Hazel art Totty


The subject of a dog biting raises all sorts of ugly mental pictures, ranging from the hurt, scared child to the disappointment of finding one’s beloved dog could do such a thing. To cover the whole subject of biting could fill a book. This article is designed to look at some aspects of the problem.

Definitions of a bite
To start off, look at the length of your dog’s teeth, especially the long ones at the front of the jaws, top and bottom. Keep in mind that any breed of dog, from the smallest to the largest, has the power in its jaws to sink those teeth into your hand or arm to the depth of the length of the teeth. Also keep in mind that dogs in primitive times hunted for and killed their food on a daily basis.Today we watch dogs use their mouths for eating, communicating, playing, carrying objects and giving those lovely wet kisses of affection. So, when you feel a dog’s teeth against your flesh, how do you distinguish between accidental contact and an intended bite?

The ‘play bite’ - dogs learn to play with their siblings at a very young age. You have no doubt seen puppies rolling around, growling, and biting each other. By these actions they learn how to use their mouths and teeth, and how hard to bite. They learn from their siblings and from their mother how hard is too hard, and therefore not acceptable. It is because puppies’ teeth are so very very sharp that it feels so painful when they mouth or chew on our hands.

The ‘nibble bite’ - we’ve all watched a dog bite at an itch or a flea. They use the front teeth with the mouth almost closed. This use of teeth can also be used as an attention getting mechanism. The puppy wants you to do something - to play or follow him. He is communicating, and means no harm.

The ‘scrape-bite’ - a puppy or adolescent dog uses a scraping method of grabbing a toy or a bit of food from your hand. You will feel a raking of your fingers, but remember that if the dog wanted to use a real bite, it could remove your finger. What this tells you is that you haven’t yet taught him his ‘puppy manners’

The nip - this is a quick pinching motion using the short front teeth. It is designed to warn you that you have gone too far, and you must change your behaviour or the situation to avoid a more serious bite. The skin is not torn in a nip, there is no blood, and no real harm is intended - only warning. The nip is also used by puppies in playing with you, and no harm is meant in that situation either. In both circumstances, the dog expects you to understand the intention of his actions, and know the correct response.

The ‘senior bite’ - there are times when an older dog will snap or bite when suddenly awakened, especially when he or she is either deaf or blind, or both. There is no intention here to hurt you. It is a defensive startle reaction.

A warning bite or a snap bite - this comes when the dog feels so threatened or scared that he must let you know instantly. He has probably actually given you many other body-language signals that things were building to this point, but either you have ignored the signals, or you were unaware how to read them.

The totally unexpected or unprovoked bite or attack - this is the category of greatest concern because it has the potential to be extremely dangerous, especially to a child. These attacks have serious wounds, generally lots of blood, and perhaps can cause death. Such attacks must be taken seriously by the dog’s owner, and not excused. Appropriate action must be taken.

Causes and Contributing Factors

Poor Health - Illness - Pain
Like us humans, any dog who is in temporary or chronic poor health, regardless of age, is far more likely to be grumpy and short tempered than when he is in good health. Add to this ongoing pain, and the temper is shortened still more. This makes a dog much more likely to nip or bite under stressful circumstances. If a dog is injured, such as in being hit by a car, the pain can be accompanied by fear and perhaps anger if the dog perceives a human as cause of the injury. Biting in these circumstances is a natural reaction. An improvised muzzle is recommended before administration of first aid or transport of the dog to a veterinarian.

Old Age in a Healthy Dog
When a Westie is about ten to twelve years of age, both eyesight and hearing can be expected to have deteriorated somewhat. This general deterioration progresses slowly and steadily the older the dog gets. The senior dog sleeps for longer periods in the daytime, and can be slow to awaken. Any sudden touching can elicit a startled reaction and result in a nip or bite. The reaction is self-defence and not intended as an attack. Children should be made aware of ‘non-touching’ ways to awaken a sleeping senior - no poking.

Fear and Defence
Some dogs are naturally more timid than others. Some have had ‘an early childhood experience’ that has made them very fearful of particular things: for example, certain sounds, cars, certain people, men in general, and/ or women in general etc. When a dog is in a fear situation, and/ or cornered with no escape, the natural instincts of self-protection take over. Dogs use their bodies to communicate this fear. Reading the body language correctly will enable you to back off and defuse the situation by allowing the dog controlled escaped to a safe place, and time to calm down. Forcing yourself on a dog in that situation can result in biting of some sort. When the frightening incident is over, analyze what exactly happened, and why. Consider what changes need to be made in the dog’s environment, or what training would be helpful. Consult your vet.

