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Why does my dog nip people’s heels as they leave?

I receive many requests from concerned dog owners asking why their dogs do one thing or another that has become a major problem or certainly an inconvenience. Asking why their dogs are nipping people’s limbs is a very common question.

The other day I received an email regarding a two-year-old dog that would attack and nip people’s heels when they were leaving the owners property. Certainly, this had become painful and something that will do little to encourage friends to visit again, but what is going on.

Firstly nipping legs is a normal game for a dog. It is a necessary method to learn the skill for hunting and herding. Even we adapt this skill for controlling other animals like herding cattle on farms. The need to play this game is stored genetically and it requires other dogs to play with it in order to improve its skills so that it can hunt and survive. This does not mean that a dog must play the game with full predatory aggression, as the end game of obtaining food is unnecessary with food being plentiful but none the less there, still a hidden need to play the game.

Normally humans and older dogs do not tolerate any nipping that creates real pain, and so most owners and dogs stop this early as the pain becomes worse. Because no one will play, then there is no reward and so the need slowly disappears and the dog gives up. Some owners might even smack the dog or cause it some uncomfortable pain in an effort to persuade the dog that this is not a good game to play.

So long as the dog eats regularly, there is no genetic survival reason for the dog to play the game. Certainly, when it is older, it is almost too late to learn such skills, as it needs others to joust with and teach it to improve.

Those of you who have more than one dog will see the game continue in to adult life but it only becomes more of a tag game rather then hurtful biting. To watch Winston and Osito play this game it is amazing to see the speed at which they can now show how they could bite each other’s legs, tail, etc if they wanted to. There is no actual biting as it is only now in a ritualised non- contact form. It has become just a friendly game but yes, it could have dangerous repercussions if the controls got out of hand where the game involved humans.

Very often with such games, owners inadvertently play thinking it is funny to see a small puppy chasing after people moving away from it. Were the people to turn round and walk towards the puppy, it would run away. The first rule of survival for a puppy is anything coming towards it then back off rapidly. Anything moving away must be an invitation to begin the chase game. As the puppies bite is not exactly, painful we think we can tolerate this as simply playful fun.

It is here that the mistake takes place. It is because we think this is harmless fun together with a reluctance to chastise a lovely cuddly little puppy that owners do nothing. Many owners treat it as a game on the assumption it will go away as the puppy grows up. The problem is that when it does grow up the nip becomes more painful. Because humans still hop about trying to get away from the dogs teeth the dog reads this as us joining in its fun.

This week I walked my puppy Trufa along the Aranel for some sociability training. She is only nine weeks but now is the time she needs such training, not kept in quarantine until after sixteen weeks as many people do in the hope this will guarantee their puppy will not contract some deadly disease. As I have written, previously many puppies that have been quarantined have still contracted such diseases and as the vet wrote last week, it is better to risk disease than risk an unsocilised dog.

One evening I rubbed my hand vigorously along her back and over her head as an aggression test. Almost immediately, she growled and bit my hand to try to put me in my place. This is not the sort of bite meant to harm me and as a puppy; such a bite neither would draw blood nor causes me any pain.

All puppies go through this stage as they need to establish themselves within the pack and such a display would have placed her higher than me had I backed off from the display. What she got was a very loud gruff bark from me with my face pushed rapidly towards hers. She backed off immediately so I rubbed her again quite a few times and when she growled, I retaliated. There is no smacking or using pain involved just the normal natural dog response used by any higher hierarchical dog in the pack.

As with the problem of heel nipping our jumping about when it is a puppy it thinks we are playing too. This only compounds the problem making it more difficult to stop when it is older and this is often when I become involved.

Any puppy that thinks it can use its teeth to gain anything must stop this immediately. For a human to back off at this first sign is to accept that even a nine week old puppy is higher than they are and this must never happen, yet many humans do exactly this.

Hand nibbling or pulling trouser legs or sleeves is all part of the same hierarchical establishment programme inbuilt into every puppy. It is for owners to check if the problem exists and if it does, it must stop now and not when it is older. How often have we watched puppies pulling at children’s jumpers in order to play is it looks so innocent but how often do we look at what the future could hold?

Humans must never play such games with their dogs yet so many owners or friends do, accepting it as simply puppy play until someone is hurt. Continued play of such games the puppy learns to become quicker, to bite harder and then when there is an incident it is usual to blame the bad dog instead of the owners.

Let’s be careful out there.

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