Dogs have a lot of ways to explore their environment and communicate with humans and other dogs. With their trusted owner, they might initiate play by nibbling your nose, or try to let you know they are anxious by grabbing your arm.
Unless you have a giant breed, your leg is a lot easier to grab than your nose or arm. Many dogs will default and try to grab your leg, and whether they are grabbing your leg with their mouth or paws, it can be an annoying habit.
So why does your dog grab your leg?
Dogs often try to grab your leg with their mouth because of boredom or excess energy; resulting in them herding, playing with, or nipping you. Grabbing you with their paws could also be a sign of anxiety, affection, or an attempt to hump you.
So how far is too far if your dog grabs your legs and how do you change this behavior? Luckily this behavior is usually easy to modify with positive reinforcement and maybe small changes in routine for you and your dog. Let’s look at the different ways that cause your dog to grab your leg and what you can do to change their behavior.
Why Does My Dog Grab My Leg With Their Mouth?
Teaching your dog bite inhibition as a young puppy is usually the best way to ensure your dog does not grab your leg with their mouth and hurt you. However, even if they have learned bite inhibition does not mean they might not grab your leg if their instincts are strong enough.
Bite inhibition means your dog learns not to bite too hard when they are playing with other dogs or with you. Whether you will let your dog play nibble is your choice, but some dogs will have a harder bite force than others even when they are playing.
So below are 5 reasons your dog could be pushing boundaries and grabbing your leg with their mouth. It is up to you when the behavior is unacceptable and if you want to try to change it.
Reason 1. They Are Herding You
Herding dog breeds are usually wired to grab legs with their mouth. It is in their nature to want to move and control groups of animals, specifically livestock such as sheep and cattle.
As you can see in the video, one of the most effective ways for herding dogs like Australian Cattle Dogs to do their job is by grabbing their dogs.
Besides the Australian Cattle Dogs, other popular herding breeds include the Border Collie, Australian Shepherd, German Shepherd, and the Kelpie. Without a proper outlet for their herding instincts, these dogs might start herding other animals like dogs and cats or turn their herding drive on you and grab your legs.
Don’t worry, you do not need a farm with sheep to make sure your herding dog has an outlet for their herding instincts. Herding dogs are smart and will be happy doing many different kinds of sports including agility, nose-work, barn hunt, and trick training.
Reason 2. Your Dog Has Excess Energy
Zoomies, or Frenetic Random Activity Periods (FRAPS) define the occasional explosion of random activity that many dogs display. Usually, zoomies revolve around a repetitive activity like running in circles or jumping and spinning on furniture.
Dogs of all breeds and ages can express their pent-up, excess energy through zoomies and it can be triggered by many things, from baths to walks, to greeting their owner after being crated all day.
Most zoomies are innocent fun like in the video below.
However, some dogs are prone to more aggressive zoomies where they might grab your leg with their mouth. During zoomies, dogs seem to lose their sense of awareness and they are not intentionally trying to grab your leg to hurt you.
Reason 3. Your Dog Is Playing
Grabbing your leg with their mouth might be a sign that your dog wants to play. Many dogs are more prone to grabbing legs when they want to play because of their herding or hunting instincts. Genetics can play a major role in the play style of dogs.
Dogs with this kind of play style do not only grab human legs when they are trying to play. They might also grab other dogs’ legs. They probably have a high prey drive or herding drive and they want to initiate a play and chase sequence.
Dogs who like to play by grabbing your legs or other dogs’ legs can be annoying. If they have too much pent-up energy they could even nip you too hard by accident. Try redirecting these dogs and encourage them to take their energy out on a toy instead.
Reason 4. Your Dog Is Bored
When your dog wants to play all the time and keeps grabbing your leg with their mouth for attention, there is a good chance they are bored.
It could be because of their herding or hunting instincts, or because they are a naturally mouthy breed, but some dogs learn that when they are bored they can grab your legs for attention.
