German Shepherds are one of the most popular breeds of dog in the world, and for good reason! These highly intelligent dogs are seen everywhere from the show ring to police work to the family farm.
While most people think of the modern German Shepherd as being a working dog utilized mostly for police and military work, their origins are actually more complex than that. In fact, some of the traits they display today are a result of that breed history.
One of the more unusual behaviors a German Shepherd may display is the act of ankle nipping. While many people may assume this is an odd training issue, the truth is much different.
So why do German Shepherds nip ankles?
German Shepherds will nip ankles due to their historic use as herding dogs. Ankle nipping is a common behavior in herding breeds, and the German Shepherd is no exception. While ankle nipping may also be the result of a behavior issue, this is not as common.
In the article below we’ll take a deeper look at the history of the German Shepherd and their use as a herding dog and how that instinctual behavior is still present in today’s Shepherds. We’ll also discuss how ankle nipping can become a behavioral issue, and what you can do to help stop your German Shepherd from nipping at ankles.
Why Do German Shepherds Nip Ankles?
It might be surprising to some owners that German Shepherds are not only capable of nipping ankles, but that there’s actually a high likelihood that they’ll do it at some point during their lives!
While ankle nipping can be due to a variety of behavioral or training reasons (which I’ll go into below), the main reason why your German Shepherd might nip at your ankles is likely due to their breed history.
The History Of The German Shepherd
The German Shepherd is the result of a breeding project helmed by Captain Max von Stephanitz in the late 1800s. His goal was to create a dog that was a steadfast worker who possessed intelligence, endurance, and athleticism…a dog that required minimal effort in training and could be trusted to perform the often grueling work that was required for working dogs at the time.
The German Shepherd was the result of that project, and little has changed about the German Shepherd from long ago compared to our modern day Shepherds. Originally utilized for sheep herding, the German Shepherd became an icon of utility and multipurpose work.
From farm dogs to military dogs to guide dogs, the German Shepherd has proven throughout history that it is a breed capable of doing almost anything you ask of it.
The German Shepherd As A Herding Dog
The herding dog group is comprised of various dog breeds of all shapes and sizes, including the German Shepherd. The German Shepherd is one of the larger (though not the largest) breeds within the group, and they are also one of the more versatile.
German Shepherds have traditionally been used to herd sheep, but they have also been used to herd goats, alpaca, poultry, and sometimes cattle and other large livestock.
One of the primary instincts of a herding dog is their ability to maneuver their stock with their eyes, body movements, and (of course) the nipping of the ankles of the stock animals to keep them in line and guide them where they need to go.
While it does depend on the individual German Shepherd and their breeding history, as the herding instincts are a natural part of the German Shepherd’s lineage it’s very likely that they’ll nip at your heels (or try to herd other animals or children within the house).
This behavior is totally normal, but it can be frustrating and potentially scary or damaging to small children and other animals. Shepherds who come from farm stock tend to display these traits more often than those bred for other work, but as puppies almost all German Shepherds will likely try to nip at ankles and herd others around. It’s just part of who they are!
Socializing puppies from a young age and teaching them that it’s not appropriate to nip and herd others is important or else the behavior may continue into adulthood and cause more problems. Unless you plan on using your German Shepherd for herding work, it’s a good idea to try to “nip” this issue in the bud!
Nipping As A Behavioral Issue
While many times a German Shepherd nipping at your ankles is due to their breed history and use as a herding dog, in some cases the issue could be related more to a behavioral issue:
Dogs are constantly learning from their environment, and many times people don’t always think about what they are accidentally teaching their dogs. German Shepherds in particular are known as a highly trainable breed of dog and are capable of learning incredibly complex things. However, if an owner is not paying attention or does not understand how dogs learn in general, then the risk of reinforcing bad habits increases.
For a German Shepherd who nips at ankles, it could be that they were positively reinforced for this behavior at some point in their life (often as puppies when they were first engaging in the behavior as a breed trait).
If they nipped at a person’s ankles, and the person responded with positive attention (including laughing or giving the dog a toy or treat), then the German Shepherd may have taken that as a sign that the ankle nipping is acceptable and leads to good things.
Alternatively, if the German Shepherd went to nip at the ankles of a person and this person yelled at them or tried to push them away, in some cases this could also be reinforcing the behavior.
German Shepherds tend to be very clingy dogs and if they are not receiving the attention they need, they may resort to behaviors like the ankle nipping to try and get that attention. To them, even the negative attention is still attention!
“Aggression” VS Instinctual Behaviors
Many German Shepherds will naturally nip at the ankles of a person as puppies. This instinctual behavior may be stronger in some puppies and weaker in others and may appear at different ages.
As puppies are often working on their bite inhibition around this same time, the ankle nipping may be painful (plus you have those sharp puppy teeth to worry about!) but the pain and possible injury are likely accidental and not the intent of the puppy.
German Shepherds may also nip at the ankles of a person in a more aggressive manner with the intent to scare away or even injure whoever they are afraid of. This can happen with poorly socialized Shepherds or those who are backed into a corner or in pain.
Many fearful dogs will crouch low, and many owners may try to move these dogs using their feet rather than their hands or another object. Thus, the ankle is right at mouth height for a nip or even a full-blown bite.
