Adrienne is a certified professional dog trainer, dog behavior consultant and former veterinarian assistant for an AAHA animal hospital.
What’s Up With Dogs Nipping People’s Legs?
If your dog nips people’s legs, you are likely looking for a solution, especially if the nipping is targeted towards your guests and it hurts.
At the same time, you may be also wondering what is going on in your dog’s mind.
After all, there is nipping and nipping when it comes to dogs. Dogs may nip legs for various reasons, so it’s important to keep several factors into consideration.
Let’s take a closer look into this behavior, what triggers it, and then let’s take a peek at some possible solutions.
The Behavior of Dogs Nipping Peoples’ Legs
The behavior of dogs nipping people’s legs can often be rather innocent, but not always.
In some cases, nipping people’s legs is a distance-increasing behavior, where the dog uses his teeth in hopes of sending a threatening person away.
It may be a surprising fact, but the majority of aggressive behaviors in dogs are actually rooted in fear.
A dog may be afraid of someone or dislike someone intruding his territory, or he may be trying to protect a person or other resource.
This can cause the dog to become overwhelmed, and he may respond by biting to gain distance from what he or she is afraid of.
Let’s now take a closer look into what can cause dogs to nip people’s legs.
Why Do Dogs Do This?
As mentioned, there is nipping and nipping in the world of dogs. To truly find the root of the behavior, you may need to factor in things such as when the behavior occurs, the age of the dog, breed, temperament, what the people are doing when the behavior happens, and much more.
It’s not always easy finding the underlying behavior, and oftentimes, you may need the help of a professional to figure it out (a board-certified veterinary behaviorist is who you may want to call). Here are just some possibilities.
One of the most common reasons why dogs may nip at peoples’ legs is because they want to play.
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This can be particularly common in puppies and young dogs.
Puppies being small and playful, perceive legs as fun items to chase, catch and nip and these pups will love playing tug with pantlegs.
If you watch puppies play with other dogs, you’ll notice this pattern of play repeating, with them focusing on grabbing the legs of other dogs walking or their wiggly ears and tails.
On top of this, consider that, your puppy may be teething, which may be uncomfortable causing him to try to relieve his sore gums by nipping peoples’ legs and feet.
Dogs are social animals that get bored easily and will do many different things to pass the time and get people to interact with them.
Dogs will therefore chew on things to relieve boredom, including your sofa stuffing, your carpet, and your legs, just to get a reaction from you.
Boredom can affect your dog’s quality of life, so make sure to provide him with plenty of activities to keep him busy.
Some dogs get so overstimulated and excited when they are around people that their excitement has to go somewhere and they’ll end up nipping. Some puppies get nippier as they get cranky and in need of sleep.
These dogs who get easily aroused and excited can be friendly dogs showing normal, relaxed body language around people, but just get overly stimulated at times.
Some dogs, especially those who weren’t properly socialized with people, may perceive humans as a threat and may react to them by attacking.
Being fearful, they take a rather cowardly approach: they often wait for the person to turn around, and then attack their legs, especially if they are small dogs.
Larger dogs instead may target the back of the thigh or buttock area.
A long visit from guests can cause cumulative stress, that explodes the moment the guests are about to leave, with the dog biting their legs as their backs are turned from the dog.
Although also likely to be based on fear, territorial behavior in dogs can cause dogs to nip peoples’ legs because they don’t want them in their “territories.”
These dogs, therefore, display this behavior only when guests or visitors are nearby the dog’s perceived territory, which may encompass the home and even several feet away from fence lines.
A dog that is aggressive to protect its territory is often unsocialized, and it views an otherwise harmless visitor as a severe threat.
Small dogs who nip legs are often Chihuahuas and Jack Russell terriers.
There are many causes of protective behaviors in dogs, including genetics, the way they are raised and lack of socialization.
Your dog may growl and snap when threatened with losing access to something he or she is protective of and he may chase and nip legs in an effort to keep people away from a favorite person, toy, food or even random areas.
