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Dog interactions can become weird, especially when they are playing. Luckily well-socialized dogs can read each other’s body language fairly well, so they understand how to escalate by nibbling on each other or de-escalating if things get too rough by grabbing other dogs’ legs.
There is also the chance that your dog is not grabbing other dogs’ legs because of play. Under-socialized dogs often have trouble understanding how to de-escalate a play session, or perhaps they cannot help it because of instincts.
So why does your dog grab other dogs’ legs?
Grabbing other dogs’ legs is instinctual for many dogs. Usually breed-specific, they might show this behavior when playing, bored, or because of reactivity. Finally, a puppy who does not know better could be using the other dog as a teething toy!
If you are unfamiliar with what appropriate dog language looks like, it is easy to mistake playing for fighting, or vice versa, fighting for playing. Let’s look at when it is appropriate for dogs to grab each other’s legs and when it can be a problem.
Reason 1. It Is Instinctual
Playstyle in dogs is often driven by instincts and can be breed-specific. This is why certain dogs are more likely to grab other dogs’ legs while playing. Every dog is an individual and environmental factors like training and socialization have a huge impact on their personality. However, there is no denying the fact that certain breeds inherit breed-specific traits making certain behaviors genetic.
Some of these traits are more likely to tempt a dog into grabbing other dogs’ legs. While sometimes it can be part of a dog’s play style, depending on the dog it could be their instincts kicking in and might evolve into a more serious behavior. Hunting instincts caused by natural prey or herding instincts can easily take over a dog’s normal behavior and lead them to stalk and grab other dogs’ legs.
Dogs with a high prey drive have the urge to stalk, capture, and occasionally kill prey. Sporting dogs, hound dogs, and herding dogs are all examples of dogs with a high prey drive that have a hard time listening when they see something they want to chase. These kinds of dogs can be difficult to train off-leash.
A big aspect of prey drive is chasing and seeing another dog run away can trigger a dog with high prey drive to chase and grab other dogs’ legs. Sometimes it might be play, but an under-socialized dog who does not know how to turn off their prey drive can easily become too rough. This is why group dog play should always be closely supervised.
Herding instincts are a part of the prey drive, but instead of capturing and killing. these traits have been bred to restrict solely to stalking and chasing. However, that does not stop herding dogs from grabbing a quick nip on a leg.
According to the AKC, herding dogs have been bred to have “the instinctual ability to control the movement of other animals.” Traditionally these other animals are livestock like sheep, goats, and cows. But many herding breeds have such strong instincts that they will create a flock to herd if they do not have livestock. This could include children, other dogs, birds, or cats.
Without a proper outlet for their herding instincts, herding dogs might try to herd other dogs. They might lay down and stalk other dogs, and quickly move in to grab their legs. Dogs with strong herding instincts might be trying to play but can take it too far and other dogs might find this behavior inappropriate.
For example, my rescue Border Collie with very strong herding instincts will instinctively grab other dogs’ legs if she feels cornered or trapped. As a responsible owner, I am vigilant about making sure she is not put in those situations.
Speaking of dogs grabbing legs, there is a reason the popular herding dog Australian Cattle Dogs are often called Heelers!
Reason 2. Your Dog Is Playing
Dogs’ instincts like herding and prey drive have a lot of influence on play style. Many times doggy play styles can become rough and the teeth come out. Dogs might bite the air, bite each other’s ears, or grab each other’s legs. Boxers are known to box like kangaroos. Well-socialized dogs know how to read each other’s body language and stop before their play gets too rough.
Young dogs and puppies who are just learning how to play might push these boundaries by grabbing and holding onto a leg. A gentle correction by a mature dog is usually enough to help put these troublemakers in their place. Sometimes the correction might not appear gentle. However, the video below shows it is perfectly acceptable dog behavior.
Since dogs learn how to play from older dogs, it is very important to socialize your puppy or young dog. Rarely do you need to interrupt when your dog is grabbing other dogs’ legs while playing. If play becomes too rough well-socialized dogs will let each other know with appropriate language, both body and vocal.
Reason 3. Your Dog Is Under Socialized
Socializing from puppyhood into adulthood gives your dog the tools and confidence to navigate the world and become a well-adjusted dog. They learn how to cope with sudden changes, loud noises, new people, and new dogs. Socialization also helps dogs learn a lot about other dogs’ body language and understand when other dogs do not like having their legs grabbed.
Under-socialized dogs have a hard time understanding body language and respecting the boundaries of other dogs. They have not developed the skills to read body language and might keep grabbing other dogs’ legs. Instinctive traits like prey drive and herding instincts help shape play style but dogs still have to learn when to stop playing too hard. An under-socialized dog does not understand that not every dog appreciates having their legs grabbed.
Reason 4. Your Dog Is Bored
Pushing boundaries is normal for puppies who always seem to be trying to find trouble. But what about adult dogs who are taunting other dogs by grabbing their legs?
Quite likely they are bored. While some dogs might become destructive when bored, others want to play all the time. Without proper exercise or mental stimulation, their based instincts like prey drive and herding traits could take over and they can overcompensate for boredom by grabbing other dogs’ legs.
