Your dog, Maximillion, loves to playfully nip at other dogs. He doesn’t seem to bite down hard, and the other dogs never seem agitated. But you wonder if this is normal behavior and if he is actually causing any harm. Once in a while, Maximillion does get very angry when another dog tries to mess with any of his personal property; he snarls, clenches his teeth, and has bitten another dog that was trying to steal his favorite dog bone. You feel this behavior is probably normal, but also do not want to encourage it. You also wonder how you can tell the difference between when Maximillion is playing and when he is angry. Most importantly, you want Maximillion to be safe to himself and to other dogs.
The Root of the Behavior
Dogs biting each other can be a scary scene, but it also can be a friendly and playful form of entertainment. It is important that owners know the difference between dangerous dog biting and play, and this can sometimes be difficult to differentiate. Dogs grow up nipping one another from the time they are puppies. Puppies want to explore and investigate this colossal ever-changing world and do so through mouthing objects, people, and playfully nipping other dogs. This is normal developmental behavior, but as a dog ages, they should learn how to play fair and also know the difference between play and aggression towards other dogs, which is learned through experience and body language. Dogs do bite other dogs for negative reasons as well. They will do so if they feel scared, threatened, or frustrated to name a few reasons. Abandoned and neglected dogs are more likely to bite other dogs, while dogs that are in loving and caring homes are usually not at high risk for biting, although it does sometimes happen. Sometimes dogs also get too rough while playing and may harm another dog in the process, but this is rare. A dog that is playing around usually appears more relaxed and happy. Dogs have meta signals that they use to allow other dogs to know their frame of mind. For example, the playful dog may bow to another dog as a gesture for play or run in a bouncy way to let the other dog know that he comes in peace and wants to play, not fight. It also is usually evident that the other dog playing seems to be enjoying himself too. When a dog is agitated and about to bite for negative reasons, he also shows meta signals that he does want to fight and warns the other dog to get out of his way. His posture completely changes. He may stand upright with perked ears. He may be growling and nipping at the air towards the other dog. Rather than his muscles appearing relaxed, they will appear tightened and tense.
Encouraging the Behavior
Knowing why Maximillion is biting will help you understand if his behavior should be condemned or warranted. When you take him to the dog park, and he is playing with his pal, Sam, then there is probably no need for concern. But you have to read his signals. If Maximilian sees an unfamiliar dog that is trying to go after his bone, he might get agitated, start snarling and defend his territory just like his ancestors did. During a time like this, the owner has to be careful to interfere because they can risk getting bitten too. This is where the command, “Come!” comes in handy. Get Maximillion away from the other dog and prevent the bites before they happen. This, of course, requires constant supervision around other dogs but is necessary for his safety. You also can help your dog know the intensity of play biting by teaching him about this from a very young age. If you get your dog as a puppy, let him mouth your hand and even nip your hand gently, but as soon as he bites, even a little bit too hard, let out a loud yelp and ignore him for a couple minutes. Repeat this process over and over again, and he will recognize that the intensity of his bite can be fun or hurtful. He will transfer this knowledge to his play with other dogs. Dogs explore and investigate through biting, and this can be very natural for puppies, but even when playing, sometimes dogs accidentally cause other dogs pain. However, dogs eventually learn through play how to be gentle: an important skill that also benefits interactions with humans.
Other Solutions and Considerations
In addition to teaching your dog about the intensity of his bite, it is also essential to create a happy home for your pooch. As stated above, dogs that are neglected, abused, and abandoned, tend to have more pent up aggression and bite more than dogs who are in a friendly and loving home. Provide chew toys for your dog and prevent boredom by playing fetch and tug of war. Be careful of getting in the middle of two biting dogs and yell, “Come!” for an easy-to-learn command. Also, make sure your dog plays only with other vaccinated dogs. Furthermore, learn to read your dog’s meta signals. Observe body language when two dogs are nipping at each other and know that spayed and neutered dogs are less likely to bite. This is an option that you may want to consider if you are not breeding or eager to host a litter of puppies. It is also important to understand that some dogs have stronger bites than others.
Maximillion mostly seems to nip at other dogs when he is playing. He comes from a good, healthy home and doesn’t show a lot of pent-up aggression, and he gets plenty of mental and physical stimulation, which also helps with his calm demeanor around other dogs. But Maximilian does get territorial over his property: bones, stuffed hedgehog toy, dog bed, and if another dog tries to mess with those things, he might nip at them in a non playful way. You have learned these triggers and are there to prevent them before they happen. You enjoy taking Maximillion to the dog park where he and his best pal, Sam, nip each other’s necks, bow to one another, and bounce along in friendly glee. Although there are some instances of dogfights, they are more rare than common, and in the words of the Hungarian ethologist Vilmos Csány, “In some...animal rescue organizations, more than a hundred dogs … coexist peacefully.” You believe Maximillion will learn to coexist peacefully too.