Once they learn you will give them attention when they grab your leg, they have been unintentionally reinforced for this bad behavior. When they grab your leg and you turn around and pet them or start playing with them, you have accidentally taught them how to get your attention when they are bored.
Reason 5. Your Dog Is Trying To Bite You
There are different levels of biting from a dog. It is unlikely that a puppy who is suddenly misbehaving is biting you because they are being aggressive. They are probably teething which means their adult teeth are coming in and their mouth hurts. Chewing helps relieve the pain and pressure, so your puppy needs to be redirected from your leg to an appropriate chew toy.
As we have already discussed many dogs nip or grab your leg with their mouth because they are bored, want to play, or are trying to herd you (or a combination of these behaviors). Yet, a harder nip or bite paired with stiff body language, growls, and bared teeth could be an indication of a bigger behavior problem than an overly energetic dog.
According to the ASPCA, “Aggression encompasses a range of behaviors that usually begins with warnings and can culminate in an attack.” This is why it is so important to understand dog body language and recognize warning signs that most dogs display before an aggressive attack.
Why Does My Dog Grab My Leg With Their Paw?
So far we have discussed why your dog grabs your leg with their mouth, however, some dogs seek attention by grabbing your leg with their paw.
Many dogs have learned that they can grab your leg with their paw instead of their mouth to get your attention when they are bored or want to play. But what are some reasons specific to grabbing your legs with their paw that make your dog exhibit this behavior?
Reason 6. Your Dog Is Humping You
Traditionally, many people think that a dog that grabs your leg with their paws to hump you is either because of sexual attraction or because you are not alpha enough in your relationship with your dog.
However, this is an outdated way to look at humping. Dogs do not grab your leg with their paws and hump you because they are attracted to you or want to dominate you. Dogs and puppies usually hump people because they are bored, anxious, or have a lot of pent-up energy.
Much like herding dogs instinctively nip and grab legs with their mouth, humping is an instinctual way to respond to situations that are exciting or over-stimulating. In particular, puppies respond to being overly tired by humping, but it is a common response for dogs of all breeds and ages.
Reason 7. Your Dog Is Hugging You
It is easy to anthropomorphize our dogs when they grab your leg with their paw, but it does resemble a hug.
While your dog might not think of a hug in the same way humans do, they could still be grabbing your leg with their paw to show affection and help reduce stress. It has been proven that petting dogs helps reduce the cortisol hormone which is known to cause stress and anxiety.
This is probably why dogs make such good therapy dogs.
When your dog grabs your legs with their paws in a hugging embrace, what do you do? If you ignore them, they probably will stop the behavior, but if you pet them every time they have learned they get attention for hugging you. And through the symbiotic relationship, petting them helps reduce your stress level.
Perhaps your bond is strong enough that your dog can sense your emotions and they grab your legs with their paws to hug you when you are stressed.
Reason 8. Your Dog Has Anxiety
Anxiety, specifically separation anxiety, can cause your dog to dread when they know you are leaving. Separation anxiety is when a dog gets very attached to their owner and becomes upset when they are gone.
Besides anxiously grabbing your leg with their paws, dogs suffering from separation will be destructive, howl, pace, try to escape, and have accidents in the house. Other compulsive behaviors like licking your legs all the time could be indicators of separation anxiety or general anxiety.
Should I Be Worried?
Worrying about your dog grabbing your legs is dependent on the situation and the behavior of the dog.
Allowing your dog to grab your legs with their mouth or with their paw is a decision you have to make depending on what is best for you and the dog themselves. For example, while I do not encourage it, my chihuahua likes to grab my legs with his mouth when he is excited. Since he has great bite inhibition (as well as missing half his teeth) this behavior does not bother me.
However, my border collie who with high herding drive is not allowed to grab my legs with her mouth. Though she is not aggressive, her play nips can hurt. This behavior should not be encouraged in bigger, more powerful dogs who can unintentionally hurt you.