This resource guarding tendency may therefore develop because your dog is afraid of being deprived of a valuable item.
As such, they bite to defend their possession. Similarly, they may also use their teeth to protect their food.
The behavior can be mild, but it may escalate over time.
Some dogs may nip the legs of people out of being afraid of being left alone, and by nipping they are hoping to stop your movement and block you from leaving.
This behavior is typically seen when owners are about to leave the house.
Dogs are divided into many different breeds with certain characteristics that distinguish them from other dogs.
Some breeds are known to nip more as part of their natural instinct and a strong need to control movement, which is why they nip at the heels of a person walking by.
One category of dog notorious for engaging in leg-nipping behaviors is the herding group, especially dogs with a history of nipping the ankles of livestock.
These dogs have been used to move livestock for thousands of years.
Though herding dogs have a practical purpose in the agricultural environment, this instinct can occur in the home as well. In fact, even a walking motion can trigger a herding instinct in a dog, especially if there are boisterous children playing and running amock. These dogs may be predisposed to carrying out the fun police role.
Now, dogs don’t think of humans as cattle or sheep, so nipping ankles is simply an instinctual response to movement. However, even non-herding dogs show signs of herding behavior as well.
There may also be variances based on the type of herding dog. Some herding dogs nip to stop movement (think border collies), while others nip because they want people to keep moving (think drover dogs).
A Word of Caution
As seen, dogs may have their own good reasons for nipping at peoples’ legs. Now that you know several reasons, let’s take a look at some solutions however, we first need to practice caution.
If your dog’s nipping behavior has started out of the blue, have your dog see your vet to ensure there’s nothing medically going on. Some medical conditions can cause dogs to sometimes behave aggressively or in uncharacteristic ways.
If your dog is nipping hard, to the point of leaving marks and breaking skin, it is paramount keeping your dog away from people and seeking the assistance of a dog behavior professional.
If your dog acts like this, keep him in a separate area, on leash, preferably muzzled (here’s a guide to muzzle training dogs), so as to prevent him from rehearsing the problematic behavior and for the safety of your guests.
How to Stop a Dog From Nipping People’s Legs
To stop a dog from nipping peoples’ legs, you may need to use a multi-faceted approach, tackling the issue from various angles.
If your dog shows aggressive tendencies, consider that, in many cases, left untreated, aggressive behaviors may escalate over time.
Here are several tips.
1. Make Management Your Top Priority
Management entails taking steps to prevent your dog from rehearsing the problematic behavior while also keeping people safe.
It’s not a treatment solution but works for those times when you cannot train or can be used as a permanent solution if you’re not planning on treating the root cause (due to time constraints and finances).
The behavior can be dangerous, especially for children and elderly people, and it can lead to further problems.
Not to mention, if your dog gets to rehearse the problematic behavior, even every now and then, it can make a full comeback (the power of a variable reinforcement schedule), so you really need to be diligent in preventing it from happening.
Here are several management options.
Confine Your Dog
To stop your dog from nipping at peoples’ legs, you can keep your dog behind a pet gate, inside an exercise pen or crate. Let them have something edible to chew for the time being, so that he gets to enjoy the time spent there.
I like to give dogs access to a Kong filled with something enticing like some peanut butter or cream cheese mixed with a portion of the dog’s daily allotment of kibble and then frozen for a long-lasting challenge.
Use a Leash
Keeping your dog on a leash will prevent him from roaming the house and reduces the chances of him biting someone.
Keeping the dog on leash at a distance from peoples’ legs for some time can help break the habit especially if you can also train an alternate behavior.
2. Custom-Tailored Solutions
These solutions are based on the underlying cause. Have a dog behavior consultant help you determine the root cause of the behavior and help you work on it.
For Fearful/Territorial Dogs
To work on this behavior, the dog must learn to associate people/guests with positive things.
