How to Stop a Dog From Nipping at Ankles and Pant Legs
Why Do Dogs Chase Pant Legs?
An owner of a recently rescued Maltese contacted me today desperately in need of help. Her newly acquired one-year-old dog was lunging and nipping at innocent passersby, terrorizing them as they went about their errands. She, therefore, started to go the avoidance route—walking on secluded streets in the early morning and late evening. We discussed a variety of causes for such behavior and came to the conclusion that regardless of the cause, it was evident that her yelling and repeated leash corrections were not only not working, but perhaps even making the behavior worse. I recommended her to use a harness to protect this dog's delicate trachea which was at risk of collapsing every time he lunged and pulled against the collar in an attempt to attack and nip.
Why do some dogs appear to enjoy to chase pant legs? The ankle-biter reputation is quite popular among small dogs obviously due to their size; the legs, after all, are the easiest place to reach! When directed towards family, at times it may be the dog's way to play, get attention or control the comings and goings in the house. When directed towards strangers, it may be fear-based. But how can it be fear based if the dog is actually attacking!? Very likely, the dog learned that every time he moved towards those legs, the person instinctively moves away, which encouraged this behavior. I like to compare this behavior to a person terrorized of cats which sends away cats coming close, by stomping legs on the ground while making a loud "shhhh" sound. Because it works, this person will likely repeat this behavior in the future with cats. Some small dogs may also attack legs out of predatory drive just because it is fun, in the same way other dogs chase balls, bikes, joggers and squirrels! Puppies do it simply because it is an entertaining game; especially if you continue moving and he gets a grip on your pant legs "yeaaaahhhhh! a free game of tug of war"!!
Back to the Maltese owner, she was obviously very concerned; the behavior was quite serious. While the biting never got to break skin, people were scared and the owner was obviously at her wit's end, and I could tell from the way she was talking that she was seriously considering bringing this young dog back to the rescue. I told her since we did not know the history of the dog, the behavior may not be easy to eradicate and no guarantees of the outcome of the behavior could be made. My code of ethics requires me to never make any guarantees when training dogs and I comply with this readily as I would never feel comfortable in doing so. Read more about why a good trainer never makes guarantees.
I, therefore, provided her with an extensive dog behavior modification program she had to adhere strictly to if she wanted to put her dog up for success. I will share it here in case dog owners in need may find it helpful.
How to Stop a Dog From Nipping Legs
One note of caution: while correcting your dog for nipping ankles and pant legs may seem like a logical approach, you may notice it may not be working and it may even be making the behavior worse! There may may be several reasons for this. Perhaps the act of chasing those pant legs is much more rewarding than the correction, or perhaps the behavior is fear-based and your correction is exacerbating this state of mind. Because many dog owners do not know if the behavior is fear-based or part of prey drive (and this can only be evaluated by closely observing the body language when the dog lunges and tries to nip) the best approach would be to ask your dog for alternate behaviors.
One common mistake dog owners make is to correct unwanted behaviors and fail to reward wanted ones. In most circumstances, dogs require an alternate behavior so to fill the void left from the behavior no longer practiced. Once the void is filled, the dog is most likely to proudly respond with the new behavior which will increase in frequency because it is rewarded. Failure to provide an alternate behavior may at times cause another unwanted behavior to fill up the gap and at times it may be even worse than the initial problem!
How to Teach an Alternate Behaviors
- Start by choosing a quiet room where there are little distractions
- Choose very high-value treats, avoid stale cookies or kibble, you want to use treats your dog drools for and will do anything for. Sliced cooked hot dogs, slivers of roasted chicken, or commercially available treats may work well. If your dog is a bit finicky go with what Ian Dunbar calls "the Ferrari of dog treats" — freeze-dried liver. Make the treats bite-size.
- Place the treats in a treat bag. Some trainers like to mix a variety of treats up.
- Make a smacking noise with your mouth and immediately follow it by a treat. Smack, treat, smack treat, smack treat. Do this 7 to 10 times, or until your dog hears the smacking noise and looks up at you for the treat. When this happens you know you have classically conditioned your dog to associate that sound with treats. You may also see Pavlov's law in action if your dog drools or smacks his lips in anticipation.