Most of the time these “aggressive” bites aren’t really a result of aggression at all, but a symptom of a fearful, anxious, or sick dog who is trying to say “go away” and is being ignored.
Nipping At Other Animals
Human ankles aren’t the only ankles a German Shepherd may be nipping at! Sometimes this herding instinct is so strong they’ll try and herd any other creature they see, from other dogs to the housecat, or even ducks. Unless you are looking for a working Shepherd that herds livestock or competes in herding events, it’s likely that this ankle nipping is causing problems.
Most animals (especially those that are not livestock) do not enjoy a dog nipping at their ankles to try and herd them. Non-livestock animals may not even really understand what the dog is doing and will react in a potentially dangerous manner.
While the herding instinct is normal for German Shepherds (it is part of their natural predatory instinct), it can develop into a behavioral issue if they do it with other animals and get a response that’s fun or interesting to them.
Herding behaviors with other animals can often be self-rewarding behaviors and the German Shepherd receives instant gratification when they go to nip at the ankles of the other animal. This makes it potentially very difficult to change and could lead to your pup getting into trouble with neighbors of the four-legged and two-legged variety.
Nipping At Children
German Shepherds (and other herding breeds) may be especially prone to nipping at the ankles of children to herd them along. This may be due to the fact that children are smaller and sometimes similar in size to livestock like lambs, sheep, and goats.
German Shepherds may also want to herd children to try and protect them and keep them in a certain area (though it’s important to remember that not all German Shepherds are good with kids and may not want to naturally protect them!).
Children also often reinforce the German Shepherd’s nipping because they will make lots of noise and sometimes turn it into a game with the dog. This can excite the German Shepherd and is rewarding to them, so they will continue to nip at a child’s ankles.
This is obviously not something you want your pup to be doing for a variety of reasons, but it is an instinctual thing for them to be doing. Like any other reason for ankle nipping, it’s important to fix this issue early on before it becomes a behavioral problem.
How To Stop My German Shepherd From Nipping Ankles?
First, it’s important to understand whether your German Shepherd’s ankle nipping is due to an instinctual need or due to a behavioral issue. If it’s instinctual (which in many cases it likely is, especially if you are working with a puppy), it’s important to provide your pup with alternative behaviors to do instead of the ankle nipping.
1. Ignore Or Block Access To Yourself
Ignoring the dog as they attempt to herd you (or instructing your children to ignore them), and then rewarding them with a different activity as soon as they stop will help teach them not to nip at your ankles.
If the ankle nipping is particularly persistent, completely blocking off access to yourself (usually by leaving the room and shutting the door behind you) for a few moments will teach your pup that every time they nip at your ankles you disappear rather than play with them.
2. Provide Toys
Providing good toys to play with and keeping a German Shepherd’s mouth occupied is another great way to help keep them from nipping at ankles.
Ensuring that your German Shepherd has plenty of appropriate outlets for their energy (both physically and mentally) will also discourage them from nipping at ankles.
3. Don’t Leave Your Dog Unsupervised With Kids
When dealing with a German Shepherd who likes to try and herd children by nipping at their ankles, ensuring that the dog is never left unsupervised with the children is important.
If the children are old enough, you can explain that they shouldn’t yell or scream or run away when the dog goes to nip at their ankles and encourage them to play with the Shepherd in other ways.
4. Impulse Control And Obedience Cues
If your German Shepherd likes to try and nip at the ankles of other animals to herd them, teaching good impulse control and basic obedience cues can help. Both “Leave It” and “Come” are very important behaviors and will come in handy if your pup goes to herd the family cat.
Keeping your pup on a leash while around livestock or other animals while you are going through this training process is key. If your pup gets loose and engages in ankle nipping and herding behavior, it is an instant reward to them, and you will have trouble getting back on track with the training process. The longer a dog engages in an unwanted behavior, the harder it is to fix it!
Thankfully German Shepherds are pretty easy to train. If at any point the ankle nipping enters into more dangerous territory where you feel it is a result of aggression, fear, or even compulsive behavior, reach out to a local trainer who can help you determine how to approach and fix the issue.
5. Don’t Punish Your Dog!
The use of punishment such as yelling at the dog, kicking them in the face, spraying them with water, or placing them in their crate as a way to punish their behavior is not suggested as this can lead to some unintended consequences and potentially create an even bigger issue.
As a result of their history as herding dogs, German Shepherds may nip the ankles of adults, children, and even other animals. It’s seen most often in German Shepherd puppies but can occur in German Shepherds of any age.
This instinctual behavior is often stronger in dogs whose lineage includes a lot of working dogs, but every dog is an individual and may or may not show this ankle nipping behavior.
In most cases, the ankle nipping of people can be fixed quickly if caught early on. German Shepherds who are utilized as herding dogs (either on farms or in competition), can be taught to only nip at the ankles of the livestock they are herding rather than the ankles of everyone and everything.
In some cases, the ankle nipping can escalate into a behavioral issue. This is usually caused by accidental reinforcement and rewarding the behavior and is rarely a result of aggression.
No matter the underlying reason for the ankle nipping, it is something that should be addressed as soon as possible, and reaching out to a local trainer to help your pup find more appropriate outlets for the nipping is a good idea.