What do all these breeds have in common? Corgi, Great Pyrenees, Aussie, Border collie, dachshund, Bernese mountain dogs, Maremma sheepdogs, heelers—all of these dogs (or mixes) were bred to do a specific job. Historically, they acted as farm security guards, tunneled for vermin, or steered or herded livestock.
Why Dogs Bite Ankles and Feet
As a vet tech, I often heard new puppy owners ask about ankle biting when they came to the clinic for puppy wellness exams. We would talk to them about herding behavior and how natural this behavior is for certain breeds or mixes.
Most herding dogs, like those mentioned above, will sometimes nip at a person’s feet or heels. Essentially, they’re trying to herd you, and they’re mimicking the livestock herding behavior they were originally bred for. Anyone running around or playing vigorously is likely to be on the receiving end. It shouldn’t be shocking to anyone, for instance, to hear about a corgi nipping at the heels of their owner.
While these are natural behaviors for puppies, it’s important to redirect their behavior.
Hard-Wired to Herd
Certain canine behaviors are “hard-wired.” For example, our dachshunds are hard-wired to dig holes and this is their favorite past-time! I may not live with herders, but I certainly understand what it’s like to live with a dog that frequently needs help redirecting certain natural behaviors.
Training experts explain advise to redirect herding breed puppies, and remove the reward of your attention when they nip or bite.
“Teach your dog to play with a tug at your side. Redirecting the dog’s natural tendency to chase and bite at things keeps your legs safe and builds great toy drive, a valuable conditioned reinforcer for many dogs!” -ClickerTraining
With that in mind, these working dogs need a job. If they’re not herding, giving them stimulating activities and challenging problems to solve will help.
Don’t Add Fuel to the Fire
And how are you reacting to the being herded? Are you adding fuel to the fire?
The more people react to the behavior by running and yelling, the more your dog thinks this is a game. It’s better to correct this behavior as soon as it starts and there are lots of techniques that work.
Enrichment for Herding Breeds
How should we eliminate the problem? Enrichment opportunities can come in the form of toys, playmates, food, games, and training. The goal is to give pets more control over their lives. Your working dog may simply be bored.
Control the nipping:
- Herding dogs often enjoy rolling and chasing balls in an outdoor enclosure. Think: yoga balls or exercise balls. Herding this ball around a large green space is great enrichment.
- To stop your puppy from nipping at your heels, keep a favorite toy in your pocket. When she does bite, stop moving, then wave the toy around to distract her until she latches onto it.
- Hanging toys! Using a rope tie a large, durable toy to a tree. This should be supervised.
What about making an animal’s environment more interesting?
Give a friend that has farm animals an old t-shirt or stuffed animal and have them leave it near the farm until it’s super-smelly. After several days, give this to your pet as olfactory enrichment. Perhaps this stinky t-shirt can be wrapped around that tug toy!
Also, consider an enrichment schedule for your four-legged friend. Every day of the week, mark an activity for them ranging from toy to food and environmental enrichment.
Safety first, of course! Supervise any new enrichment activities to ensure they’re not a hazard to your pet.
Training experts and co-authors of Beyond Squeaky Toys provide valuable advice for pet parents. Their recommended schedule has a ton of ways to set your dog up for success. An example plan:
- Sensory: peppermint scent
- Social: dog park
- Feeding: feed meals out of puzzle toys
- Toys: rubber toys
You just need some imagination! No one wants to go for a walk with their ankle-biting puppy or adult dog. Redirecting is easy, but you need time and patience.
Just don’t blame your dog for behaving in ways that are natural for them. Instead, find other great games.
“Be a Tree” is a program that provides some great dog-bite prevention resources. You hardly ever see dogs chasing, nipping, or biting at trees. Why? Because they’re boring—they don’t move, squeal, run away, scream, give eye contact, or push the dog away.
This program teaches pet owners how to read their dog, and is also valuable for children learning to safely interact with dogs.