy to nip at your clothes teaches him to bite hard and to bite close to your body, which undermines the entire process.

Stage 1: No pain. The initial step to bite inhibition teaches the dog that his jaws can inflict pain on humans. Worse, he should learn that nothing good happens when he does. Ian recommends marking the behavior by saying “ow!” and then leaving or ending the play.

Stage 2: No pressure. When the puppy is no longer causing you pain, you must teach him that your skin is very delicate. Although teeth may touch your skin, there should be no pressure involved. Again, end the play session if there is.

Stage 3: Stop when I say. During this step, the puppy is still allowed to use his mouth- without pressure- but he must quit when you ask. Ian accomplishes this by teaching “leave it” (he calls it “off”) first. (You can read about how he teaches “off” here.) Once the puppy understands the meaning of “off,” you can start using it while playing with your puppy. If he doesn’t respond, get up and leave the play session.

Stage 4: Start only when I say. Finally, the dog is not allowed to initiate mouthing. Instead, he must wait for you to give him the cue. Ian recommends using something that others are unlikely to say, such as “kill me!” This step should be practiced daily for two to three years to maintain good bite inhibition.

Bite inhibition is also learned by playing with other puppies, which is why Ian believes going to an off-leash puppy class is so important. It is also why you should not get a puppy younger than eight weeks of age- they learn so much from their litter-mates. I was lucky with Maisy- when I met her at 14 weeks old, she still lived with a brother.

I was glad to hear that Ian doesn’t think that poorly socialized dogs like Maisy are automatically dangerous. Indeed, they can be quite safe if they have good bite inhibition. Although I totally believe that Maisy would bite if she felt threatened or overly harassed, I don’t think the resulting damage would be too bad. I don’t know that for sure- she was only pushed too far once. In that instance, she merely snapped at the child that was harassing her, and didn’t even come close to putting teeth on skin. Although one trial is not enough to accurately determine her relative safety, I’m still glad that she appears to have good bite inhibition.

How about your dogs? Maisy’s a yellow-box kind of girl on the chart above, but I bet I have readers with a wide range of dogs… or even dogs they’re unsure about. After all, less than a year ago, I wasn’t sure what Maisy would do if she was provoked into biting. I’m still nervous about it, of course, and you’d better believe that I’m much more cautious with her around children. Still, I’m curious to hear about your experiences.


Kristine said...

My dog Shiva is probably in the yellow category as well. She has improved a lot but she still doesn't particularly love strangers touching her. She tolerates it, especially if they have food, but she never seeks it out.

While I have never seen her bite anyone, she will bark if she feels intimidated or harrassed. At home she has excellent bite inhibition so I think, maybe I just hope?, if she was ever pushed by a person, she would show restraint then as well.

Luckily, we haven't had an opportunity to test this theory. She's never with others when we're not around and her exposure to children is restricted. Never hurts to be careful, right?

Thank you for writing all of this. It's a lot to take in but I think it's more than worthwhile.

Catalina said...

I'm not sure where Tibby would be. She loves people and other dogs (maybe a bit to much), but she has a hard time remembering not to mouth people.
Where can you find 3 new people for your dog to meet for the rest of its life. That's a lot of people!

Laura, Lance, and Vito said...

I was quite pleased with this part of the seminar. I loved that he didn't automatically discount dogs with aggression issues if they had good bite inhibition!

I don't know that your account with Maisy is the same as bite inhibition though. To me an air snap is part of the warning system, good, but not an indicator of how hard their mouth is if pushed to panic?

Lance wouldn't mouth me much as a puppy although I did try and encourage him. Always so mature! So while I believe he does have decent bite inhibition from a few accidental mouths, I'm not so sure. I know he's great with other dogs, but that's all I know for sure.

Vito I did encourage mouthing as a puppy and it was easy to do so! However I still think his mouth is harder than it should be just from the accidental owwies I get from playing tug every now and then. But is it fair to judge based on that where he is purposefully tugging very hard at another object and miscalculates where the rope ends?

Chuck has a very gentle mouth. I encouraged mouthing and the naughty boy still tries now and then. Always very gentle.

Crystal said...

Kristine- the interesting thing about my dog is that she is very social. However, she gets scared easily, and will become reactive (barking, lunging) as a result. I agree that you're lucky to never have tested out her bite inhibition, and think it's wise that you manage situations where she might feel overwhelmed.

Catalina- You've got me! I live in a major metro area, and even so, Maisy doesn't necessarily see three new people a day. Today we met one while on our walk, but I purposefully choose quiet locations so that's rare.

Laura- I guess I took her snap at my nephew as a level 1 bite on Ian's scale. She was clearly upset enough to deliver that warning, and yet chose not to make contact. I thought that showed great restraint (inhibition?) on her part. Honestly, I would not have faulted her if her teeth had touched the kid.

That said, I take your point that I still don't know how HARD she would bite if she ever felt the need to put teeth on skin. I hope I never find out.

She was never really a mouthy puppy. I can count on one hand the number of inappropriate items she chewed on. As a result, I never really had to teach her not to use her mouth.

We do play bitey face games now. (I know, I know- bad me!) She's great with those. She's very soft with her mouth, even when I'm snapping at her face with my teeth and hands. She'll snap around wildly, and though she does occasionally make accidental contact, it's never very hard. The only time her mouth gets sharky is when she's stressed. It's a great indicator of her arousal levels. Those "bites" hurt, but never leave a mark.

Crysania said...

I think that's a brilliant chart and I think you're accurate that the most dangerous dogs are the ones who are going to want to come around people but have little to no bite inhibition so if something does happen, their bite will be hard and unexpected.

I have no idea exactly what Dahlia's puppyhood socialization was, not having gotten her until she was 2 1/2 years old. But considering her personality and her reactions to people and other dogs I would say that someone did a good job with her. She's yet to meet someone she was afraid of and is eager to greet everyone around her. She definitely appears to be well-socialized and I'm glad that her former people don't seem like they were bad people.

I do know she has very good bite inhibition. She rarely lets her teeth come into contact with us. A couple times during play she has leapt for a toy and accidentally gotten my arm. She doesn't bite down at all and quickly pulled her mouth away. I wasn't even left with a scratch and that was during high drive, really hyped up play. She doesn't seem to like to use her teeth and even with dogs who are REALLY rude and in he face, she gives a warning growl, but turns her face away from them. She doesn't bite at THEM either.

So Dahlia? I'd say she's in the blue (erm...green?) safe area. I'm thankful for it and I'm guessing I won't be so lucky next time around!

Robin Sallie said...

You've seen the holes in my pants, my hands, my ankles, my sleeves...

But the furry little gator HAS figure out that toes are not mini hot dogs. And her bite, shark teeth and all, is not as hard as it used to be. She still uses that full mouth Schutzhund grip.

I'll let her continue to bite and give feed back on the pressure for another month or so.