A client arrives at our kennel with his Labrador Retriever, and as usual, we spend a little time talking with the owner and observing the dog. We notice that often, when the dog comes and sits by the owner, the dog puts his paw on top of the owner’s foot. It seems so innocent, but it is happening with consistency. Sometimes the dog will also walk around the owner stepping on the owner’s feet as he goes.
Asking if this is a common behavior, the client says, “Yes, he does that quite a lot.”
Then we ask what other issues the client has been experiencing. “Well,” the client explains, “He doesn’t come when I call him, he often runs away, he knows his obedience commands but is very slow to respond to them, he jumps on my wife and kids, and we’re just really a struggle to control him.”
We nod our heads, knowingly. We could easily have listed these problems before the client said a word. But how did we know?
It all started with the paw on top of the client’s foot.
What does it mean if my dog steps on me?
What I am about to tell you will be troubling to some of you. If you want to hear that your dog just loves you and is giving your feet a hug, I’m afraid you’re reading the wrong post. But fear not, there are plenty of other posts out there that will tell you exactly what you want to hear.
But if you want to know what really drives a dog to step on you, to put his/her paws on top of your feet, then you’re in the right place.
I am a professional dog trainer. My husband and I train retrievers for hunting and competition and have been training for over 30 years. So, while my advice might be aimed strongly at those of you who own retriever breeds, it often applies to other breeds also. Because it all ties back to dog psychology.
Why do dogs step on your toes?
Dogs are pack animals. This is something we can never forget if we want to understand our dog’s behavior. As pack animals, they are constantly testing the pack to find out where they rank. If you own a dog, your family is by default the pack.
Some dogs are very alpha, and they want to be the top dog in a family. Those dogs are challenging because they test you and your family often in hopes of rising through the ranks. But every dog will test the pack to figure out rank. It is not so much about being number one as it is about understanding their rank and role in the pack.
Another important tidbit of dog psychology is that height is super important in a pack. It is usually the tallest dog that is the alpha dog. This is one reason why dogs will raise their hackles when they encounter another dog that is taller than they are. They want to appear taller, and the hackles give them a couple of inches of height.
But dogs don’t just look at height as human’s do. Because a dog will generally never be taller than an adult human. So, they look for other ways to make themselves seem bigger or taller. One-way dogs do this is by putting a paw on top of the human foot. That’s why your dog steps on you, to gain height and dominance over you.
Don’t believe me?
Well, try this little experiment. The next time your dog puts his/her paw on top of your foot, slide your foot out from under the dog’s paw and gently lay your foot on top of the dog’s paw.
Most dogs hate this. They will quickly move their paw out from under yours. They know this is a dominant act and they don’t want to be dominated by you.
Dog dominance equals lack of control
The hard part to understand is that this one little behavior is leading to many other obedience and respect issues in your home. If your dog is allowed to dominate you by stepping on your feet, or climbing on your when you are laying down, your dog is going to have a problem respecting you overall. Because your dog has determined that he/she is higher in the pack than you are.
This is often a huge problem for families that have young children. Because size and height are so important to a dog, a dog will often respond great to either the adult male or female in the home. But he/she will not listen to one or more of the children.
This is because your dog has adopted your family as his/her pack. And as a result, your dog will regularly test the members of the pack to figure out where he/she fits in and who he/she must listen to. Often the dog finds his/her spot just under the adult male or female of the home. Sometimes between the two adults depending on the temperament of the individuals.
At times, the dog will listen to one of the children, but not any of the other children. It all depends on how each person acts and reacts to the dog’s testing.
How do I stop my dog from stepping on my feet?
If you want to stop your dog from stepping on your feet, your dog must respect you. Once your dog respects you, he/she will respond to your commands. So the first step is to stop letting your dog step on your feet. Thankfully, this is an easy fix.
Start being ultra-aware of your dog’s behavior in this area. Each time your dog puts his/her paw on your feet, push the paw off and say NO. Or you can move your foot so that it is on top of your dog’s paw. This will alert your dog to the fact that he/she is not allowed to dominate you in this way.
Addressing other dominance behaviors
If your dog has been doing this behavior, it is quite likely that he/she has been dominating you in other ways also. So, you need to address these other dominant behaviors also. Check out Why won’t my retriever listen to me?
Jumping on you or others
Jumping on people is a dominant dog behavior. If your dog is jumping on you or other members of the family, you must take steps to end this behavior now. This dominate behavior is dangerous, especially to the most vulnerable members of your household -the young or the elderly.
Stopping jumping is much harder than stopping your dog from stepping on your feet. To stop your dog from jumping on you, you must be willing to use physical force. For big dogs, like retrievers or other working dogs, a knee to the dog’s chest while he is jumping on you and saying a command such as OFF is very effective at stopping jumping. Don’t worry, retriever breeds are built strong and tough. This will not hurt your dog.
If the jumping is happening to someone who is not able to do what is physically necessary to stop it, a long lead can be used and when the dog goes to jump on that vulnerable person, you pull hard on the lead literally flipping the dog backward. The person that was going to be jumped on should say the OFF command in a stern voice.
You can even take this a step further by having the person who is unable to exert the force tease the dog, encouraging him/her to jump on them. This will allow you to get some good, impactful corrections.
Neither of these corrections will hurt your dog. Well, it probably will hurt his/her pride, but that is all. But teaching your dog this important lesson may lessen the chance of one your most vulnerable family members will be injured by your dog.
Jumping is a dominate behavior, and it is always aimed at a specific person. That is why, while you may stop your dog from jumping on you by kneeing him/her, your dog will likely still jump on others. Each person must correct the behavior to earn the dog’s respect.
Biting or nipping at your hands or feet
A dog that bites your hands or feet is not showing you love. And he/she is not just playing with you. Dog’s bite and nibble on the other dogs to show dominance.
We have seen clients come to our kennel with deep sores and bleeding scratches on their hands. Do not allow your dog to do these dominant behaviors to you. Learn how to stop your dog from biting you.
Won’t SIT next to you
Lastly, if you are having problems teaching your dog to SIT at HEEL, this may be a dominance problem. Dogs that are very dominate do not want to SIT next to a person they consider lower in rank. When in a HEEL position, they flare, move their backend so that it is away from your legs and so they are facing you a little more.
If you notice this behavior, take time to work on this specific problem. When your dog flares from you, say NO, and take a step or two backwards and command HEEL. Don’t give up until you get your dog to sit straight next to your side. Be consistent. Don’t let your expectations down just because it is a struggle. It will get better if you are consistent.
Learn more in How do I make my hunting retriever more obedient?
Final thoughts on why does my Lab step on me?
Having your dog step on you or put his paw on you may seem like a minor infraction. But it is a steppingstone for your dog to inch his/her way up the pack (your family). And you will see other dominant behaviors as a result. If you are aware of what your dog is doing, it is easy to put a stop to it right away and reinforce your place as pack leader.
If you are still struggling, I’m here to help! You can email me (firstname.lastname@example.org) or just give me a call (651-303-6459). I would be happy to discuss your goals for your retriever and tell you about the programs I offer.
Until next time happy retrieving.