My Dog Didn’t Bite, Thanks to Dr. Dunbar

Layla the foster beagle finds a good view on top of the couch.

A disaster waiting to happen?

Silent Terror

It happened in slow motion.

Layla, the Beagle we’re fostering, had climbed up on the back of the sofa to get a good view out the window. Honey, my Golden Retriever, was sleeping on the cushions below.

As Layla began to lose her balance, I tried to catch her. I was too slow. She fell, hard, onto Honey.

Honey woke up, startled. Then she watched placidly as Layla bounced off her kidneys.

I’ve seen similar happenings with other dogs. They never end well.

And Honey could have done a lot of damage given Layla’s small size and short coat.

But she didn’t. And I thank Dr. Ian Dunbar.

Any Dog Can Bite

I can hear you now. “Well of course she didn’t bite. Honey is so sweet.” Or, “You know Golden Retrievers. They have that soft mouth.”

But Dr. Dunbar convinced me how important it was to teach bite inhibition when I read his examples of the reactions of dogs who had been awoken, startled, or hurt. The dog who mauled the arm of a woman who had accidentally shut a car door on his tail — was a Golden Retriever.

Any dog can lash out in shock or pain. The idea behind teaching bite inhibition in puppies is so that even if they do snap or make contact with teeth, they won’t break skin.

And it works.

Honey was very rough with her teeth as a puppy. I’ve heard other people with Golden Retrievers say the same thing. They explore with their mouths. And those sharp puppy teeth are terrible.

I spent much of Honey’s early weeks with us in tears. And I wondered if I hadn’t made a big mistake getting a puppy.

How to Teach a Dog Not to Bite

The best teacher is a Mama dog and brother and sister puppies.

Dr. Dunbar’s steps for teaching a puppy to inhibit her bite remind me of what you’d see in a litter.

  • Say “ouch” or yelp when a puppy bites too hard. Spend a moment “licking your wounds” before calling the puppy back to you to sit and play some more.
  • If puppy continues to bite, leave the room briefly. Return a few moments later to resume play.
  • Continue to yelp for the hardest bites as the puppy softens his grip until he makes only gentle contact.
  • Finally, teach the puppy to stop mouthing on cue using food or a toy as a distraction.

It worked.

To this day, if my finger ends up in Honey’s mouth during an athletic game of tug, she instantly loosens her grip.

Honey the Golden Retriever puppy

Hard to believe I was ever frightened of this fuzzy land shark.

Life Long Learning

I know that when I need to handle Honey’s teeth or jaws I’m safe.

But we still practice her skills. We interrupt every exciting game of tug to make sure Honey knows how to release her grip when we ask her to.

If Honey was ever injured, I’d like to know that anyone who tried to help her would be safe.

I wasn’t thinking of that when she was a bitey little puppy. I just wanted her to stop.

But I’m glad Dr. Dunbar did. Because Honey’s bite inhibition has been a blessing to me.

But it’s an even bigger blessing to the clumsy foster Beagle who can’t stay off the back of the couch.

Note: I recommend Before and After Getting Your Puppy: The Positive Approach to Raising a Happy, Healthy, and Well-Behaved Dogby Dr. Ian Dunbar to anyone thinking of getting a puppy. And check out some of my other favorite dog books.

What would it take to make your dog bite? Have you ever taught bite inhibition to a puppy? How about a grown dog?

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  1. We haven’t had a puppy in many years, but we are teaching SlimDoggy how to take treats gently. He tends to take your whole hand without much thought about where your fingers end and the treat begins. We’re using techniques similar to what you outlined above but in our case holding the treat almost enclosed in our fist until he starts to lick and nuzzle before releasing. It’s slowly working, but your post has prompted me to do a bit more research to see if Dr. Ian has additional suggestions. Thanks!