Humping should also not be encouraged but might be an indication of something more than just overstimulation. A UTI or chronic kidney problems can cause a lot of discomfort in dogs. They might grab your legs with their paw and rub against you because it helps relieve the discomfort. Always take your dog to a veterinarian if you suspect a medical issue. UTIs are usually easy to treat with a round of antibiotics.
Finally, if a dog is hurting you by grabbing your legs and being aggressive, you should enlist the help of a certified trainer or behaviorist. Without proper guidance and training, dog aggression can spiral out of control and your dog could seriously hurt you, another person, or another animal.
How Can I Change This Behavior?
If you have determined that grabbing your leg is a behavior you will not tolerate, there are several ways to go about changing your dog’s behavior. Every dog is different so there might be multiple solutions to the problem.
You know your dog better than anyone else, so your unique insights into their personality will help you choose the best course to help change their behavior.
Training bite inhibition, especially with puppies when they are dealing with teething and exploring everything with their mouth, basically means you are training a soft mouth. There are four stages of bite inhibition training.
- Train your puppy not to bite too hard. Most people will squeal or say a loud “ouch!” when their puppy bites too hard and this is enough to startle and shape their bite pattern.
- Shape the bite pattern to a softer and softer bite. This is crucial for service dog training, who often have to learn to gently manipulate limbs with expert bite inhibition.
- Train a strong “leave-it” or “drop-it” command to help your dog learn when to stop.
- Teach your dog that they can only grab your legs on cue. This shows that they have great bite inhibition and solid impulse control.
In the dog training world, redirection means you use predicted triggers that cause an unwanted behavior, and redirect that unwanted behavior to a more acceptable behavior.
For a dog that grabs your legs because they have excess energy, are bored, or are herding you, try redirecting them to chasing a ball or tugging a toy. This gives them an outlet for their energy while saving your legs from their teeth. Chasing a ball or toy also recreates the chasing or herding instinct that many dogs possess.
If they are obsessed with your legs, train them to go between your legs for a treat instead of grabbing them. This redirects their focus on learning a new trick. When they go to grab your leg, use a treat to lure their face up and move between your legs. Now your dog has a new cute trick and your ankles are safe.
Stop Reinforcing It
Giving your dog attention whenever they grab your legs has probably been unintentionally reinforcing the behavior. If you start ignoring the behavior (in the case of leg grabbing you might need to go to a different location than your dog) they will figure out that they are not being rewarded for the unwanted behavior and the behavior will go extinct.
More Exercise And Mental Stimulation
Bored dogs with excess energy probably need more exercise and mental stimulation. Even the lowest energy dogs will pick up bad habits like grabbing legs without a walk every day and a little bit of training.
Try taking your dog for longer walks and adding more mental stimulation to their daily routine. Mental stimulation could be food enrichment like having them eat their dinner in a rolled-up towel or more structured training.
Urban herding sports like Treibball are great for dogs who like to grab legs. Your dog will get to herd and move different-sized balls simulating herding livestock, but you do not need a herding dog to have fun with Treibball!
While a dog using their paws to grab your leg and hug you is sweet, or a quick painless grab on the leg might seem harmless from your small herding dog, it might not always seem cute if the hug turns into humping or the nip turns into a bite. Your dogs might be doing these behaviors because they are herding you, have the zoomies, have excess energy, are anxious, or are bored. It can also be affectionate and attention-seeking, especially if you have accidentally reinforced your dog grabbing your legs.
Whether you have a small dog who gums your legs or a giant breed that is grabbing your leg and humping you, the behavior can be treated similarly. Hopefully, you have already been working on impulse control and bite inhibition, but can also redirect your dog or ignore the bad behavior.
As a responsible dog owner, remember it takes time, patience, and commitment to build your relationship with your dog and create a harmonious household. Whether a harmonious household involves your dog grabbing your leg is up to you and your expectations, but all dogs need plenty of exercise and mental stimulation to help prevent unwanted behaviors, including grabbing legs.