Adrienne is a certified dog trainer, former veterinary assistant, and author of the online dog training course "Brain Training for Dogs."
Why Do Dogs Chase Pant Legs And Bite Ankles?
An owner of a recently rescued Maltese once contacted me, 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 that she 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.
Reasons Why Dogs Like to Nip at Your Ankles and Legs
Why do some dogs appear to enjoy chasing pant legs?
- Your legs are the easiest spot to reach. 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!
- The dog wants attention or control. 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.
- The dog is afraid. When directed towards strangers, it may be fear-based. But how can it be fear-based if the dog is actually attacking!?
- You've unwittingly encouraged this behavior. 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 who's terrified of cats and tries to send cats away by stomping their 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.
- The dog thinks it's a fun game. 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!"
So What Can You Do About It?
Back to the Maltese owner, she was obviously very concerned; the behavior was quite serious. While the biting never broke the 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 that, 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 to strictly if she wanted to set 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 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.
Now, 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 other unwanted behaviors to fill up the gap, and at times it may be even worse than the initial problem!
How to Teach 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 trail-mix style.
- 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 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.
Read More From Pethelpful
- 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 work 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 no 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!
Remember to 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.
For Further Reading
- How to Stop a Dog From Excitedly Lunging Towards Oth...
Learning effective strategies to stop that annoying lunging towards other dogs. Tools, training techniques from a certified dog trainer.
- How to stop a Dog From Attacking Birds, Cats, Chicke...
In order to understand why a dog loves to chase and attacks squirrels, chickens, cats, birds, and in some cases, small dogs, one must look into the history of the breed. There are many breeds out there bred...
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.
Questions & Answers
Question: I found this article super helpful as my Cavachon has started nipping at my sisters ankles when she comes round my house. How can I stop my Cavachon barking and growling when strangers come round?
Answer: Glad to hear this was helpful. For barking and growling, this often occurs due to fear/anxiety associated with strangers entering the home. You might find interesting this article with a case study featured: https://pethelpful.com/dogs/Help-My-Dog-Barks-When...
© 2012 Adrienne Farricelli
Kaka roro on July 15, 2020:
My small dog 2months old her front leg is not well it's not staying in position? What should I do
Mark on May 09, 2018:
Define professional. So many dog trainers are full of it.
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on January 25, 2018:
Mark, in cases of biting, always best to play it safe and have a professional guide you. In the meanwhile, prevent access to people's legs and try training at home an alternate behavior and making it very rewarding (for example targeting your hand, heeling next to you).
Mark Jenkins on January 01, 2018:
I have a one year old English bulldog and he a great dog very frenindly but twice has just out of the blue bitten two different men on the back of there knee any suggestions
rah on July 13, 2017:
A tug a rope works. take one with you.
geholman on January 27, 2017:
I have a 1 1/2 year old mini aussie that is niping ankles when people come and go. I take him and introduce him to the person who is visiting and he will slowly make up with the person, but then when he as warmed up to coming to their lap and enjoying the rubbing and scratching on his neck he will just out of the blue lung at that person's face and follow them to the door nipping and biting at their ankles and feet. What do I do?
Mindy Geier on January 04, 2017:
I have a lab mix that is 9 months old. We just recently started letting him off leash in our back yard and he is having a ball. BUT, for some reason now while he is running around, he comes up to you and puts his mouth over my boot. Doesn't bite, just has his mouth open and over my boot, or he will nip at my knee. I correct him each time and then he starts running around again and then comes back and does it again. Now I just noticed he goes after my feet when I walk past him while we are in the house. I keep correcting him but he keeps doing it. This behavior has only started since I have let him off leash to run. Any suggestions?
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on May 22, 2016:
Movement is what triggers this reaction, the feet are as exciting to play with as the ball. And when the foot is moved away it triggers the behavior much more. Feet need to become boring, and the toys more rewarding. Not moving feet at all is important, make feet boring, stay still,at the same time make the toys more rewarding by perhaps using a ball that is stuffed with treat or a stuffed Kong. The dog is basically using feet as tug toys. Guests can try tossing kibble or treats to redirect the behavior, you may also want to treat the "leave it" cue to say when the dog becomes interested in feet, but if there is a history of latching on and biting, please see a force-free dog trainer to help you out before your dog injures somebody.
AJ Wiggins on May 20, 2016:
Help. I have a rescue pit mix that I adopted at age 1yr. 4 months. She is not 1yr. 7 months... so we had her for 3 months and she bites feet. Here is how it plays out. Bounce a ball near your feet she pounces near the ball and if the feet move she will bite. Last night she met my daughter's friend and after jumping up on the girl, the girl move away swiftly and raised a foot from the ground and the dog latched onto her foot and held it. there were no broken bones and there was a small puncture wound. How do we keep the dog from biting at feet. I apologize if this is a duplicate question but I do not see my other question. All help is welcomed. Thanks.
