You know summer is around the corner when puppies bite your toes. The heavy shoes come off, and as you start wearing open shoes and sandals, your puppy is drawn to your toes like bees are drawn to honey.
So what's up with a puppy's obsession with toes? Turns out, puppies bite toes for their own good reasons.
Puppies are Playing Machines
Play among puppies starts as early as 3 weeks, when they are still in the litter with their siblings and mom. Play at this age improves a pup's motor skills and improves their sense of coordination.
They also learn more about displaying and interpreting body language so to become socially skilled. Puppies will play bounce, growl and yelp when one puppy plays too rough. Puppies will also learn how to use their facial expressions and how to display special signals that come to say that "anything that follows is just play."
These special signals are known as meta-signals. The most common meta-signal among dogs, often used in play, is the quintessential play bow, where dogs crouch down to invite to play while their tails are excitedly wagging.
Other play signals include the play face with the open mouth and erect ears, barking in a high-pitched tone, pouncing, hitting the forelegs on the ground, and quickly approaching and withdrawing.
Play is therefore an essential part of growing up as it allows the pups to build confidence and learn canine social etiquette. It also teaches puppies the ABCs of bite inhibition, learning to gauge the pressure of their bites in order to play with their playmates without harming them.
Play is totally normal behavior. It's a sign that puppies are healthy and happy. When dogs are sick, stressed, fearful or malnourished, play is one of the first things to vanish from a dog's behavior repertoire.
Puppy Play is a Physical Ordeal
Play among puppies is a truly physical ordeal. At 3 weeks, when puppies start to play, the mouthing is mostly concentrated on each other's head region.
This is because at this age, pups gain the most sensory input from each other playing this way, explains veterinary behaviorist Katherine A. Houpt in the book: "Domestic Animal Behavior for Veterinarians and Animal Scientists."
Then, as puppies become stronger and their first teeth erupt, mouthing evolves into playful nips and the wrestling matches begin. Puppies will bite each others scruffs, they will play tug of war with body parts, and they will wrestle taking turns lying on their backs or standing over.
Play is a very physical ordeal. When puppies are introduced to their new homes, they come with this factory-installed inherent desire to play. Only that, with no more playmates to play with, puppies will seek play interaction with their owners by biting body parts as they used to do with their playmates.
This means puppies will be irresistibly drawn to nipping our arms, hands, legs, ankles and toes! How unfortunate that us humans find a puppy's needle sharp teeth very hurtful!
Puppies are Drawn to Movement
If you watch puppies play, you will notice how they are attracted to movement. Anything that moves is fair game. Whether it's a leaf blown by the wind, a butterfly or your hands, feet or toes, your puppy will want to nip them.
Most of dog play is therefore centered on things that move. Toss a ball, the puppy will go get it, run away and your puppy will chase you, move your arms or legs and your puppy will nip them.
For a good reason it's a rare sight seeing a puppy play with stationary objects such as refrigerators, lampposts or bathtubs. With no movement, there is little interest in these objects.
Many time dog owners don't notice it, but when hands, feet or toes are moved or even slightly wiggled it's as if a puppy's play mode switch turns on and they'll go into nippy mode.
We can't blame them though: dog eyes are equipped with thousands of movement receptors so to detect movement of prey. Anything that moves attracts dogs, drawing them like magnets. The urge to chase and nips things that move is very strong and often difficult to resist.
Five Little Piggies to Nip On
Remember the old nursery rhyme "this little piggy went to market" that is often used to count a child's toes? To your puppy your toes are as irresistible as this rhyme is to children.
As you sit on the couch and read a book, your puppy might catch a little wiggle of your toe and the game is on. Your puppy perceives it as the initiation of play.
Or maybe, you may not even move your toes at all, but your puppy decides to nip on one toe knowing that his nip will evoke you to move.