Reason 5. Your Dog Is Reactive
Whether they are grabbing other dogs’ legs because of instinct or because it is the only part of the other dog they can reach, aggressively grabbing other dogs’ legs can be a sign of reactivity.
Many dogs simply do not like other dogs and it could be a product of traumatic past experiences, poor socialization, or simply your dog’s personality. While it is okay that your dog might not like other dogs and be reactive, you have to be a responsible owner and learn how to manage your dog and keep them from grabbing other dogs’ legs.
Let’s look at some of the different kinds of reactivity, what they mean, and how to manage a reactive dog.
Reactive dogs that grab other dogs’ legs when they get near you might seem protective around you but are reality are probably resource-guarding you. According to positively.com, resource guarding “is when a dog controls access to food, objects, people and locations that are important to him through defensive body language” or aggression.
Since many hunting and herding breeds are more likely to grab other dogs’ legs, it could be their instinctual behavior when resource-guarding you, food, or toys. Their goal is to move the other dog away from whatever valuable resource they are protecting.
This Zak George video is great to help you identify and manage resource-guarding.
Like dogs who feel pressure to resource guard, a dog that is reacting to scary stimuli or triggers might display impulsive behaviors like grabbing other dogs’ legs.
Remember my rescue Border Collie who grabs other dogs’ legs when she feels trapped? That is because she is scared and grabbing other dogs’ legs is a natural behavior that helps her feel more safe. I work hard on not letting her get in situations where she feels trapped, but have also trained a reliable leave-it when she tries to grab other dogs’ legs.
Other triggers that might cause a reactive dog to grab other dogs’ legs include loud noises like yelling, fireworks, car backfires, or gunshots as well as strangers or children.
Generally, dogs like to avoid conflict and if your dog’s reactive behavior is turning into aggression they have probably been giving body language signals that have been ignored. One of those body language signals could be grabbing other dogs; legs. It can easily escalate to snapping, lunging, or biting if you ignore your reactive dog’s body language.
Be an advocate for your dog and give them space from whatever is stressing them if they start displaying this kind of reactivity. A dog showing uncomfortable body language will try to make themselves appear to look smaller, tuck their tail, lick their lips, or bare their teeth.
Reason 6. Teething
At a certain point, while you are raising your puppy, there is a good chance they might suddenly start misbehaving. Around 6 months old, puppies will usually begin trying to bite and chew you, the furniture, or grab other dogs’ legs. This is because their adult teeth are starting to come in and they are teething.
Teething puppies are chewing everything including other dogs’ legs because their mouth is sore. Try getting some puppy teething toys to redirect them to chew on so they can help relieve the pain without hurting you or other dogs.
Should I be Worried?
Dogs that grab other dogs’ legs while playing are usually nothing to worry about. But if they are not listening to these dog’s body language when the other dog has had enough it can become a problem. They might hurt another dog or push another dog to hurt them, which can lead to aggressive or reactive behavior.
Let’s take a look at how you stop your dog from grabbing other dogs’ legs if it is becoming a problem.
How Do You Change Your Dog’s Behavior?
Many dogs love to play all the time and have trouble listening to other dogs’ signals when play becomes too rough or if they are done. These dogs need to be redirected to something new instead of grabbing other dogs’ legs. Redirection means you focus your dog’s attention from an unwanted behavior to a more desirable behavior.
For example, instead of grabbing another dog’s legs, train them to grab a toy instead. Dogs that instinctively grab other dogs’ legs because of instinctual breed traits are often just as motivated to chase a ball or tug a toy instead.
For dogs who need a little more incentive, leave-it is a great command to teach your dog about other dogs’ legs, as well as many other things. This includes food, toys, other dogs, or things that you do not want them to eat.
A bored dog probably needs more exercise or mental enrichment. While not every dog needs to run miles every day, even the laziest dogs appreciate a daily walk. Dogs also need mental stimulation like training and games to help keep them from becoming bored. If you have a busy day, try food enrichment toys. Some great DIY ones won’t break the bank.
Finally, be an advocate for your reactive dog. Whether they are scared, resource-guarding, or aggressive, the best thing you can do is work on their behavior with a certified trainer in controlled environments. If you feel like they are getting overwhelmed and might start reacting by grabbing other dogs’ legs, take them out of that situation because they are too stressed. You can start pushing them when they are emotionally ready.
If you have a herding or hunting dog, there is a good chance that they will try to grab other dogs’ legs. They might be trying to play, be bored, or are reactive. Young dogs and puppies might be teething. Dogs that have been under-socialized will be even worse about these rude behaviors because they have not been taught better by other dogs.
Grabbing other dogs’ legs is not the only rude behavior that under-socialized dogs tend to display, but the angry response from other dogs can be the same.
Thankfully, you can usually change these instinctual behaviors. Teach a good leave-it, redirect them to something more fun like a ball or toy to tug on, and give them other outlets for their energy like going for a walk or training games.
And some dogs might just not be able to be around other dogs without grabbing their legs in some cases they might even grab your leg. Luckily there are lots of things you can do with your dog that do not involve playing or interacting with other dogs. Trying fun sports like agility, obedience, or barn hunt. Take them on a long hike. Finally, at the end of the day, the two of you can cuddle on the couch.