Lori Colbo from United States on September 28, 2015:
What you say makes perfect sense. I guess I've seen too many people go over board. I had a family member who had just gotten a little chihuahua one time when I visited. Normal sized. About a year later I made a return visit and that little dog was so obese his breed was unrecognizable. I had no idea this grotesque looking dog was the same dog. It broke my heart and I was so angry. He had a relatively shorter life. She motivated him with fattening people treats and other crap. He may have learned obedience but the family didn't enjoy him as lo g as they could have. That is an extreme example of course.
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on September 28, 2015:
Yes, there are several other motivators and I use them as well, especially because not all dogs are food motivated. Those dogs you mention who are obese and over treated often have owners who fail to use treats correctly.A dog does something good? They give a whole cookie instead of small bite-size pieces. Out of a whole treat they give, I can make dozens of treats. They then feed their dogs at the table. The kid drops a french fry? in the dog's mouth it goes. These owners also fail to adjust their dog's daily meals to compensate for the treats and on top of that they fail to exercise their dogs. Not to mention they have no clue on how to wean their dogs off treats once they start and use other forms of rewards. Please note that the behavior modification methods suggested in this article are meant to be used along with a behavior professional for safety. If you mention this dog has several issues going on that require training or retraining, perhaps you can tell the owner to consult with a trainer who does board and training? Sounds like there are many thing going on.
Lori Colbo from United States on September 27, 2015:
I'm not totally on board with treat training, especially if he has several issues going on that require training or retraining. So many dogs become obese because of over treating or over feedin or giving lots of people food. And isn't it more ideal to train them without treat rewards? I get it that food is a good motivator but that doesn't make it the best or most healthy way. Your thoughts?
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on February 01, 2015:
If your dog jumps away when you try to put his lead on, he's not ready to be off leash. Being off leash is something dogs earn after proving themselves capable of being calm, under control and obedient. If an emergency arises and you must get your dog on leash ASAP, things will be difficult if he plays the keep away, catch-me-if-you-can game. I would recommend classes with a reputable force-free trainer especially since he nipped your mom. Your dog needs to learn self-control and to lower arousal. This needs to be done gradually with your dog under threshold and then increasing distractions. Also,he'll need to refine his bite inhibition because he broke skin which is often seen when a dog is too aroused.
firstname.lastname@example.org on February 01, 2015:
Hi , my dog nips at my ankles if i stop to talk to anybody ( usually other dog walker's ) or if i pet another dog . He is always off his leash at these times . I have been told to ignore him , but its difficult to carry on walking with a dog attached to your leg ! He barks and nips at the same time and he jumps away when i try to put his lead on. This usually happens 2 or 3 times per walk , sometimes i can distract him by finding a stick to throw . Last week my mother in law took him to the beach and he nipped her leg and broke the skin, again once she managed to get him on his leashed he was fine . Please help , its taking the joy out of dog walking .
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on August 26, 2012:
Making his sit for his food is a good approach, as you teaching him that nipping gets him nothing, while sitting gets him to have the food. The same philosophy can be used to train in other circumstances. Try to catch his attention BEFORE he is about to do the nipping. Make a smacking noise with your mouth and reward when he looks at you and do it repeatedly. If you are into clicker training, catching the quick pauses of non-nipping behavior and marking them will help you out. You can then incorporate a sit too, since a dog cannot be sitting and nipping at the same time! best wishes!
Angie on August 24, 2012:
Hmm, my rottweiler mix is an ankle biter. He nips ankles when he is being protective over my roommate's corgi, a toy, or his bed. He also does it when I'm getting his food ready. I've trained him to sit and wait for his food, but I'm not sure how to prevent the ankle biting when he is being protective. I never know when it is going to happen, because he will be fine with a person and then randomly bite their ankle just because the little dog came in the room. But he won't do it every time! Today he nipped the ankle of a little boy when the boy came near his new toy. Any tips?
Sinea Pies from Northeastern United States on February 22, 2012:
Great hub. Mine pulls at my sleeves when she needs to go out. I'll apply these principles and see how it works! :)
TENKAY from Philippines on February 21, 2012:
It's okay, he only shows aggression towards kids. I still take him for walks but this time in a leash. I let him run around the park without the leash when kids are not around.
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on February 21, 2012:
Thank you for sharing,I hope this is helpful. Please use extreme caution if your dog has started biting.
TENKAY from Philippines on February 21, 2012:
A dog's behavior is affected by their past experience. What started as fun and game for the kids (age ranges 7 to 10) and my male shih tzu ended with a change in behavior of my dog towards kids. Five months ago, almost every afternoon for a week, I allowed the kids to play with my dog in their catch-me-if-you-can game, as my dog being the catcher. Initially, my dog would chase the kids if the children will call him and then run when the dog starts to chase them. Then I noticed that my dog chase kids even without calling him, and then eventually started biting. The dog became aggressive towards kids.
I have to process this aggression, thanks to this hub, now I have an idea how to do it.
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on February 21, 2012:
Thank you Brandon. Actually the dog in the picture is not mine. I am owned by two big Rottweilers that are often chased by ankle-biters on our walks!
Brandon Spaulding from Yahoo, Contributor on February 21, 2012:
I love your dog. Everyone needs tips for controlling animal behavior. They have to be socialized just like people. Thanks for the tips! Voted up, useful, funny, and interesting.