When you move, your puppy will want to play more because movement is what he is after. If you don't move, your puppy will likely keep trying in hopes of getting a response. Maybe he will even try to nip harder and as he nips your toe, you'll be the one crying "wee wee wee all the way home!"
The Novelty Factor
If you wear closed shoes most of the time and now you suddenly wear sandals, your puppy will surely be drawn to the toes because of the novelty factor. It's like opening a pea pod and discovering it contains peas for the first time.
A Matter of Boredom
It goes without saying that, puppies like children, are always looking for things to do, and just like children, when boredom sets in, they tend to engage in troublesome behaviors.
"Idle paws are a devil's workshop" goes the canine version of this saying, meaning that, when your puppy is bored, he'll be more likely to stir trouble.
Your puppy may struggle when the evening comes and you finally want to relax and wind down after a day at work. So you grab the remote and lie on the couch in hops of watching your favorite TV show.
Your puppy instead is in full play mode. He has eaten his meal and now your puppy has a case of post-prandial puppy zoomies. With nothing else to do and craving attention, he has decided to start playing with your feet and start nipping your toes.
You may not be aware of this, but every time you wave your toes or feet as your puppy nips, you are rewarding the nipping behavior. Your puppy is playing and interpreting your movement as engagement in play.
Even if you say things as 'no bite' or push your puppy away with your foot, he still thinks you are playing. Actually, with time, your puppy may come to think that 'no bite" or pushing him away is a sign of you participating in the game!
Also, for many attention-seeking puppies, any form of attention is better than no attention at all and that even includes attention of the negative type such as scolding the puppy with a deep voice or getting up and trying to move him away.
Know That You Know....
As seen, puppies have their own good reasons for biting your toes. Toes are fun to play with, their movements attract puppies and they can offer a fun past time when there is nothing better to do. However, those sharp teeth make the game much less fun for you. What can you do to stop this annoying puppy toe-biting behavior? Here are a few tips.
- Avoid physical methods. Puppies mostly bite because they are wanting to play. If we get angry or frustrated with them and engage in harsh methods such as scruff shakes, pinning the puppy to the ground or gabbing their muzzle, we risk making them move aroused or may turn playful biting into defensive biting which is a much bigger problem that is more difficult to resolve.
- Out of sight out of mind. When you have little time to train or are very busy, you may find it best to just manage the behavior. In other words, avoid the biting from occurring in the first place by wearing closed shoes. With your toes out of sight, your puppy should be less propense to biting.
- A word about becoming a tree. You may often find on the internet advice about staying still like a tree in hopes your puppy loses interest. Basically, tucking your hands away and staying still without talking to your dog. Be forewarned though: when you do this, expect an extinction burst, that is, the behavior intensifying before getting better. Your puppy may bite your toes harder or may try biting somewhere else just to get a reaction. It you can endure all that, your puppy should give up, but if you struggle and end up moving, you will have reinforced persistence causing the behavior to become more ingrained.
- Provide more exercise and mental stimulation. Puppies can be a handful, they are full of energy and need constructive ways to disperse it. Brain games, food puzzles, walks (ask your vet when you can take your pup on walks after having completed vaccinations), socialization opportunities, scent games, chew toys, training and games should help keep the pup busy and out of trouble. If you can sit down in the evening and relax reading a book and your pup leaves you alone, you know your pup has had enough exercise and mental stimulation during the day.
- Pre-empt the behavior. If the nipping behavior happens at a certain time of the day, it's important to provide the puppy with activities at that time before the pup has an opportunity to engage in the nipping behavior.
- Help make good choices. It also helps to provide the puppy with something that will keep him occupied such as a Kong Wobbler filled with a portion of his daily allowance of kibble, a Snuffle mat studded with treats, or a Kong stuffed with some peanut butter.
- Train your puppy alternate behaviors and reward those. Hand-targeting can be a great way to divert the pup's attention from your toes to your hands. Praise and reward for every successful hand target. Mix in some sits and downs and tricks.