Abuse is an ugly word meaning anything from intentional brutal torture to careless neglect. Any puppy which has been subject to any treatment falling in this range will be psychologically and physically scarred with the result that biting can be a part of its behaviour. To take a dog that you know has been abused is a work of mercy on your part, but the challenges are real and not for the inexperienced pet owner. Should you find yourself with this problem, seek professional help by getting referrals from your veterinarian.

Good breeders versus poor breeders
Where you buy your Westie has a lot to do with whether or not you get a biter. Consider the pet store Westie. The usual scenario is that pups are taken from the mum before eight weeks of age, crated and shipped by truck to a distribution facility in a major centre where they are caged. Then the orders from the individual pet shops are filled - so many Westies, so many poodles etc. These pups are again crated, and then shipped to a pet store. On arrival ,any dead ones are removed, and the remainder are bathed, put in glass fronted cages, under lights, to wait for buyers - which could take weeks. So, when you buy a pet store puppy, and it is really cute, you are buying something about which you really know nothing. Was his mother too old to have good pups? Was she healthy and fed nutritious food? Was she even of sound body and mind to start with? If the puppy was taken away from her before eight weeks of age, he wasn’t old enough for her to teach him all that mother dogs generally teach their young. How did he react to crating, trucking and the lonely wait in the store until you came along? Positive experiences in the early days and weeks of a puppy’s life are crucial to normal physical and mental development. Will you get a nice healthy Westie from a pet store? Possibly, but the chances are not that great.

From a reputable breeder, you will likely pay about the same money, but you can meet the mother dog, see the kennel conditions, know what the mother and pups are fed, and be assured of sound genetic background. You can receive a written health guarantee, and follow-up assistance from the breeder. All this swings in your favour for getting a puppy that is sound of mind and body. This is a great start to having a dog that will not bite.

The word ‘socialization’ in relation to dogs is batted about by people in discussing dog issues, often without being defined. The dictionary talks about “preparation for life in society”.
If a dog has had poor preparation to live either with its own species, or with the human species, it grows up not knowing how to react to or handle life’s situations. The socialization of a puppy is a definite, deliberate process whereby the pup learns how to accept petting and handling by a variety of people of all ages, especially the handling of the mouth and feet - all done gently and under the supervision of the owner. The dog is taken to a variety of places to experience normal human activity such as car rides, visiting homes with other dogs, walking on busy sidewalks, etc. Dogs deprived of these social experiences will frighten easily, and being unsure of how to handle themselves will be more likely to nip or bite under the stress.

The terms ‘dog training’ and ‘dog training classes’ can be mistakenly interpreted to apply only to show dogs or dogs learning to perform precision routines for competition in some vague dog event about which most people know or care nothing. Actually your pup is learning all day every day from the moment you get him, so everything you do with him and teach him is of utmost importance. A dog that is regularly, forcibly manhandled in training, yelled at, perhaps hit or kicked, will develop the same reactions as a child so treated, except that in place of little fists to hit back, the dog uses its mouth to bite. Violence always leads to more violence. The answer is never use force and punishment in training a dog. Dogs living with violent or fearful training situations often become what is called a ‘fear biter’, that is , a totally unpredictable biter.

Breed instincts and purpose
Purebred dogs are a product of human development by selectively breeding for the purpose decided on by the human breeder. This produces dogs which are purely lap-dog pets, herders of flocks, hunters, retrievers, sled pullers, guard, police and war dogs. In former years, some dogs were bred for the sport of fighting and killing for human ‘amusement’. Westies too were developed for a purpose - to rid the stable and farmyard of rats and other vermin. This means they love to chase and kill small moving objects such as rats, mice and hamsters etc. Westies today will probably never see rats or weasels, but they are still terriers. (The word ‘terrier’ is from the Latin word for ‘ground’ and terriers are hunters who ‘go to ground’ after vermin. This produces a feisty temperament. Being aware of the breed background and natural instincts as well as the Westie’s desire to please you will help you understand his behaviour better, resulting in your being better able to teach him what is acceptable and what is not acceptable in becoming a good member of your household.


