Biting Often, Biting Hard
The Dog Trainer explains how bite threshold and bite inhibition can help you understand your dog better -- and keep you and your family bite-free.
"Bite threshold" and "bite inhibition."
Odds are, unless you're a dog trainer, you've never heard these phrases. But the simple concepts behind them are super useful for anyone who wants to understand their dog or needs to judge how safe—or not safe!—they are with a given dog.
Bite threshold has to do with how readily a dog will bite, in general or under particular circumstances. For instance, Zippy may try to pull away if you trim his nails; Dogalini may growl; Rover may bite your hand. We would say that Rover, who bites your hand, has a lower bite threshold during nail clipping than either Zippy or Dogalini. In different circumstances, the dogs might have different bite thresholds.
Here's another application of "bite threshold." Zippy starts the morning at the vet's office, where he gets vaccinations. The vaccination site is sore. On the way home, you're cranky because you're running late, so you yell at him when he gets his safety harness tangled up and you have to pull over to fix it. Later, your obnoxious neighbor, who's always rougher than Zippy likes, thumps him right on that sore vaccination spot—and Zippy bites him. We would say that stressors piled up to send Zippy above his bite threshold.
Notice that I haven't said how much damage my example dogs do with any of these bites. That's the department of "bite inhibition." In a completely uninhibited bite, the dog does as much damage as he is physically able to do. A powerful dog delivering an uninhibited bite to your hand may break bones. We can also speak of an uninhibited attack or an uninhibited fight. Most aggressive behavior is quite limited in scope—the dog bites your hand once, lets go, and doesn't come back for seconds. An uninhibited attack, if it's not stopped, will end in the victim's mutilation or death. (Uninhibited attacks on people get a lot of press but are so rare that you should probably spend more time worrying about getting tetanus from the safety pin you dropped on the floor three years ago and never found.)
Keep in mind the idea of bite threshold for those days when you know your dog's stressors are stacking up. Say your dog's scared at the vet and also shy around kids—don't schedule the vet appointment on the same day as your child's play date. Such caretaking can prevent Zippy from hitting his bite threshold, and so keep everybody safe.
Or suppose you have an existing aggression problem with your dog and you're trying to judge how bad things are. You might be inclined to feel safer if your dog rarely bites than if he snaps at the drop of a hat. But let's say every time that rare biter does bite, he clamps down and doesn't let go, whereas the dog who snaps at the drop of a hat has never left a mark. The snappy dog may well be the safer dog.
Of course, dogs don't all line up neatly into categories of snappy-but-safe and quiet-but-damaging. And if your dog's behavior worries you, don't go it alone—get qualified help.