  2. I think Sampson is safe. Notice the word think. We’ve had him since he was 8 weeks old and while I didn’t read Dr. Dunbar’s book, we followed just about all of those rules. I would never hesitate to stick my hand in his mouth. I have seen him snark at other dogs but I’ve never seen him make contact.

    Delilah on the other hand came to us at about 18 months old. Yes, I can stick my hand in her mouth without her biting me, but I have as yet not been able to teach her to take a treat gently. I’ve done the loud noise, the pull away and once I do that she does take the treat gently but the next time I offer the treat. WHAM, she snaps again.

    She’s also gone after other dogs so I have no idea what would happen if someone or something fell on her. :-( The good thing is, we keep working on it.

    Great post Pamela and so lucky for Layla and Honey! :-)

    • Sue at The Golden Life says:

      Jodi, I SO understand about Delilah going after other dogs! Ducky gets possessive of toys, especially when Shadow has one. She gets a case of “the mines” and starts growling at Shadow. If I don’t get to her fast enough and pull her away, Shadow responds in kind and an “argument” ensues. Luckily, I’ve learned to keep one eye on Ducky and the other on everything else so that ugly incidents have been averted these last few months.

  3. My Bruno knew well not to bite…and then came the time when he was engaged in some extra rough play with another dog that I didn’t like…I forgot all the rules and tried to break it up by sticking my hand in the middle and sure enough I was bitten by Bruno…I let out a real yelp of pain and he stopped immediately, slunk into a corner and (my interpretation of course) hung his head in shame, knowing he did wrong…In this instance I did not see the need to correct him as I actually blamed myself

  4. Molly was a horror puppy and even now she sometimes play ankle bite-y which I hate as she does bite. Otherwise apart from her mad moments she doesn’t bite. We too like Gizmo stuck our hand in stop a dog attacking Pippin. The bite was bad and we had one operation that day to cut the hand to the bone and clean it and a mega does of antibiotics followed. I don’t regret it as I will not have my dogs attacked. Have a super Saturday.
    Best wishes Molly

  5. We used the same technique when Sage was a puppy and it really does work. I haven’t reinforced it lately, so this is a good reminder!

  6. It sounds good and I like Dr. Dunbar, but having terriers, making noise when they try to bite incites them. Jack Russells are a breed that is meant to hunt and work game directly down in a dark burrow underground, so the prey making noise is one thing that let’s them know they are near and to keep working them.

    The getting up and walking away works wonderfully with them, because they learn the fun ends. Terriers like fun.

    • Very good point, Dawn. I occasionally hear from others that their dog is riled up by a yelp instead of put off by it. I find it instinctive, though, to make a noise. With some dogs, I’d probably try a growl instead of a yelp for just the reason you mention.

      But the time out seems to be the key. Great to have a dog motivated by fun.

  7. So important to teach bite inhibition, especially when, like myself, you end up fostering and raising orphaned pups that don’t have their siblings to help teach them.

  8. Smart! This is definitely very important information for anyone with a new puppy to learn and use. Fortunately, I’ve instinctively used Dr. Dunbar’s method without ever hearing about it. None of the dogs I’ve had in my life have bitten anyone, even when startled or accidentally hurt.

  9. Sam has always been like that. The few times he has reacted – his bite is very soft and barely touches me. In his old age he is getting protective of himself and tends to growl a little more than he used to. He has space in the house that is Monty free – if Sam feels he is being crowded he goes there. It works very well.


  10. Holy mackerel, Kuster was a horrible biting little beast! I tried the yelping technique, and that just incited him further. Having Morgan around was a Godsend, because she taught him what I couldn’t, and she was such a fantastic puppy nanny while he was little. What I started to do was just put him back in the crate or ex-pen when he bit me and ignore him. To this day, I am still the person he most wants to be with, and the boy has a SERIOUS set of teeth on him. He accidentally got me once while we were playing with a toy, and he stopped right away. It wasn’t until that time that I realized how far we’d come from those demon puppy days!