There are definite steps you can take to assure that your puppy will not be a biter. However, always remember that any dog may bite under extreme circumstances of stress or pain.

Assessing the Advertisements
The first step is selecting the right breeder. Breeders of all types advertise available pups for sale, even if it is only by word-of-mouth. Any printed advertisement can tell you as much by what it does not say as by what it does say. Those stating that you are welcome to visit, and giving an address are suggesting their kennel facility has nothing to hide as to cleanliness and the health of their animals. If such information is not in the ad, you don’t know until you question the breeder if visitors are welcome at the kennel. There should be no excuses for not allowing you to visit by making an appropriate appointment to suit both their convenience and yours. Those ads that also mention their dogs’ championships are saying that their breeding stock has gone before judges to affirm that it conforms to the breed standard. If titles in obedience, agility, earthdog events etc. are also mentioned, they are showing you that their dogs are sound, trainable and that they are personally involved with their dogs.

Pet Stock
You may feel that you only want a ‘pet’ , not a ‘show dog’ and you don’t want to pay ‘show dog’ prices. Those who breed pure bred dogs, and show them, know the genetic background of their breeding stock, which means they can avoid physical and temperamental problems from less desirable stock lines. If they don’t know the genetic background, it can be very costly to the customer in terms of huge vet bills and heartbreak. ‘Puppy millers’, back yard breeders and pet shops do not have a reputation for knowing or caring what the genetic background of the breeding stock is, and so pass on all problems to the customer. A breeder will not generally breed all puppies from every litter, so he picks the ones best complementing his lines, and after that the others - still genetically sound- are sold as pets at a lower price and on non-breeding contracts.

Decision Process
The decision process is simple - interview several breeders, get references, and keep notes so you can compare the information the various breeders give you. Then, after the interviews and comparing notes, think it through again before putting your name on one or two breeders’ puppy lists. There may be a wait time, and that is normal. It gives you a chance to educate yourself still further on the responsibilities of dog ownership, and to make preparations for puppy’s arrival.

Red Flags
Any of these Red Flags should cause you to consider seriously an alternative breeder.
Breeder will not consent to a visit or won’t set a date or time for a visit.

Breeder will offer, for your convenience, to deliver a puppy to your door or to a local parking lot. (‘Your convenience’ is not the real reason they offer this service).

There no is written health guarantee offered.

There is no after sale follow-up offered as part of the package.

They do not wish to give their vet’s name and telephone number, or any other references.

They do not show their dogs or have champions in their lines.

They cannot tell you about their breed lines and won’t send you a printed copy of their breeding stock pedigrees.

They cannot discuss with you what genetic diseases are possible in Westies.

They cannot discuss with you the Westie breed standard (the standard for the West Highland White Terrier is found on our Website).

Don’t be suckered in by their telling you they have one puppy left, and he is oh so cute. All puppies are cute whether they are sick or well.

As for paying extra for registration papers, your should be aware that in Canada any dog sold as purebred must be registered with the Canadian Kennel Club. The registering is done by the breeder and the Registration Certificate must go to the buyer at no extra cost over the purchase price. This is the Law.

The last flag is your own instinct as to how you react to the tone of voice, information given or not given and the overall feel of the conversation.

You Have Your Puppy - Now What?
Keep in mind that all the research and question asking was done with one goal in mind. That was to get a healthy puppy that was not predisposed to being a biter due to poor breeding or poor health. The next step is to take your pup to the vet for a check-over within the first few days of its arrival. The vet will explain all the health routines, vaccinations, spay/neutering, food and feeding schedules etc. that will keep your puppy healthy for life.

A pup comes into its new home at around eight to twelve weeks of age and must learn all about its new environment. The pup should be handled by as many different people as possible in a gentle, reassuring manner. It must be introduced to various household sights and sounds such as vacuum cleaners, stairs, opening and closing doors etc. You will want the pup to experience various ground surfaces both indoors and outdoors. Should the pup show fear of something, you are going to fast. Make the re-introduction to that particular sound or place more gradual, with lots of praise. Soothing and cuddling may reassure a frightened human infant, but it tells a puppy that fear was the right response because the puppy feels rewarded. Your vet can recommend a puppy kindergarten group which helps new pups meet new people and learn to get along with other dogs. Most vet clinics are a wealth of information, both verbal and printed, to help you through these early training months. These weeks are the puppy’s most crucial learning period. Never hesitate to ask your vet for advice. In teaching your puppy to play gently, start by not playing ‘tug’. Puppies can get possessive of the tug-toy, as they think they are supposed to grab things and keep them. That is a game for later, when the puppy learns how to bring toys to you. Puppies must learn how to use their mouths so as to not scrape your hand, or use their teeth too hard. Baby canine teeth are sharp, and you will get some pricks from them. If the puppy is getting too rough, just walk away. The game is over. That will tell him he should play more gently. Never hit or punish the dog as he is only learning what is acceptable behaviour. Hitting encourages aggression.

