Dogs, despite their ability to integrate into our social structures better than any other animal, are very different creatures from us. Their minds have different priorities (in addition to having minuscule reasoning ability in comparison), they mostly experience the world through smell, instead of visually, as we do (and our senses of smell are so weak in comparison we struggle to understand their smell-centric world), and they lack one of our key characteristics- hands with opposable thumbs. Instead, when they want to experience something with touch, they use their mouths. This tendency, little understood by most people, often gets them in serious, even deadly, trouble.
Human understanding of what a 'dog bite' constitutes is vague at best, and often wildly misunderstood. Some uneducated humans judge any instance where a dog puts its teeth on a person as a 'bite'- an attempt to do actual harm. This highly inaccurate generalization is equivalent to saying that any time a person contacts another person with their hands, it means they were attacking them. Clearly, such a statement is absurd- people touch each other for many reasons, often in affectionate, not confrontational, ways. A slap or pat on the back is not an attack, a firm handshake is not an attempt to harm (although the bone-crushing approach some consider a way to show their firm character may feel like it). Even a firm shove, to separate individuals looking to fight, can be an effort at preserving peace, not an invitation to battle.
Let's describe three ways dogs use their mouths that in no way represent aggression or intent to do real harm, and should never be judged as evidence that a dog is a danger to humans or other dogs:
The Nibble of Love-
We humans are known to perform grooming acts on those we feel affection for, just like our primate relatives. Dogs do the same, but with no hands to work with, they use their mouths. Most dog owners have seen their dogs do this occasionally, using their front teeth to 'nibble clean' their fur or skin. Mother dogs will also do this to clean their puppies.
Like primate grooming, doggie grooming is both functional and used as a sign of affection. Dogs will lick to clean a well-loved pack member’s wounds, or ears, or face. They will similarly 'nibble clean' to show affection, when such cleaning is not really needed. This can also be a sign of submission, with the nibbler telling the 'nibble-ee' that they acknowledge their higher pack status, although it is not unfamiliar for a higher status dog to affectionally groom a lower status dog.
These nibbles of affection can get dogs in trouble unfairly, as a dog wanting to enthusiastically show affection (and perhaps submission) goes from licking to nibbling, occasionally causing the human (and especially small children) to overreact and accuse the dog of 'biting'. The way to prevent this 'nibble freak out' issue is to watch your dog and gently let them know that teeth are not welcome- if you effectively get this message across, they will happily do what they are asked and stop using their teeth.
Be aware that excessive, unwelcome, or too firm nibbles can be a form of dominance, like any doggie action that continues to be done even when the object of the action is making it clear that they are not enjoying the experience. This can be a subtle way of testing that what should be a more dominant pack member is truly more dominant, and will exercise their dominance when pressed. As no human should be seen as a lower status pack member by any dog, be sure that actions that start as true affection or submission don't stray into dominance, when the human object fails to set boundaries and stop unwanted behavior.
The Play 'Bite'-
Another dog 'bite' that gets misunderstood is the play bite. Like playful pulled punches and slaps that occur when human youngsters play 'fight', dogs often put their mouths on each other when playing. Like the vicious-sounding growling and knockdowns that occasionally are a part of dog 'wrestling', these limited force bites are just part of the fun. And although dogs generally understand well that even a firm, but harmless, bite is an effort to have fun, humans who engage dogs in play will often take a sudden firm nip as something aggressive. If you decide to play like a dog, and specifically if you crank the excitement level up to where the pup is bouncing off the walls, be ready for some roughness, you are literally asking for it. You can, however, teach any dog that when playing with you, even at a fever pitch, firmly putting their mouth on you is prohibited. Simply correct the behavior, and/or suspend play anytime a too firm nip occurs.
The play bite can go too far, especially with puppies or other dogs that haven't been thoroughly socialized. Dogs must learn where play crosses over into bullying or aggression- with another, more experienced (and in many cases more dominant) dog correcting excessive force by responding with similar force and signals (like bared teeth) that tell the offender that they are crossing a line. Dog play, done correctly, is highly cooperative, to make sure no one gets nervous and flips the switch over to true aggression. Dogs will take turns being the aggressor or defender, or alternate which party is chasing the other. This highly choreographed 'fair play' is a great pack bonding method, as it teaches trust, even when deadly doggie tools, like their teeth, are involved. Think of human boxers sparring, where both parties are working to get better at fighting, not trying to knock each other out. The excessively hard bite is best prevented by stopping bites which are getting close to the edge of causing real damage, instead of dealing with the situation after blood has been drawn. If you’re playing with your dog roughly, be sure to keep excitement levels below a certain point, and/or quickly stop escalation in bite pressure.
The Warning 'Bite'-
The last kind of bite we will mention is the one closest to a genuine effort to harm, while also being a sincere attempt by the dog to avoid having to resort to a real bite. The warning bite is a light to painfully firm placing of a dog’s mouth on a party that is doing something they find uncomfortable or threatening. This bite is essentially equivalent to the police officer who in a dangerous confrontation either puts their hand on their gun, or actually draws it. It is an effort to say, 'I can hurt you, and will, if you don't stop doing that'. Sometimes, there is no obvious action that is being responded to, just a subtle increase in the threat level perceived by the dog. If the bite is soft and the dog doesn't seem to be particularly worked up, it is more a statement of 'I really would prefer you not do that, although I probably won't do anything serious if you do'. But if the dog is showing real signs of aggression- raised hackles, fixed eye contact, a tense, nervous-looking body posture, you should be thankful that the dog in question was polite enough to deliver a warning, and not a seriously damaging, bite.
To sum up, dogs use their mouths for many things, as in many ways they are equivalent to human hands: to explore strange objects tactilely, to express affection, to have rough fun, or to send serious messages. Dogs would be much better off if humans did a better job of understanding that what are often considered dangerous dog actions, putting their mouths and teeth on someone or something, do not represent true aggression. Sadly, many dogs have lost their homes, or even their lives, when efforts to communicate with their mouths are misunderstood.
©Paul Randall, 2017