Canine Behavior/Attacking Feet When Startled Awake
QUESTION: We have a wonderful and loving little Cockerpoo Mix who sleeps in bed with us. Recently he has started to attack our feet when startle awake by the movement of them under the cover. He doesn't really bite, but rather mouths them. Other than not having him sleep in bed with us, is there any other remedy that we can do? Please help us! He has been checked out by our vet so all seems to be well on that end.
ANSWER: Thank you for your question. You haven't indicated how old your Cockepoo is nor how long he's been part of your family nor how long this new behavior has been occurring, so I can't be very precise in my response.
If your boy is a puppy between 4-7 months old, he may be teething. If he's really just mouthing, he may see the moving object under the blankets as something to chew on which is soothing for his teething gums. If he's older than teething months, then it's possible it's a different motivation.
You first said that he "attacks" your feet, but then backed up a little to say he "mouths them". These are two rather different descriptors for the behavior. If he's attacking - pouncing and bite/hold, possibly with a head shake, it could be a very real fear/startle response. If he's got a soft and wiggly body and is gently mouthing your feet through the blankets, even with a playful growl as he might when playing tug, then it's possible he's playing with this cool unseen toy that occasionally moves under the blankets.
As you can see, the details of what's happening can dramatically effect the potential motivation behind the behavior. But, whatever the reason is, if you're not comfortable with the behavior you can do a couple of things to try to eliminate it.
First, is management. You can make sure the dog is on top of the blankets (as opposed to under the blankets with you) and you can put an extra blanket or two at the foot of the bed to provide further camouflage the movement of your feet and to provide extra protection for your feet if the dog does bite at them.
You can also do some training with the dog while you're awake. Set up the scene as it occurs at bedtime, but have and appropriate chew toy (or some treats) handy. Relax and allow the dog to relax. Once everyone is just hanging out and relaxed, move your feet. When the dog first starts to go for the feet (but BEFORE he gets to them), redirect him with a cheerful/playful tone of voice calling him to "get this" and then play tug with him with the toy. After about 5-10 seconds of playing Tug let go of the toy and allow him to continue to chew on it. If you have 3 or 4 such toys, you can repeat this exercise without having to take the toy away from him each time. Even two toys would allow you to switch between them so that when you offer him the second toy, you can sneak the first one back so you have it ready for the next training trial in that session. Alternatively, you can tell him "Leave It"* and offer him a treat for redirecting his attention away from the moving feet and toward you for instruction. But in this case I think that redirecting him to a toy that he can chew on and engage with might be the better choice. Then at bedtime, keep a toy on the bed near him, but also keep a toy within reach on the nightstand. If he goes for your feet during the night tell him "Get This" in a cheerful albeit sleepy voice and play tug for 5-10 seconds before letting him just have the toy. You may need to repeat this several times throughout the night for several days to weeks until he consistently chooses the toy that you leave for him instead of your feet. But he should make this change eventually.
Another option is to provide him a bed on top of your bed and cuddle him on that bed. This can teach him to remain in his bed and then he should be far less aware of your feet moving unless you kick his bed. But, once he's comfortable and staying the night on his bed that's on your bed, you can shift his bed to the floor right next to you so that you can reach over the side of the bed and pet him. As he becomes consistent at sleeping in his bed right next to your bed, you can shift it a foot or so at a time until it lives in a place that is comfortable and convenient for you and your dog. This allows him to sleep in the same room with you, but prevents you accidentally kicking him awake as well as preventing him from pouncing on your feet while you sleep.
NOTE: if as a younger dog your or someone else played a game of "catch the hidden moving thing under the blanket" then this is a very likely cause of the behavior today. It's a learned behavior and a fun game that someone taught him and this could be why he's doing it to you now. So, redirecting him to another object and making sure that you never play such games of "find the unseen living thing" you can help discourage this behavior. But be aware that if this is a very fun game, the sense of fun is highly rewarding and it may take quite a bit of time and patience and consistently freezing your feet (stop moving them) and redirecting him to a new and acceptable alternative game before he finally gives up on this game. Be sure to play the alternative "get it" game of tug/chew in lots of other places in the house on a daily basis. And be sure to cheer him on for grabbing and pulling and engaging with the appropriate toys. This will help him learn that these alternatives are not only fun, but also get a great approval rating from you, while simultaneously learning that going after unseen objects under the blanket make that unseen object stop moving and you always shift his focus to this other super fun game. That can help him create the habit of just seeking out the alternative game instead of going for the one that ends before it starts.
