Does your dog sometimes sit or stand between your legs? This behaviour is often a sign of your dog’s affection, but it can also be due to anxiety.
In this article, we’ve asked dog trainer Rebecca Morello to help us uncover why your dog might go between your legs. We’ll also go through positive training tips for teaching your dog not to go between your legs – and debunk the idea that this behaviour is caused by “dominance.”
Why Does My Dog Go Between My Legs?
Here are six of the most common reasons for your dog going between your legs. Keep in mind that we’re specifically talking about dogs who go between their owner’s legs by choice, not as a result of purposeful training.
Your Dog Is Anxious or Unsure
Your dog might go between your legs when they are feeling anxious or uncertain. In this case, the behavior is a sign they’re overwhelmed or stressed.
Many studies have shown that physical contact with humans can reduce anxiety in dogs. Going between your legs could provide a sense of familiarity and security, which can help your dog cope with the situation.
“Some dogs find it comforting to stand between our legs if they are worried by something in the environment such as traffic, a stranger or another dog,” says dog trainer Rebecca Morello. “If you think they might be feeling fearful, give them plenty of reassurance and gain distance from the ‘scary’ thing as soon as you can.”
Dogs also feel more secure when given a sense of cover and protection. This is why many dogs feel most relaxed in a covered crate – assuming it’s been positively introduced. Going between your legs is one way for them to create this sense of security, particularly when they are outdoors and can’t take shelter elsewhere.
Additionally, your legs can serve as a physical barrier. For example, if there are people around that your dog doesn’t want to interact with, then staying between your legs can mean they won’t be petted or stroked.
Your Dog Is Seeking Physical Contact With You
Dogs are social animals who thrive on love and interactions. So, it’s understandable that your dog might go between your legs to initiate a positive and physical interaction.
“Many dogs like this position simply because it gives them great access to lots of love and affection!” says Rebecca Morello. “They get close contact and are within easy reach of a fuss.”
In fact, studies have shown that the hormone oxytocin is released when dogs have physical contact with their owner. This hormone lowers stress, while increasing feelings of trust and love. It’s no wonder that our canine companions often seek physical attention!
Important: Keep in mind that unwell dogs often want to be close to their owner. If your dog starts going between your legs more often than usual, watch for other signs of potential health issues.
Your Dog Is Showing Affection
Going between your legs can also be a way for your dog to show affection. By being close to you and initiating physical contact, your pet is showing how much they trust and love you, as dogs don’t perform this behaviour with people they don’t know.
This is one of the many reasons why it’s sad some people think that a dog going between the legs is a sign of “dominance.” In reality, it’s just the dog showing how much they love you.
Your Dog Might Have an Itch
A more functional reason for a dog going between the legs is that they might have an itch – and you’re a handy scratching pole! It’s often obvious when this is the case, as the dog will squeeze through the legs or rub against you.
While it’s normal for a dog to have an occasional itch, you should watch for signs that your dog is excessively itchy. This could indicate a skin condition, such as allergies or parasites.
Your Dog Is Feeling Protective
Some dogs sit or stand between their owner’s legs when they are feeling protective. This is often triggered by the presence of another dog or person, and is most common in breeds with a protective instinct (such as German Shepherds.)
“If you have a dog that is protective of you, they may stand between your legs to guard others against approaching” says Rebecca Morello. “This is usually accompanied by defensive body language such as hackles up, teeth-baring, tense and stiff posture and an upright tail, along with vocalisations such as growling or barking.”
“It is best in this instance to work with a behaviourist to keep everyone safe and help your dog feel more comfortable with people around you,” she adds.
Your Dog Has Been Previously Rewarded for the Behaviour
It’s almost impossible not to stroke your dog or give them a back scratch when they go between your legs. This behavior is hard to ignore, as you often can’t move away without at least brushing against your dog.
Naturally, your dog may learn that going between your legs is a way to get positive attention. When they are looking for a stroke in the future, they are more likely to repeat the behaviour.
On a related note, sometimes dogs go between the legs as an alternative to a previously discouraged behaviour. For example, if they know they shouldn’t jump up at you, then going between the legs may be an alternative that still receives attention.
You’ve Accidentally Taught Your Dog This Behavior
Some dogs are also accidentally taught to go between their owner’s legs. “If you have taught your dog a ‘middle’ which is quite a popular trick in class,” says IMDT dog trainer Rebecca Morello, “your dog may remember this is a behaviour that gets rewarded!”
“To help ensure your dog only does ‘middle’ when prompted, only give a reward after giving your verbal cue and a signal that you don’t tend to do in every day life,” she adds. “For example, if we teach our dog ‘middle’ with only the body signal of opening our legs slightly, then you might find every time you are standing like this your dog appears in between them!”
Uncovering The Reason Why Your Dog Is Going Between Your Legs
Now we know the potential reasons for a dog going between the legs, how can you tell which one applies to your pet?