  11. Yes, yes, yes! I get very anxious when people don’t want to follow the gradual step-down protocol. I’ve seen people recommend using clicker training to teach a puppy not to bite a hand that approaches, but that is only teaching half of the equation (and the less important half.)

    I don’t have any confidence that Silas wouldn’t bite a person, but I do have confidence that unless the circumstances were really, truly extreme he wouldn’t bite them hard enough to hurt them. It’s the positive side of how mouthy he was as a puppy.

  12. I’ve never taught Georgia how to bite softly but she seems to do it naturally. I was a bit surprised since she is a fearsome pig dog. Maybe it’s a technique she honed so she can steal food gently from babies without making them bawl. She has been in one dog fight before but even the owner of that dog said Georgia was very patient (her dog kept running and slamming into Georgia to get her to play and wouldn’t take no for an answer) before the straw broke the camel’s back.

    On a related subject, I thump and smack her at random places all over her body, and pull her tail a fair bit (controlled of course) so she can build up some tolerance and won’t get a shock if e.g. a child did that to her. I make it fun so she won’t think of it as threatening. I think it works because even the vet has mentioned how easy she is to handle!

  13. Gee, that’s something I never even thought about. (And I had small kids with my puppies!) Fortunately, none of my dogs were ever biters, even in play. Happy Sunday!

  14. I used to nip alot when I was a pup and they tried all kinds of things to stop me till someone told them about the ‘ouch’ thing, they were amazed when it worked.

  15. We were so lucky! Dr. Dunbar actually spent a few weeks with our puppy class. (Our trainer studied with him.) Such a wealth of information and great techniques. Kol will sometimes catch you with his teeth, but it’s never intention and he lets right go. Thank goodness!

  16. I know an old school trainer who, when this was suggested to her, said it is just nuts to teach a dog to bite in the first place and that they should be taught never to touch their teeth to human skin.

    Personally, I have never raised a puppy myself, but from the many books I’ve read, I think Dunbar’s route is the way to go. It makes more sense. Like you said, accidents happen.

    My Toby is a Lab and he is sweet and submissive too (as you know). But he’s bitten me by accident in play and I can tell you he does not know what bite inhibition is. Again, I don’t think he’d ever bite maliciously, but the thought of how much damage he could do, if he ever did, is frightening…

  17. Luna was pretty feisty with her teeth as a puppy, but we did similar things mentioned in your posts for bite prevention. I was bitten (in the face) as a small child by a wonderful family dog, so this topic has always been important to me.

  18. I use the same techniques, although I had a hell of time with Brut when he was younger. I swear he was all teeth. He was always jumping and nipping at me, I didn’t realize until way later he was scared and looking for security. I can rough house with him now and he is good with his bite. I’ve never really had any problems with bite inhibition except Brut. And Brut would be the one I have a problem him biting a dog who startled him and could easily turned into a fight. But there’s not much problem with that either, cause everyone stays away from Brut in the house. :)

  19. One of the most common phrases when we first got Moree (our Aussie) was “Don’t bite my nose.” He would go from giving you kisses to nibbling on you very subtly. Smokey never seemed to need correction, and luckily, he taught Junebug bite inhibition very well (without ever hurting her in any way).

  20. Tucker was taught bite inhibition as a puppy also. When playing, he is always careful not to bite too hard. Also from the teachings of Ian Dunbar.

  21. excellent post! a friend of mine just got a puppy. i’ll be sharing this with her for sure.

    • I’m the friend! Thanks to Lauren for sharing and thank you for writing a great post.

      The Dunbar book was recommended to me, but I have two other half-finished books that I haven’t been able to pick up since Bailey, a Lab mix, came home with us. I’ve been doing all of these things, but it was nice to see assurance that we’re on the right track.

      As someone who has never had a dog before, let alone a puppy, I actually found this part to be the most helpful. “I spent much of Honey’s early weeks with us in tears. And I wondered if I hadn’t made a big mistake getting a puppy.” This has described the past two weeks.