For many dog owners, it’s a familiar scene. You sit down and as soon as you make yourself comfortable, your dog comes along for a snooze … right on top of your feet.
Why do dogs do this? Are feet really that comfortable? Aren’t they kind of hard and bony? Is there some sort of instinctual behavior driving this? What does it mean? Is this a good thing or a bad thing? Should I put a stop to it – and if so, how?
Pack Instincts – Why Dogs Lay At Your Feet
Dogs are intelligent animals with some capacity to reason, solve problems, and predict the future, but they’re basically driven by instinct. Laying at your feet is a behavior that comes out of these instincts.
Remember that all dogs are descended from wolves. Modern dogs only arose over the last 30,000 years or so – and in evolutionary terms, that’s not much time! Dogs today can still interbreed with wolves, meaning that there’s not much difference, genetically speaking.
So what are a wolf’s instincts? Wolves are pack hunters. They travel in tight-knot groups of around 6 to 10 individuals. These packs work together to hunt prey and defend themselves from other predators. Although social status can always shift, wolf packs are basically families, with the “alpha” male and female being the father and mother. Wolf instinct leads them to show deference to the pack leader in all sorts of ways, from letting the leader eat first to avoiding eye contact to lying belly-up. Of course, wolves aren’t about complaining, challenging the leader, or being sneaky!
Dogs are descended from wolves that adapted their pack behaviors to living with humans. Your dog considers you a pack leader – a parent who’s responsible for providing the best dog food, making rules and decisions, and directing the protection of the home. Like any parent, human or canine, you have to combine discipline with affection to lead the family. Firmness, consistency, and positive reinforcement are key to building a proper relationship of authority and trust along with affection.
Dogs rely on other members of the pack to watch their backs and provide protection and security. When they’re separated from the pack, they can experience separation anxiety, which is painful and worrying to them.
Dogs feel safe when they know that someone they can trust is nearby. This is especially true when they’re in a vulnerable position, like when they’re defecating or sleeping.
While your dog is awake, they’re likely to check in with you. They will look or listen to make sure that you’re around, and if not, they may go looking for you. While asleep, dogs like knowing that they have backup nearby. Laying at your feet is an easy way to be sure of this – the constant contact is very reassuring. And if you get up or move, they’ll be sure to know about it!
This is natural and nothing to worry about. The only time it’s troubling is if your dog develops excessive separation anxiety and becomes too agitated when you’re not around. This may require behavior modification and the help of an expert.
Guarding The Pack Leader
The obligation to protect the safety of the pack goes both ways! Just as your dog relies on you for protection, they also feel a duty to protect you.
Back in the Stone Age, dogs not only hunted and fought alongside humans, but they also used their keen senses to warn us of potential prey and danger. It’s estimated that a dog’s sense of hearing is four times as keen as a human’s, and their sense of smell is 10,000 to 100,000 times as sensitive (1).
It’s a symbiotic partnership. Dogs use their senses on our behalf, and we use our brains on theirs. Modern human behavior, characterized by the capacity for abstract thought, emerged at roughly the same time as the domestication of the dog, and that may be more than mere coincidence. Some scientists think that the protection afforded by a watchdog was what allowed Stone Age humans to begin sleeping more deeply, allowing our brains to specialize in learning and imagination as we off-loaded the cognitive load of alertness onto our canine partners.
Naturally, it’s a lot easier to protect you when they know where you are! Dogs may sit at your feet in order to keep track of your location and well-being, all so that they can protect you. This applies to a ten-pound toy breed as well as to a mastiff.
This sort of behavior isn’t necessarily a problem unless it’s associated with aggression. Your dog should be alerting you to intruders and waiting to follow your lead. If they attack their own, then more training, and possibly expert help, may be called for.
One reason a dog lies at its owner’s feet is to show ownership! Close physical proximity is a way of demonstrating a close social and family relationship. Your dog wants to show everyone – especially other dogs! – that you are their human. Just like you don’t want another human to walk off with your dog, your dog doesn’t want another dog to walk off with you!
Like with guarding behavior, this isn’t a problem in itself, unless it results in aggression. Your dog can “claim” you to other dogs, so long as they don’t seem inclined to attack.
When your dog lays at your feet, it may be a sign of submission and respect. But it can also be an attempt at establishing dominance.
Getting a high position can be a sign of dominance for dogs as it is for humans. Think of how many expressions we have that indicate that a person who is “higher” or “on top” is in a better position than a person who is “lower” or “on the bottom.” We all know that the top dog outranks the underdog – and dogs know it too. So when your dog literally gets on top of you, it could be an attempt to figuratively come out on top as well.
