This is one of those million-dollar questions where the answer will likely only be unlocked that day our dogs learn how to talk. Until then, at this point we can only make some educated assumptions as to why dogs sleep by their owner's feet.
Humans as Social Partners
Unless your dog belongs to one of those independent breeds or is a loner by nature, consider that most dogs are eager to be nearby their owners. According to a study conducted by scientists at the University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna, dogs perceive us as family, and to be more exact, they develop a child-like bond with their owners.
Domesticated dogs have been living in close proximity with humans for about 15,000 years (and likely more!) and dogs have gotten so used to being around us, that dogs tend to choose us as social partners over their con-specifics. Owners of dogs are well aware of this strong bond which is so very close to the bond that is seen between an infant and the mother.
"My dog to me is like my child," how many dog owners feel this way? Dogs have learned to depend on their owners for security and care and sometimes they even end up developing a dysfunctional attachment, consisting of overly dependent behaviors and much suffering and anguish when they are separated from their owners (even when the owners is in another room!).
It's not surprising therefore that dogs like to be around their owners, and this often entails sharing sleeping areas or sleeping very closely to their owners, which often means right attached to the owner's feet!
"One of the things that really surprised us is that adult dogs behave towards their caregivers like human children do." ~Lisa Horn,Vetmeduni Messerli Research Institute
Knowing the Owner's Whereabouts
Another possible reason as to why dogs like to sleep at the owner's feet is that dogs have a strong need for reassurance. According to the study mentioned above, dogs tend to display a "secure base effect" similar to that found in parent-child bonding.
Dogs seek their owner's presence for security purposes sticking by the owner's side and resisting separation as much as they can. Dogs also seek their owner's presence for exploration purposes and for reassurance at times of distress.
What can this suggest when applied to dogs sleeping by the owner's feet? One can deduce that by sleeping by their owner's feet, dogs feel reassured by their owner's presence. Sticking by their owners, dogs feel as if they are in a safe haven.
And since dog owners will need to move their feet to move away, dogs feel reassured they will be the first to know when that happens so they're ready to follow along.
Assuming a Protective Role
As with everything dog related, there are no rules set in stone that apply to every dog. Sometimes dogs sleep by their owner's feet because they feel a need to assume a protective role.
This can likely be the scenario if the sleeping-on feet-behavior tends to often happen when there are people or other dogs around and the dog is known for being "protective."
Dogs who are prone to protect the owner, resorting to guarding him/her as a precious resource, tend to lean into the owner or if the dog gets tired of leaning or starts relaxing more, he or she may lie down and sleep on the owner's feet.
Usually, dogs who are protective will tend to grow increasingly stressed the more the perceived threatening person or animal gets closer to the owner.
When the dog's "space bubble" is invaded and the person is getting too close to the owner for comfort, the dog will likely either bark, growl or lunge towards the person or dog in hopes of discouraging close proximity.
Facing the Door
A while back, there was a study where couples were observed and their choice of seats in a restaurant were observed. It was noted back then that, most men, given the choice, chose seats that were facing the door. This likely stemmed from a protective standpoint, so that any dangers coming from the entrance could be quickly recognized, versus having the back to a door.
Dogs may do something similar, so if your dog is sleeping at your feet, depending on your furniture setting, it could be your dog sleeps this way simply because your feet are facing the door. If your dog sleeps at your feet in bed, it would be an interesting experiment observing what happens if your feet face the opposite side of the door.
Dogs are surely interesting creatures! While many dogs sleep at the owner's feet, some dogs like to sleep right nearby their owners on the couch or the bed or even next to their owner's head! Dogs who sleep at the owner's feet may also be dogs who aren't allowed on the couch or bed and the feet are the only protruding body part they can stick nearby to.
These are just a few assumptions as to why dogs sleep by their owner's feet. If you have a different theory, feel free to post it in the comments section.
- The Importance of the Secure Base Effect for Domestic Dogs – Evidence from a Manipulative Problem-Solving Task Lisa Horn et al. Published: May 29, 2013