What Your Dog’s Biting Means

“Bite inhibition” is somewhat of a misleading phrase. The word “inhibition” normally means something that restrains, blocks or suppresses. That is only partially true for a dog engaging in bite inhibition.

Dogs and cats have much more control over biting than you probably realize. They don’t just bite down on something with the same force each time. That is expected as the dog eats, needing to crunch down with force on a hard biscuit, for example, but with less energy for a tender morsel of dog chow. But dogs use this same adjustment when biting others -- including humans and different dogs.

Evelyn Pang and Hilary Louie, authors of the book Good Dog!: Kids Teach Kids About Dog Behavior and Training, explain that bite inhibition is when your dog bites down on you, without pushing in with its teeth. Essentially, it is mouthing or nipping you. Puppies do this a lot, nipping at your heels and other places. In the case of puppies, the young dogs are often just exploring their environment in a playful way. Nipping is one way to test the waters in terms of using their teeth and mouth and seeing how others will react.

For older dogs that bite in this seemingly harmless way, the dog is giving you a warning. You might be brushing the dog in an uncomfortable way or doing something else that is painful or stressful. If you do not heed the bite inhibition warning, the next bite will not be so gentle. If your dog nips for seemingly no reason, however, you might schedule a veterinary visit, as cranky dogs may have an underlying health issue. Your dog could also need a training refresher course to prevent the painless bites from turning into something more serious.

Photo: @iStockphoto.com/Tom-N

Small Dog Syndrome

“Small dog syndrome” refers to tiny dogs with a big attitude. In humans, a comparable phenomenon is called the “Napoleon complex.” That’s a phrase used to describe an inferiority complex held by people who are short in stature. Napoleon stood about 5 feet 6 inches, but what would today be considered a short stature obviously did not stand in the way of his military and political achievements. People with this complex are said to be driven by a perceived handicap to overcompensate in other aspects of their lives.

Small dogs, in turn, “get a bad rap for being yippy, yappy, snappy and high-strung,” say Wendy Nan Rees and Kristen Hampshire, authors of the Dog Lover’s Daily Companion. Rees and Hampshire, however, add that these little dogs don’t seem to care much about size. They think they’re big, so they act like it. The writers astutely ask: Have you ever seen a Bernese mountain dog back off from a feisty Chihuahua? The Chihuahua will probably be the one that doesn’t back down. (Owners, however, should be present to take control of such situations and prevent them in the first place.)

Rees and Hampshire propose a very interesting theory about small dog syndrome. They believe it is rooted in people’s willingness to overlook bad behavior. They explain that because small dogs can usually just be scooped up in our arms, we tend to slack on obedience training. With larger dogs, such training is often not ignorable.

The solution to curing a small dog of this syndrome is to just stick to a training plan. Be sure to teach your little dog foundation commands. That way, the next time your dog goes into a yapping fit or decides to dig on your furniture, you can rein in the behavior before it becomes habitual.

Stop Your Dog From Licking the Carpet

Many dogs obsessively lick carpets, a habit that can be rather unappetizing for us humans to watch. You might be wondering if the carpet contains some food crumbs or if your dog is doing something that only it could enjoy.

Wendy Nan Rees and Kristen Hampshire, co-authors of The Dog Lover’s Companion, say that at least a few things could be responsible for your dog’s carpet fixation. Dogs have far more sensitive noses than we do, so it’s possible that your pet has indeed found some yummy remnant of your dinner. Perhaps the food is buried deep in the carpet, and your dog is trying to get it. Or the spill has dried along the surface, prompting your dog to lick.

Of more concern is that some carpet cleaners contain chemicals that smell and taste appetizing to dogs. You definitely don’t want your dog ingesting those, much less parts of the carpet itself. It’s therefore important that you curb your dog’s habit.

Rees and Hampshire suggest that you fill a spray bottle with 100 percent natural clove oil diluted with water. Whenever your dog starts to lick the carpet, spray the carpet with this mixture. Although most of us find the clove scent pleasing, dogs don’t.

At this point, you can then move your pet to another part of the house. Verbally praise it for being a good dog. Offer a toy or food reward to reinforce that proper behavior. Before long, your dog should learn to stay clear of the carpet, at least for dining purposes.

What Your Dog’s Tail Is Trying to Tell You

Your dog’s tail is an important indicator of your pet’s emotional state. It’s a form of body language that dogs take very seriously, and you should too. It can be a lifesaver, particularly when teaching young children how to react toward strange dogs.

Stanley Coren, author of the book How to Speak Dog: Mastering the Art of Dog-Human Communication, explains that when a dog holds its tail lower than the horizontal, but still some distance away from the legs, the dog is usually relaxed and communicating, “All is well.” An occasional relaxed swishing back and forth may happen during this state.

When your dog’s tail is down and near straightened hind legs, your dog may be communicating some level of distress, either physical or mental. If your dog’s hind legs are bent slightly inward, your dog is probably expressing insecurity. Coren explains that dogs will often assume this posture and tail position when they are introduced to a new, unfamiliar environment. They may even do this when a favorite family member leaves, with the dog knowing (from experience) that the person’s return may take a while.

The tail position that you describe is a bit more extreme. The dog’s apprehension has now turned into fear. Coren says that it communicates, “I’m frightened!” or, “Don’t hurt me!” This makes sense, as the dog is protecting its vulnerable tail from possible attack. While the dog might be feeling submissive, it could also attack in perceived defense. It’s therefore best to not approach a strange dog that is displaying this level of insecurity.

It’s a myth that the tail-between-the-legs stance conveys guilt. While dogs may feel guilty at times, this visual tail/legs display is more out of fear of punishment than regret over past misdeeds.

Photo@ Istockphoto.com/njgphoto

When Is a Dog Considered a Senior?

According to guidelines published by Tufts University, "The point at which a dog qualifies as 'aged' varies. Veterinarians generally consider small dogs to be senior citizens at about 12 years of age, while large dogs reach the senior stage at 6 to 8 years of age. This roughly corresponds to the 55-plus category in people."

Beyond actual age, however, there are signs and behaviors that can, as you say, clue owners into the aging process of dogs. The Senior Dogs Project says that one of the first signs of aging in dogs is slowing down. Basic movements like getting up and climbing stairs may take a while longer, which may be evidence of possible internal changes, such as arthritis.

While we cannot prevent such physical changes from occurring, we can help to slow their rate. Robin Downing, DVM, of the Downing Center for Animal Pain Management in Windsor, Colo., shared a story with HealthyPet Magazine about a dog named Molly: “Molly wasn’t leaping on and off the beds anymore, and she didn’t want to go for long walks. Her family was worried that this dog had just suddenly succumbed to old age, but when I did a geriatric workup on her, we discovered Molly had a thyroid condition and arthritic back pain. A maintenance prescription of thyroid replacement hormone, pain and anti-inflammatory medication for the osteo-arthritis in her back, and Molly was back in business.”

Downing described a particular medical course of action for Molly, but there are some more general things you can do to stave off aging and related diseases. According to the Senior Dogs Project, these steps include:

  • Keeping your dog’s weight down (through good nutrition and regular exercise)
  • Keeping its teeth clean
  • Taking it to the vet for regular checkups
  • Being observant about symptoms that might indicate a health problem and getting prompt and appropriate veterinary attention

The good news is that dogs are now living longer, higher-quality lives. With good genes, good care and some good luck, there’s an excellent chance that your senior dog still has many more years left to enjoy with you.