How do you tell whether this is problematic behavior? If your dog persists in this behavior when told no, then it can be a sign of a problem. Make sure that your dog understands that you are the one setting the rules of the house, and you’re the one in charge.
Warmth From Their Owner’s Feet
Sometimes it’s not that complicated. Sometimes your dog may be cold and trying to share your body heat. This is especially likely with dogs of the hound type – those with low body fat, tiny waists, and short fur. These dogs are bred to run far and fast without overheating, and the trade-off is that they’re not as well insulated as their furrier brethren. A dog who lies on you a lot may just be cold, especially if they curl up into a ball or try to wiggle under blankets.
This is not problematic behavior, so long as the dog is allowed to sit at your feet in the first place. But if your dog seems uncomfortable, or shakes or shivers, you may want to think about temperature regulation.
Because They Love You
And sometimes it really is because they love you.
Philosophers, scientists, and songwriters have asked the question for millennia: what is love? You can’t expect the same things from a dog that you would from a human, but as long as you keep the distinction in mind, it’s perfectly fair to say that your dog loves you. Your dog likes being around you, they want to please you, they want you to be happy, and they’re happy with you. Surely that’s love, and if there’s any doubt in your mind then keep an eye out for common signs that your dog loves you.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)
Why does my dog lay on my legs when I sleep?
Dogs feel more comfortable and secure when they’re in close contact with you. If you (quite reasonably!) don’t allow your dog to sleep on your chest or face, this may be as close as it can be at night.
If your dog likes to lie this way while facing your feet, it may be their way of keeping watch at night. After all, if your heads are facing in opposite directions, you’re twice as likely to catch a predator sneaking up on you!
If, on the other hand, your dog lies with its head as close to yours as possible, this may be purely about closeness and affection.
If your dog tries to sleep on top of your face, this may be about dominance, and it also may be unsafe in itself. Discourage this sort of behavior. If it persists, seek professional help.
Why does my dog step on my feet?
Unlike laying at your feet, your dog stepping on your feet is probably accidental. When emotions run high, dogs can lose track of exactly where their feet are – after all, they have twice as many as we do! Also, their feet are much smaller than ours. Our feet take up a lot more floor space than a dog’s. Because we rely more on each one for balance, they’re relatively larger, in a way that isn’t intuitive for a dog.
When your dog is happy to see you after you’ve been gone for a long time (anything over thirty seconds), they can come prancing up to you in such high spirits that they lose track of where they’re walking. Same thing if they’re excited because you pick up the leash, put on your shoes, move in the direction of the door, or otherwise indicate that you might take them for a walk. On the other hand, if your dog feels fearful or anxious, they might also crowd close, meaning … yes, they might step on your feet.
This behavior isn’t a problem unless it hurts your feet! However, it can be hard to eradicate, precisely because it’s unintentional.
What does it mean when your dog lays on you?
Your dog lies on you because of instinctual pack behaviors. Most importantly, your dog is reassured by contact with you, because knowing that you’re there makes them feel safe and secure. Other possible reasons include warmth, dominance, and affection. As long as your dog is not making you uncomfortable, or displaying problematic behaviors such as defiance or aggression, this habit is usually harmless and a sign of affection.
How do you tell if your dog loves you?
Dogs show their love in a few ways. One of them is by seeking closeness. Your dog likes being with you. They seek physical contact or at least proximity. Your dog will follow wherever you go – even to the bathroom if you’re not firm with them!
Another way is with bodily and facial cues. Dogs indicate pleasure with a relaxed face and “doggy grin,” a briskly wagging tail, and a frisky, prancing gait. Dogs may also give happy little barks, or attempt to jump up on you (although this behavior should be gently discouraged.) Some dogs will even bring you their favorite toys, hoping to entice you into playing with them.
Conversely, dogs show their love and trust by an absence of hostile or fearful behavior. A fearful dog whimpers and cowers. They may attempt to hide. They might avert their gaze when you look at them or go belly-up with the tail stiff and unwagging. A happy and secure dog will rarely demonstrate these behaviors with you.
However, a “sad-eyed” look may not indicate unhappiness at all. A lot of dogs have sad-looking eyes, as it’s a trait that makes them better at begging for food. Watch the mouth, tail, and body for more reliable indicators of canine mood.
It’s up to you how much you want to permit your dog to lay at your feet. However, this behavior is generally a sign of affection and partnership. If it’s accompanied by defiance or aggression, then you need to apply discipline, ideally in the form of positive reinforcement, and with the help of a training professional if necessary. Otherwise, enjoy the friendly contact with your furry friend.