- Once you have accomplished this, start asking for an operant behavior; in this case we want eye contact. Start bringing the treat at eye level so your dog will have to look up at you for the treat. It would go like this: smacking noise, treat at eye level, the moment your dog looks at you say "good boy" and give the treat. Be very quick in capturing that moment of eye contact by praising it (good boy!) the moment you see it and delivering the treat. If you wish, you can make the eye contact a bit longer by delaying the good boy a few seconds followed by the treat. Do this once your dog is getting good at making eye contact.
- Now that you have a dog that makes beautiful eye contact upon hearing the smacking sound it is time to do this in more and more distracting environments. Ask it in the yard, with a few people around, near a busy street, then at the park before being let inside to play, etc.. Make sure you ask it while walking and are able to keep his eye contact for a few steps at a time. Go very slow and gradual in teaching this. If he fails to respond, very likely it is too hard for him and you need to work on it more in less distracting areas. Don't put him to fail by asking this too quickly in distracting areas. Create a good foundation of solid eye contact first. The more you make the smacking noise and he doesn't listen, the more this sound will weaken in value. Make the sound always valuable. If he is a bit distracted upon making the smacking noise don't repeat it; rather bring the treat to his nose and then bring it to your eyes and praise and reward the moment he makes eye contact. This is just a way to tell him "hey, we are still working on this, pay attention!"
- At this point, once your dog has learned to respond to the smacking sound you can try working him under the "threshold". What this means, is you will work him from a distance from people passing by. This is part of working gradually and desensitizing him to the presence of people walking. Find a distance where you feel your dog will respond to your requests of making eye contact and work from there. Every time a person is passing by making the smacking noise and walk past the person with him looking at you. The more you do this successfully, the more your dog will get to this equation: person passing= smacking noise+ eye contact = TREAT! You want to establish a pattern in your dog's mind. If you are really good at this, he will start looking at you the moment he sees a person walking by as if saying "yeah! a person! where's my treat, where's my treat!" This should change your dog's emotional state from going into attack mode to going into treat mode.
- Make it clear in your dog's mind that people passing by are indicators of treats coming, therefore, give them the moment people pass by and stop giving them once the person has passed.
- If you are having difficulties having people walk at a distance without coming too close, enroll a few volunteers to walk around him in a controlled setting like in your yard. Then practice this on busier sidewalks, etc..
- Some dogs do best if instead of hand feeding the treats you toss them on the ground. In your case, if the biting at pant legs is due to predatory drive, launching the treats at first may work better since it will "discharge" the need to change something.
If your dog is not responding too well in making eye contact while walking (smaller dogs may have a bit more difficulty than larger dogs which are closer to the eyes) instead of asking for eye contact, you may ask for a sit after making the smacking noise. Once your dog associates smack-treat, smack treat, make the smacking noise and then bring the treat between your dog's eyes and bring it towards your dog's head. This should cause your dog to sit. If your dog is jumping instead of sitting you are keeping the treat too high. After establishing a pattern that smacking noise means sit you can then follow the same directions above; your ultimate goal is to have your dog automatically sit upon spotting a person.
Note: A foundation of training is a must for certain behavior modification programs to work, since many incorporate operant behaviors. Training a dog the "say please" training method has proved helpful for many dog owners.
Why Alternate Behaviors Work Best
Why do alternate behaviors works so well? They work well simply because a dog cannot misbehave if they are busy making eye contact or sitting! This is an excellent way to put a dog up for success while changing the dog's emotional state about the problems. Pant legs should not longer be appealing to attack once food is introduced into the picture! Also think, how nice it would be if every time you pass by people your dog is looking nicely at you! Your dog's reputation would surely significantly rise!
Teaching alternate behaviors is a great way to put your dog up for success. According to the be Association of Professional Dog Trainers:
"Behavior modification should focus on the scientifically based approach of removing reinforcers for inappropriate behaviors and instead reinforcing appropriate behaviors."
In this case, this would mean managing the dog's environment by limiting exposure to pant legs especially during the initial stages of behavior modification (remember the more your dog gets to practice this behavior the more it is reinforced) and reinforcing appropriate behaviors (focus, sit). Ultimately, a win-win situation for all!
Disclaimer: Please consult with a dog behaviorist if your dog is displaying aggressive behaviors. Only a dog behaviorist may see and assess behaviors and offer the most appropriate behavior modification program tailored for your dog. Use extreme caution and make safety your top priority. By reading this article you accept this disclaimer and assume full responsibility for any of your actions.
For Further Reading
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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.