Formal Training Classes
Formal training starts at home. Call the puppy by name for his meal and reward his coming with the food. He can be taught to sit for the meal dish too. Train him to do his ‘business’ in a designated spot in your yardby rewarding each successful trip to the spot with lots of praise and a treat. Pups benefit from training classes with other dogs. Before starting the classes, visit the prospective training facility, and see classes in action. A Westie will learn best and easiest in an uncrowded class which uses lots of praise and treats. We call this ‘positive reinforcement’. If you see a lot of corrections, forcing, and have a sense of frantic confusion in the class, look elsewhere.

Puppies learn all day, every day, whether you are training them, as such, or not. You need to be in charge of what they learn and what methods of training are used. Force, punishment, harsh corrections, can according to some vets and trainers, lead to conflicts which in turn become the basis for aggression and biting. Repetition, consistency, persistence, patience, and well thought out goals will get you through the training period and enable you to have a dependably good- natured and well-behaved companion. Biting will have been neither generated, nor reinforced.

The Bite

Has your dog ever bitten a person or another animal OR do you dislike your dog’s snapping, snarling and growling, OR do you just have an uneasy feeling of distrust toward him? If so, then it is time to seriously analyse the situation. Marking a detailed analysis will give you the big picture and keep the details as accurate as possible. Remember, any out of control dog is a danger not only to his family, but to the community at large. Biting dogs are often ordered ‘put down’ in accordance with by-laws. You should be aware of the animal control by-laws as they are enforced in your area. Also, you as owner are open to being sued by any victim. If that is not reason enough to solve the biting problem, consider having a child’s face destroyed and you would have been the one responsible. It will haunt you for a lifetime.

To make sure you don’t encounter such tragedy, as well as making sure you do the right thing for your pet, find the proper solution to the problem. Make the analysis by writing down all the biting incidents along with the circumstances and the dates. List also your reactions and feelings at the time. This keeps the details accurate and easier to discuss with whatever professional you seek to help you.

Because we love our pets, a flood of excuses for your behaviour come to mind. “She really doesn’t mean it.” “He doesn’t like men”. “I’ll put him in the bedroom when company comes.” “The kids where just playing.” “She was sick as a puppy.” This list is endless. NO excuse is ever valid in preventing your immediate action to solve a biting problem.

Once the facts are on paper, re-read the first section (What is a Bite?) of this article to see where you dog’s biting behaviour fits. When biting is concerned always get some professional help. A good place to start is with the veterinarian. They can not only recognize health causes of behavioural problems. Vets know the local experts who can assist you. Often a dog training club is recommended. These are clubs, which run socialization classes to help pups understand what puppy manners are acceptable. They also teach obedience classes where the dog owners learn how to communicate and effectively train their pets. Look for classes using only positive reinforcement, preferably in the form of clicker training. Not only will the dogs be obedient and have good manners, but a happy healthy relationship with the dog will develop. A professional “Animal Behaviourist’ may also be recommended. These folks can go into the home to do one-on-one instruction designed to solve the specific problems. Again look for one who uses positive reinforcement using clicker training.

Some people might think that finding another home for the problem dog and starting over with a different puppy is the answer. It is NOT the answer. First you would be passing on a problem dog and possibly a dangerous dog to an unsuspecting family. Second, if you start with another puppy without reviewing changes in the methods of relating to and training the puppy, you will most likely just repeat the bad experience. The most heartbreaking decision connected with a biting pet is the decision that nothing can be done with the dog to make it dependably trustworthy enough to remain alive. This decision is made in conjunction with the professionals you have consulted. Better to have the pet die happy with you than to risk possible mistreatment at the hands of others because he continues to bite.

For more information see our book page.

Author: Anne Matheson