One of the joys of dog ownership is spending time with him. Petting, snuggling, playing catch or tug of war, and running around the park are all enjoyable parts of having a pet. However, there are times when engaging with a puppy or even an adult dog you may find him biting your feet during part of the interaction. Many dogs become fascinated with human feet and ankles, especially some of the herding breeds. Most mouthing behavior is normal dog behavior, but it is important to discern if he is simply playing or if there is some aggression behind his behavior.
A playful pup will be relaxed and gentle, but his nip can still be painful. It is important to teach him how to be gentle with his teeth. This is called bite inhibition. Dogs can be taught at any age how to control the force of their teeth so as not to hurt or harm their owners and other humans. If his biting your feet is painful and appears to be excessive or aggressive, it is also important to nip the behavior in the bud. If your dog’s body is stiff, he is wrinkling his muzzle and exposing his teeth, his biting is more likely aggressive and not friendly play. In addition to teaching him bite inhibition, you also need to root out the source of his aggression and address that issue head on.
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The Root of the Behavior
Puppies have very sharp teeth and they want to mouth everything, whether it be toys, dog bones, furniture, or even your feet. It is normal for them to spend a lot of time discovering their world with their mouths and using their teeth. If possible, teach your puppy bite inhibition so he knows how to be gentle with his teeth. Often, grown dogs have not been taught bite inhibition and can hurt you with their teeth even when they think they are playing. If as puppies they received positive attention for biting, they may feel it is okay with you to chomp away on your feet. Smacking them on the nose or telling them they are bad are forms of positive attention that they should not get for doing something bad because it gives them attention, so those tactics could have reinforced the behavior. They can also be easily excited, so if you jerk your foot away they may think it is more of a game and will look to bite your feet more.
Some dogs that bite people, even during play, can be considered to be aggressive and it is essential that you figure out whether your dog is being aggressive or just playing. If your dog is biting because he is frustrated, this needs to be addressed. When your dog is stiffening up, growling, or baring his teeth, the chances are pretty good that he is being aggressive. If he gets away with this behavior, he may become more aggressive and bite harder so it should be taken care of right away. If you believe your dog is being aggressive, you should talk to your veterinary health provider to make sure there are no medical reasons for this issue. Once you find out that your dog is healthy, you will likely want to see a dog trainer to help learn how to train your dog to get rid of the aggressive behavior.
Encouraging the Behavior
Teaching a puppy or grown dog bite inhibition needs to be a part of your dog training. One way to get him to stop nipping at your feet is to carry a toy with you. When he approaches your feet wave the toy in front of him to distract him and when he starts nipping at the toy, praise him. If he ignores the toy, or you do not have one with you when he goes after your feet, freeze when he starts to bite your feet and give a yelp. Praise him as soon as he stops nipping your feet. Your goal is to teach him that when he stops biting your feet, good things happen for him. It is also important to provide him with plenty of time and opportunity to have normal chewing behaviors by showering him with things like chew toys, rawhides, Kongs, and other dog treats he might enjoy gnawing on. Encouraging noncontact forms of play such as fetch and tug of war can help him learn to deal with arousal without frustration. Herding breeds especially love the opportunity to herd something, so give them a ball they can roll on their own, such as a large yoga ball, and let them herd away. It will give your feet a break.
You can also note when the biting behavior occurs, as there are usually specific times when he is more apt to nip. Often it is during play, but can also happen during times of heightened arousal like when you arrive home for the day, when he is over stimulated from playing, or if he is simply trying to get your attention. Once you can identify the environment you can focus your training to those times to curb the behavior and replace it with something more acceptable.
Other Solutions and Considerations
There are plenty of ways you can help your nipping pooch curb his canines that should be noted. Avoid waving your feet in his face in a playful manner and do not continue in aggressive play once he does bare his fangs. Avoid jerking your feet away from him because he may see that as even more of a game. In general, when a dog approaches, the more still and calm you are, the more still and calm they will be. Note that slapping or hitting a dog for playful mouthing may only cause him to bite harder and play more aggressively. Any punishment that may hurt or scare him is also greatly discouraged.
Should your pooch wound you, whether through play or aggression, it is important to take medical precautions. If he breaks, punctures, or tears the skin you can be at risk for infection. Wash the wound immediately, apply an antibacterial ointment, and cover it with a sterile bandage. Call a doctor if there is swelling, redness, or pus. If the bite is deep or large or does not stop bleeding after a few minutes, you may need stitches. If you have not had a recent tetanus shot or are unaware of the dog’s vaccination status, you should also seek medical attention.
Puppies and some dogs will bite your feet as a part of normal play or herding instinct. If it is too sharp or painful, you need to nip it in the bud as soon as possible. Offer him other ways to connect with you through gentle touch or non-touch forms of play. Providing a pooch paradise of chew toys and proper training in bite inhibition can go a long way. Aggressive behavior combined with biting is not allowed and needs to be addressed by a vet and dog trainer immediately.