This often requires behavior modification techniques based on desensitization and counterconditioning.
The goal is to help your dog gain trust and learn that great things happen when people are around him and his perceived territory.
For Protective/Resource Guarding Dogs
To treat resource guarding in dogs, consult with a dog trainer/ behavior consultant in your area.
This often requires behavior modification techniques based on desensitization and counterconditioning.
The goal is to help your dog gain trust and learn that great things happen when people are around their resources.
*There is a great little book on resource guarding in dogs. This book by Jean Donaldson is titled Mine and outlines behavior modification methods. I recommend this book to my clients who own dogs prone to resource guarding, but if you plan on trying the methods outlined, it’s important to exercise the utmost caution and work along with a dog behavior professional for safety and correct implementation.
For Separation-Related Disorders
These dogs need to learn better coping skills when they are left alone. This requires a step-by-step approach. Here are some general tips for helping dogs suffering from separation-related disorders such as separation anxiety and isolation distress.
3. Additional General Tips
These are general tips that can be helpful for mild cases. If your dog is fearful, protective, territorial and shows aggressive tendencies, you will need to also change their underlying emotions. Consult with a behavior professional for guidance and safety.
Stop Walking in Your Tracks
To stop the annoying leg-nipping behavior triggered by movement, stop walking.
This will prevent your dog from biting your legs, but it may not be enough if your dog is very excited and has no control over his impulse.
It is best to stop walking at the earliest sign that your dog shows an intent to start nipping.
To work best though, you should also show your dog what you would like him to do instead by training an alternate behavior.
Train an Alternate Behavior
You can help your dog overcome this behavior by asking them to stop nipping and instead focus on other behaviors.
As your dog approaches you to nip, therefore, stop moving, ask your dog to sit and reward that by tossing a ball or a treat and resume walking after your dog moves away to get them.
You can also train your dog to go to his mat asking him to go there at the earliest sign of wanting to nip legs and then reward him by tossing a treat on his mat.
Also, a game of “find it” can come in handy. Train your dog to search for treats, when you say “find it!” as you launch a handful of treats on the ground. With his nose searching and mouth eating, he’ll be too busy to think about nipping legs.
If your dog is small, here are some tips to cut calories: how to train your small dog without making him fat.
Desensitize To Movement
Train your dog to sit and stay on a mat and watch you move around without nipping. Praise and reward for staying nicely put despite the distraction of your movements.
Gradually increase the speed at which you move, and how close you are to the dog.
If your dog ever shows signs of wanting to nip, take that as a sign that you are exposing him to levels of movement he isn’t yet ready for and that’s causing your dog to be over threshold.
Take a few steps back, split whatever you were doing into smaller sub-steps and make the exercise easier.
For example, if your dog breaks his stay upon watching you run away, try just walking fast or just jogging in place next time.
Don’t move to the next level at least until you have mastered the easier tasks.
You can also put movement on cue, by saying “movement!” so that your dog knows what to expect and sticks to his mat area.
The same exercise can be done around guests, but the dog may be better off leashed with the owner for safety.
Lower Your Dog’s Arousal
Lowering your dog’s arousal is not an overnight process, but training will allow him to gain more impulse control. Here are 10 games for teaching your dog better impulse control and here are some ways to deal with dog over-arousal.
Increase Exercise and Mental Stimulation
If your dog is prone to boredom, you may want to take steps to prevent this behavior from occurring in the first place.
Try rotating toys in storage bins and closets every few weeks. Then, make a big deal of your new toys, then sneak an old one back into storage.
Rotating your dogs’ toys can help your dog stay engaged and prevent boredom.
You may also want to consider using a food puzzle or a chew toy.
Most dogs need mental and physical stimulation, exercise, and an outlet for their high energy.
Herding dogs in particular need physical activity and challenge, which can be provided through a regular exercise routine. However, you should always consult a veterinarian before starting an exercise program for your dog.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
© 2022 Adrienne Farricelli