Do you have a puppy that bites your feet or ankles when you walk? Does your pup grab your pants leg and start tugging? Are your toes getting bloody from his playful pounces? This is one of those puppy problems that I get asked about so often that I thought it might be helpful to write up my process for figuring out the best solution for dealing with this.
First, please don’t just ignore this. While it is a puppy stage, many pups think this is a super fun activity, and the more they do it, and the more fun they have, the more likely they are to do it when they grow up.
So what should you do? I approach this with several strategies.
- Pay close attention to when it happens so you can take appropriate action.
- Use management, which really just means preventing it from happening.
- Teach an alternative behavior, something the puppy can do instead of biting on you.
- Interrupt it if it does happen with a trained interrupter and redirect your pup to another activity.
When does it happen? Does it happen when your pup is too tired? When he is overexcited? When he wants something? If it is exclusively happening when your pup is too tired or overexcited, you will want to simply stop pup, put him in his exercise pen or crate, and give him something super awesome to chew on. If it is happening at other times, make note of the specific triggers so you can put management into place.
Management means prevention. Ask yourself, can I do something to prevent it? For example, does this happen when your pup comes out of the crate and is over excited. Can you hand him a good chew when he comes out—give him something to do with that energy. Does he do it when you take him out to pee? Can you take him out on leash and use the leash to keep him away from your feet? Management may be all you need for some pups. You manage the situation until they outgrow this phase.
Teach an alternative behavior. There are lots of options for this, but here is the one that I find works best for most pups—teach them to walk next to you without biting you. Sounds easy right? Well actually it is pretty easy… First, practice this when they are not doing the biting so they can learn it without the distraction. Get a handful of treats (usually something boring like kibble for this one). Put a treat on the ground for your pup to eat, while he is eating walk away, when he races to catch up (because you have a handful of treats), say “yes” as he is approaching and before he bites or grabs your leg, then drop another treat on the ground and repeat. Once your pup is doing well with this, continue with walking away, saying “yes” as he catches up, but then take one or two steps more before dropping the treat. Continue in this way until your pup can walk next to you for ten steps before you drop the treat. Now, at those times when your pup is likely to bite on you, grab a few treats, and do this exercise instead. He will quickly learn to walk with you instead of biting on you.
Shouldn’t you correct your puppy? Shouldn’t you say “no” when your pup tries this? Just saying no seldom works (OK—every now and then it does, but not usually). I do use a trained verbal interrupter for this type of behavior—something to stop a behavior in action. For most pups, this is just a small part of the training—and it doesn’t work alone, without the above steps being added in. I use it sparingly, say it calmly, and follow up with an appropriate redirection. Here is how to train an interrupter:
- Say your word (“no” is fine, but I actually use “stop” because I don’t use it for other things). Say, “stop” in a calm but firm tone. Use a tone that will not scare your pup but that will make it clear that you are not playing. Look directly at your pup as you say it.
- Within 1 second of saying it, drop a treat on the floor right in front of your pup. Say, “stop,” and drop the treat.
- Repeat this enough time that when you say “stop” your puppy looks down for the treat. When you see that happen, start to add in your reward maker “yes” or click as the pup looks down. Say, “stop,” pup looks down, say “yes,” and treat on the ground.
- Then practice it a few times when your pup is involved with a toy or something. Say “stop,” and when our pup looks at the ground, mark with your “yes” or click, and reward.
Now when you stay “stop,” it will mean something to your pup. It will mean stop doing what you are doing and look down.
Here is how you use the interrupter. You are caught off guard and your pup grabs your pants leg (make note when and why this happened so you can prevent it next time). Say, “stop”, and immediately stop moving yourself. Do not move your feet or legs (this actually rewards the biting—movement is super rewarding to dogs). When your pup stops, praise him like crazy and then follow up by directing your pup to a legal thing to put his mouth on (a toy or chew). If your pup doesn’t stop (this doesn’t always work), say “stop” a second time, pick up your pup, and quickly put him in his confinement area such as an exercise pen or crate and give him a chew.
This is a lot! Do you really have to do all of these things? Maybe, or maybe not. I always start with management because if you can manage it, most pups will outgrow it. But if your pup is super committed to grabbing your legs, you may have to take all of these steps. Don’t worry though, you will only need to do these things for a few weeks until your pup gets the idea and can walk next to you calmly.