Why Do Dogs Step on Your Feet?

Dogs step on your feet for the simple fact that your feet are cumbersome protrusions that get in the way. It's often just as simple as that. Many dog owners worry about dogs who step on their feet or even sit on them or lie down on them perhaps because of an old myth that claims that dogs are perpetually on a mission to dominate. Turns out, many doggy behaviors occur just because of the laws of reinforcement.

When dogs step on your feet, you may have all sort of alarm bells sounding off. Perhaps you have heard that dogs who step on feet are wannabe "alpha dogs," dogs who will take over your life, lying on the couch as if it's a throne and maxing out your credit card. Well, the alpha dog/alpha wolf myth has been debunked long ago, courtesy of David Mech's study.

Or perhaps, your concern is more based on the negative connotations associated with the metaphoric meaning behind the saying "stepping on someone toes." As if Rover's stepping on your feet is a way to purposely upset you. Well, here's some good news: you can relax. Rover is not on a plot to either upset you or take over.

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A History of Reinforcement 

When do dogs step on your feet? If you watch carefully, you'll notice that it often happens when dogs are coming close to you seeking your attention and touch. Whether you are sitting or standing, your feet are likely in the way and are almost inevitable to step on or sit on if your dog wants to get as close to you as he can.

If upon coming closer to you (and stepping on your feet in the process) results in you looking at your dog, talking to your dog or petting your dog, (which are all signs of attention), you can bet that the foot stepping and coming into close proximity to you are behaviors that will be reinforced, and therefore, will repeat.

 Similar dynamics go on with dogs who sleep by their owner's feet. Dogs like to be close to their humans for reassurance and proximity feels comforting. 

It was Burrhus Frederic Skinner, the father of operant conditioning to state that behavior which is reinforced tends to  repeat, and is therefore strengthened; while behavior which is not reinforced tends to weaken and extinguish. 

Many dog behaviors (whether desirable or undesirable) occur because of a history of reinforcement. It's just as easy as that. No need to overthink things and worry about dogs having ill intents. All that dogs need, in most cases, is just training. 

The Association of Professional Dog Trainers, in the article Dominance Myths and Dog Training Realitied, clarifies that dogs who pull on the leash do so, not to be in charge of the walk, but because they're excited and want to explore the world; dogs who jump, do so, not to assert their rank, but just because, jumping allows them to get closer to us and get attention; dogs who sleep on couches or beds do so, not to rule the household, but simply because they're comfortable, etc. 

All these behaviors can be easily solved by employing reward-based methods to  gently influence and motivate dogs to act in more desirable manners. 

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The Effect of Emotions

Dogs who step on your feet frequently when you are standing may also do so because they are too overwhelmed to realize what they are doing. Dogs may be too excited or too anxious to realize what they are doing with their feet. 

For example, many dogs get very excited when owners grab their leash from a closet to go on a walk. They may therefore start walking around the owner and this may lead to them accidentally stepping on the owner's toes, something they may perhaps never do in calmer situations. 

Dogs who are particularly stressed or anxious about a situation (or upcoming situation) may also inadvertently step on the owner's feet. If your dog is fearful of something and rushes towards you trying to hide between your legs or is worried about your leaving the house (as seen in dogs with separation anxiety), he may step on your toes in the spur of the moment. 

Strong emotions such as excitement or fear, may cause dogs to forget their manners or act in unusual ways. Who can blame them though? In a moment of stress or panic, us humans may also act in peculiar ways such as pushing through a crowd, dropping things from our hands or biting our nails. 

A Matter of Conformation

Dogs who step all over your feet are often doing so out of clumsiness. Dogs, unlike us, have four legs and their back feet aren't as visible to them as our feet are to us. It's easy therefore for dogs to accidentally step (with their back legs in particular) on things they shouldn't. 

In all your years of dog ownership, you have likely witnessed your dog one day accidentally stepping on his poop with his back legs after defecating. Of course, this is not intentional and most dogs appear upset about it!

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And What About Pheromones?

While some dogs appear to step on their owner's feet inadvertently, what about those dogs who seem to so so intently? As already mentioned, most likely, there's a history of reinforcement going on, but there's also something else to consider, and this time, it's about those doggy paws. 

It is a known fact that dogs can scent mark with paws. Indeed, dogs who kick dirt after peeing or pooping, are believed to do so because they have special glands in between their toes that release pheromones. 

This leaves us wondering whether dogs may be using their paws to simply put their smell on us sort of like cats use their cheeks to mark people or objects as safe. Until proven though, we can only really speculate about this at the moment. 

Now That You Know...

As seen, the reasons dogs step on people's feet are for the most part innocuous, however, you may be wondering what you can do to reduce the behavior. Perhaps you are wearing open sandals and the habit annoys you or you are competing in some canine sport and want your dog to be less clumsy. Here are a few tips to create more "awareness."

  • When your dog steps on your toes, verbally mark the behavior with an "ouch!" or "ops!" This is not to startle your dog, but just to raise awareness of what he's doing and informing him that your toes are sensitive. 
  • When your dog sits on your feet, move your feet away from under him or ask your dog to move and sit farther from your feet praising and rewarding him
  • Trim your dog's nails so if you're wearing sandals or other types of open shoes, your toes won't hurt as much.
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