If your dog is feeling anxious, there will be other noticeable signs of stress. These can include:
- Lip licking
- Ears pinned back
- Hunched or crouched posture
- Lowered tail position
In contrast, a dog who is looking for attention or showing love is likely to have a relaxed body posture, a neutral or wagging tail, and may look up at your face to initiate contact.
Going Between the Legs Is Not a Sign of Your Dog Wanting “Control” or “Dominance”
Before we go any further, I want to address the myth that a dog going between the legs means that they want to be “dominant” or “control” you.
The idea of dominance in dogs in relation to humans has been debunked many times. However, people still don’t realise that the idea came from a single study in the 1940s performed on captive wolves. There are many reasons why this study was flawed and should not be applied to dogs.
Firstly, wolves interacting with each other is very different to a domestic dog interacting with a human. Secondly, these wolves were forced into a small, enclosed environment, with limited resources, and with unfamiliar wolves. When studied in the wild in naturally formed groups, even wolves don’t show “dominance” behaviours – and dogs certainly don’t!
In other words, dogs don’t plot a path to household “dominance”, nor do they want to control the humans they live with. Instead, they respond to their environment based on their current emotions and desires.
By trying to explain every behaviour in terms of the debunked ideas of “dominance” and “submission”, many dog owners cause unnecessary stress to both their dogs and themselves. This viewpoint also discourages empathy for your dog’s anxiety or other feelings, which is essential for helping them overcome behavioural issues.
Is a Dog Going Between Your Legs Something to Worry About?
The good news is that there’s nothing inherently wrong with your dog going between your legs, assuming that it’s a way to get attention or show love.
However, if your dog is doing it because they feel anxious, then this isn’t something that should be ignored. You’ll need to work out what’s triggering the anxiety, so ask questions such as:
- Is there another dog or human in the environment?
- Did an event occur right before the behavior? For example, did you grab your keys or put on your coat?
- Are there any new or loud noises?
- Have there been any recent changes in your dog’s routine?
- Have there been any recent changes to your dog’s environment?
- Are there specific places where they exhibit this behavior?
If your dog is suffering from chronic anxiety, it’s crucial to consult with a vet and canine behaviorist. A combination of medication and behavior modification training might be needed to overcome the issue, depending on the severity.
Additionally, your dog going between your legs can be a dangerous tripping hazard – especially if they surprise you. It’s particularly dangerous when you’re doing something else, such as cooking or cleaning.
To minimise the risk, it’s a good idea to put your dog in another room when you’re going to be walking around distracted. If you have elderly relatives, then it’s also important to keep an eye on a dog who has a habit of going between people’s legs.
You may also want to teach your dog an alternative behaviour that allows them to show affection without being a tripping hazard, which we’ll discuss in the next section.
How to Stop Your Dog Going Between Your Legs With Positive Reinforcement
If you want to stop your dog from going between your legs, the first step is to determine whether the behaviour is caused by anxiety or stress. If anxiety is the cause, then a vet and canine behaviorist will be essential to address the underlying issue.
After all, your dog is going between your legs because they are scared. It’s not fair to try and teach them not to do this without also helping them overcome the fear triggering the behaviour.
Once you’ve ruled out anxiety as a cause, the next step is to use positive reinforcement to teach an alternative behaviour. Here are some tips for encouraging your dog to sit near you rather than between your legs:
- Don’t reinforce the behavior. It’s tempting to pet your dog when they go between your legs, but doing so only encourages the behaviour. Instead, move away without giving attention.
- Encourage sitting beside you. When your dog approaches, ask them to sit by your side. Reinforce this with a treat and attention. Over time, they’ll understand that sitting by your side is the best way to get noticed.
- Give affection and praise when they sit without being asked. When they spontaneously sit beside you, reward them with some love and attention. The goal is to teach your dog that sitting near you is a better way to get attention than going between your legs.
- Ensure your dog is getting enough love, exercise, attention, and mental stimulation throughout the day. Constantly asking for attention could be a sign that your dog isn’t getting their basic needs met.
You should never use punishment or scolding to try and prevent your dog from going between your legs. Doing so can greatly damage your bond, cause confusion for your dog (who is only trying to show affection), and increase the chance of chronic anxiety.
Frequently Asked Questions
Are Some Breeds More Likely To Go Between The Legs?
While there isn’t any concrete research to confirm this, larger dog breeds appear to exhibit this behavior more often than smaller ones. It might be because smaller dogs are more cautious about getting stepped on.
Why Does My Dog Sleep Between My Legs?
Your dog sleeping between your legs is a way for them to find warmth and comfort. Your scent and close contact make it feel safe for them. Simply put, it’s a sign they trust you and feel bonded with you.
Related Article: Why Does My Dog Lay On Me?
Dogs often go between their owner’s legs to show affection, get attention, or because they need reassurance.
Whatever the reason, this behavior is certainly not caused by the dog wanting to be dominant, but is instead a reaction to their feelings and environment.
Do you have any questions about why your dog goes between your legs? Please let us know in the comments section below.