I remember as a child visiting my best friend. They had a little dog who would welcome you into the house with a wagging tail, but the moment you tried to leave she would bite your ankles. It started out as nipping and eventually got so bad that she’d draw blood.
Ankle biting is not only annoying, it can become a serious problem if not addressed as soon as it starts. It can be especially scary for young children – who run and squeal, reinforcing the bad behaviour by turning it into a game of “chase the squeaky thing.”
Remember that a dog who bites ankles isn’t “naughty” and you should never use punishment to try and change this behaviour. Smacking, kicking or using aversives like spray bottles are likely to make the behaviour worse.
There is one strict rule about ankle biting: Do not wait until your dog is already attached to your ankle before reacting.
If she is biting you a lot invest in a pair of wellington boots, because ankle biting is jolly sore and ideally what you want to do is ignore the behaviour, which is very difficult if it’s painful. Then when she bites she just gets the wellington and you can stand still and not react. If a behaviour is not reinforced the dog will stop doing it. Wellington boots are an absolute must for small children because one cannot expect them not to squeal and run if the dog catches them
Here are some steps to follow to get your dog to stop using your ankles as a chew toy:
- It is important to set your dog up for success, and you can do this by interrupting her before she even has a chance to nip or bite your ankles. As soon as you see your dog coming up behind you, immediately turn to face her.
- Now that you have interrupted the behaviour, you can redirect her attention to a more suitable object, such as a toy.
- If your dog has been trained, you can ask her for a more acceptable behaviour, such as sit. By doing this you are replacing the unwanted behaviour with something that is incompatible – she can’t bite your ankles while she is chewing a toy or sitting.
- Build in an appropriate behaviour such as “approach à sit”, meaning when your dog comes to you she knows she must sit. The best way to do this is to call your dog to you, and when she is on her way, ask her to sit. Immediately reward her with a yummy HIGH VALUE treat for sitting. Repeat this sequence over and over so that it becomes a habit. (Note: your dog must already be trained to sit to do this).
- There is a big difference between you calling your dog to you and then asking her to sit while facing her and turning your back to the dog and walking away from her. You need to work towards the latter where your dog automatically runs up to you and offers a sit, because running up to a human ALWAYS means “sit and get a reward” as opposed to “run à grab ankles à tug and chew”.
- Initially, use high value treats to reinforce the sit. Once the behaviour is established, you can phase out the food and use a reward such as a cuddle or a game, or anything your dog enjoys.
- Another great tool is distraction: scatter a handful of kibble around you so your dog is preoccupied with finding those while you take yourself out of harm’s way.
If your dog has already attached herself to your ankle, stand completely still, she will in all likelihood look up to you to find out why you are not playing the game by moving, then if you have a toy to hand throw it for her, or else throw some food for her, or get someone else to call her – anything to make her move from your ankle. Make for the nearest door and close it between you and the dog. She has to learn that this is an unacceptable behaviour, and that doing it results in loss of social contact with you.
Never encourage your dog to play ankle biting games such as “tug on my jeans”, and don’t encourage her to play with your feet. Grabbing onto pants is one of those behaviours that tend to be reinforcing regardless of what you are doing: even just by standing still and ignoring her, she is still getting to play the tug game!
Don’t ever turn and shout or scream as this will just make it more fun for her; because then, when she bites you, you become a squeaky toy!