By: Sara Ondrako, Certified Canine Behavior Consultant
Dog behavior can be such a funny thing sometimes. They drag their butts on the floor, they lick everything, and sometimes they sit on our feet. Often dogs do something just because it's natural or simply because they like it. This is likely the case when it comes to pups who like to sit on their owner’s feet.
Research has provided a few reasons why this behavior may occur - and busted some myths as to why it doesn’t. If there's one thing we know for sure about our personal foot warmers, it's that each dog has their own reason.
3 Myths About Why Dogs Sit on Our Feet
Let's start by busting three common myths about why your pup might perch on the top of your feet.
Myth #1: He thinks he owns you and is demonstrating that he's the alpha.
Dogs can indeed be possessive of people, other animals, dog food, and other things they perceive as high-value, which can lead to aggressive behavior. However, while they may be concerned about losing something of value, your dog doesn't necessarily see you as one of their possessions to keep away from everyone else. Instead, think of it as a concern that another person or animal approaching means they may lose that safe, comfortable human that means so much to them.
To counteract that concern, we teach dogs that the approach of another animal or person means they will gain something of value, not lose something of value. This type of training requires no correction or punishment. Usually, it ends up being a fun way to help a dog overcome stress or anxiety.
Myth #2: He thinks you are the leader of the pack, and he's being submissive.
The term "pack mentality" is widely misused due to an outdated theory on dominance and pack leadership. When we look at genuinely submissive or dominant behaviors, we mainly look at behaviors displayed between two dogs during a specific interaction where vying occurs to determine who gets access to a resource and who does not. That resource could be a person, another animal, a toy, a place to lie down, or even food. Dogs may also display submissive behaviors with other dogs to gain access to a resource that another dog possesses. Humans are not dissimilar in that, in certain situations, someone may forcefully claim something as their own. Yet, in other circumstances, they may ask permission to access something that doesn't belong to them.
When thinking of how dogs view us, we can only know so much; however, we have found through animal behavior research that dogs fit in with us in our daily lives, much like other family members. We are a family unit, unlike the outdated dominance hierarchy pack theory. Think of the term pack to mean its literal definition: a group living together. Much like a human family unit, even common ancestors to our canine companions operate as a family unit in the wild, with relationships similar to parents, children, and siblings. Just as we make parental decisions and guide our kids, we also make parental decisions and guide our pups, similar to pack animals in the wild.
Myth #3: He is guarding you.
In general, dogs that genuinely "guard" their person are confident, independent thinkers that don't rely on physical touch to do the job they feel the need to do. They can do their job right next to you or at a distance. These dogs also do not typically display aggressive behaviors or communications unless they feel they have to. True guardian dogs (such as German Shepherds or Rottweilers) are often very quiet (except those taught to bark on cue). They are alert and pay attention but only act if a real threat arises.
So, Why Do Dogs Sit on Your Feet?
Now that we know our dogs aren't trying to show us they own us (or that we own them), we can discuss some likely explanations for this cute but confusing behavior.
Comfort and Security
Dogs want and need comfort and security for many reasons. Your pup plopping their cute little bum right on your feet gives them a safe vantage point to see everything around them without losing contact with their person.
For dogs that experience anxiety, being able to make physical contact with the person who is their comfort and security without looking away from potential threats or danger is a coping mechanism. Another example would be a dog with separation anxiety that has difficulty sleeping with the worry of their person leaving them. They can rest at your feet, knowing that they will wake if you go to get up and leave. If your dog suffers from anxiety and gets overly stressed, a Veterinary Behaviorist or a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant can help you teach your dog to feel more at ease. You can also try a calming supplement to help deal with these stressful situations.
Your pup might also find comfort in sitting on your feet because it just feels good. Just like humans, dogs can be comforted by physical contact (aka cuddles and snuggles) with their loved ones. Our feet and legs can also act like a heated blanket when our pups need a little extra warmth from our body heat.
A well-loved dog knows how to get more love! Since we often reward physical touch from our dogs, sometimes our dogs learn to keep doing things that will result in more pets and scritches. In this case, some dogs will sit on our feet because they've noticed that when they are in close quarters with us, we give them positive reinforcement through verbal praise, petting, or even a treat. So if you give "good boys" and ear rubs while your pup sits on your feet, they may sit on your feet even more to get more of what they love.
A Footnote on Feet-Sitting
While the root cause of feet squatting varies from pup to pup, this behavior is most often related to desiring some form of comfort. You can feel the physical connection when a dog lays at your feet, whether for warmth, security, affection, or otherwise. While seemingly minor, these connections between pet and parent are beneficial to your relationship with your pup and play a positive role in both human and pet health.
Here's to our furry foot-warming best friends and the comfort they bring us too!