Why Do Puppies Bite Your Legs?

Adrienne Farricelli

When puppies bite your legs, you feel their sharp, needle-like teeth and your instinctive reaction is to move away. "More entertainment!" thinks the puppy, as he latches on more in hopes of being dragged for the ride. Jokes aside, the puppy nipping stage may feel like a nightmare to dog owners who are in desperate need of solutions to curb the puppy's relentless biting.

Puppies bite your legs because they are fun to bite and that's what puppies do for the most part of the day, unless you provide them with other activities that surpass this form of interaction. In order to tackle this issue, you will therefore need to go deep into your puppy's mind and establish what activities he finds most reinforcing. 

A Look Back in Time

Take a look back into when your puppy was living with the breeder with his litter mates and mom and you will many of his behaviors back then will look familiar. Since you cannot travel through time, here's just a brief rundown of how is life was back then.

Once your puppy's ears and eyes opened at around 2 weeks, a whole world ready to explore unfolded. His mobility gradually improved and between 3 and 5 weeks he started spending a good part of his time engaging in play with his mom and litter mates and learning to be a dog. 

For being small, sweet-looking puppies, the play behaviors were rather rough. Puppies would grab each others' ears, tails and legs and pin each other to the ground. It was not unusual for puppies to yelp in pain and withdraw from play in surrender.

This strategy taught rough puppies that their hard nips led to losing their playmates, so rep after rep, they learned that they had to gauge the pressure of their jaws if they wished to keep on playing. 

Mother dog would further impart this important lesson: when her pups would latch on to nurse with their sharp teeth, she would start to withdraw by walking away and showing other body language meant to tell the puppies to back off.

 This life lesson also paves the path to weaning, when pups start exploring new food options other than relying solely on milk. 

Humans as Playmates

When puppies are welcomed to our new homes, they miss their litter mates and mom. They not only miss their warmth at night (puppies sleep piled up at night) but they also miss their games. 

The instinct to play therefore remains strong with no outlets. Sure, toys can entertain for some time, but they really miss the getting physical and unpredictable movements of their playmates. So why not try to engage owners in some interactive play?

However, human skin is delicate and it lacks the extra layer of fur that buffers the intensity of the bites. Their biting therefore evokes humans to move away as soon as they feel the sharp teeth, something that puppies find irresistible and that stimulates their prey drive even more. How fun!

This explains why you never see puppies playing with trees or electric poles. These static objects fail to move and puppies look quick interest in them. 

The Truth About Yelping 

It makes sense to start yelping or saying a loud "ouch" the moment you feel those sharp teeth as that is what puppies in the litter used to do when their playmates played too roughly, but not always this method works. 

First of all, you would need perfect timing: saying "ouch" and quickly leaving the scene, but this may lead to a puppy attaching to your leg on the way out. Not to mention, that some puppies get more overstimulated upon hearing us squeak or make another sound that resembles a hurt animal.

"Cool, not only does he move a lot, he also makes these entertaining noises, he's like the human impersonation of my squeaky toy!" must think Rover. 

Yelping may therefore not work with all dogs. The big question is: is what I am doing working? Is the biting behavior increasing or decreasing? We must carefully analyze if there is any behavior change to evaluate the program’s effectiveness.

 If it's not working over several reps, it is best to ditch it and move on to some other more effective methods, also considering the fact that dogs learn best when we give them a replacement behavior to fill the vacuum.

Now That You Know...

As seen, puppies bite your legs mostly out of play, but you need to work on this problem before it gets more challenging to curb and when they dog's teeth and jaws get stronger. The goal is mostly putting ourselves a bit in a pup's mind and find why he is finding biting on legs far more rewarding than anything else offered. This often occurs because puppies are attracted to movement, and we are their favorite playmates because we are alive and therefore move a lot, and when they bite us with their sharp teeth, we move around even more and "activate" further, making the game even more engaging! "

So we have to do is see what we can do surpass this pup's interest in our body parts by making other things more attractive and salient. So here are some tips and options that can to mind. You can try several and see what works best.Here are some tips to decrease the leg-biting behavior. 

  • Avoid encouraging rough games such as wrestling and teasing. When you entertain your puppy in this rough and tumble play, you are sending him the wrong message: that putting his teeth on you and your clothing is fun and acceptable. Sure, we want to train puppies bite inhibition, but there are better ways that don't overstimulate him so much as these games which encourage dogs to bite hard (when dogs are too aroused in games, they have less control over the pressure of their bites). Calmer methods lead to softer mouths. Here is a guide on how to teach your dog to take treats gently. 
  • Redirect your puppy before he has a chance to latch on. This cannot be emphasized enough. If you try to redirect him by the time he's attached to your leg, he will be much more difficult to redirect because he will be too focused on tugging. So as soon as you see him coming your way to bite your legs, stop walking and be ready to redirect at a moment's notice. There are several options to redirect you can try. All of these require that you carry with you a bag of treats and toys as you go with your life. This is not something you will have to do forever. Just to get your through the more critical time and prevent your puppy from rehearsing the problematic behavior (the more dogs engage in problematic behaviors, the more they put roots).
  • Train your puppy to hand target. Hand targeting is a simple exercise where, every time your puppy nose-touches your hand, he gets a treat. If your puppy doesn't nose-touch your hand, you can encourage this behavior by simply smearing some tasty food on your hands to grab his interest. Once your puppy performs this behavior reliably, you can start saying "target' right before you present your hand for nose-touching. The goal is to make targeting more appealing than biting hands. 
  • Redirect your puppy's biting by offering access to toys that encourage interaction. These are the keywords: Interaction, engagement and movement.
  •  Forgot about static toys that are motionless. As soon as your dog approaches with the intent to bite, toss a tennis ball the opposite way.  If you can, carry several balls on you in your pockets so to redirect as needed. 
  • Try carrying a flirt pole with you (toy for dogs made as a fishing pole with a squeaky toy attached at the end) and wiggle it as soon as he approaches you. Let him latch on it and create some resistance to encourage him to tug at it and have fun. 
  • Invest in engaging toys. Engaging toys are those that offer some type of reward and challenge. Keep a stuffed Kong on you and redirect him to this toy when he comes towards you with the intent to bite. Offer a Kong Wobbler filled up with a portion of his kibble. This will keep him entertained for some time. 
  • Redirect to an interactive game with you. As soon as he approaches you, ask him for a sit and reward by tossing one piece of kibble across the room. He'll eat it and come for more. Repeat several times. This makes your puppy tired while you incorporate some fun obedience. 
  • To prevent painful bites to ankles, wear tall boots or tuck your pants into your socks. 
  • If you struggle redirecting your puppy, or you notice aggressive behavior more than an intent to play, please enlist the help of a dog trainer or behavior professional using force-free training methods. 
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