I hope this proves helpful. Please feel free to followup if I can be of any further assistance.
Jody, CPDT-KA, APDT
Los Angeles Behavior Specialist
---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------
QUESTION: I really appreciate your answering my question without the additional details which would have given us a more precise response from you. I am not sure if this would help but here are the answers to those questions.
We adopted Baxter when he was six months old and he is now three years old. He sleeps on top of the covers, never under them. We've determine that Baxter's behavior started nearly two years ago when my sister and her husband watched him for the weekend. Baxter nipped my brother-in-law's toes while he was asleep. He must have kicked Baxter accidentally when he was sleeping and that was his response to it. So based on this, I feel that Baxter's startled response to feet movement is, in fact, from fright not playing.
If there is anything more you can add to your response that will help us and Baxter, it would be greatly appreciated. Again, thank you for answering us so quickly before.
Thank you for the followup. I actually replied to this yesterday, but apparently there was a glitch in the system and my first effort failed to go through.
Thank you for the extra details about Baxter. Since it began when he was an adult, my guess is that it was a direct response to your brother-in-law accidentally kicking or nudging him while they both slept. There's a saying that says, "Let sleeping dogs lie..." The reason for this is that many, many dogs - when startled awake - will come out of sleep defensively before they can register if there's an actual threat present. This is an excellent survival skill, but doesn't make for a very good bed companion.
If one of my dogs were prone to this response, I would probably encourage him to sleep on his own bed on the floor. I'd get a super comfy bed for the dog. I'd put a blanket that's been on my bed for a while onto the new dog bed. I'd cuddle the dog on that new bed until the dog settles in on it and drifts off to sleep. I'd do this ritual nightly until the dog creates the habit of going to his own bed rather than up on mine.
I'd also make a morning ritual of inviting the dog up on the bed 10-30 minutes before I have to get up for the day and having "morning cuddle time". By doing this, the dog will be able to sleep soundly without getting nudged or kicked or otherwise startled awake, but still gets sufficient bedtime cuddles (on his own bed) and morning cuddles on my bed. This approach is focused on making the dog feel safe and comfortable. It's not about protecting my toes from getting bit, though that is a pleasant side effect of making sure my dog is comfortable.
If necessary, you can put the dog's bed on your bed for the first week or so to teach the dog to sleep on it, then transfer the bed to the floor right next to yours so you can reach down and touch him while he's settling in and then shift the bed closer and closer to where you want it to actually live. I did this process with my older dog when he was a puppy. He was sleeping on my bed so as to avoid accidentally waking his older "sister" who was very prone to the defensive aggressive display when awakened suddenly. So I kept the puppy on the human bed. But then he began to grow and with two humans in the bed, he no longer fit comfortably. I bought him his own bed and put it at the foot of my bed (in the middle - between the two humans) and taught him to sleep on it. I cuddled him on that bed and if he got up in the middle of the night to shift position (if it woke me) I just guided him back to his bed on my bed and snuggled him till he settled in again. After about 10 days, I put his bed on the floor a couple feet from my bed. For the next 2 weeks, I "tucked him in" by sitting on the floor next to his bed petting him and cuddling him until he fell asleep on his bed. From then until I was again a solo in my bed, he slept on his own bed on the floor - and had morning cuddle time on the people bed.
If you're determined to try to keep Baxter on the bed with you, then I'd encourage either learning to sleep with a dog bed (which might be a bit big and cumbersome) or you can create a barrier by using thick blankets to make a donut area for your dog to sleep in. Or pillows to create a barrier. This way if humans do kick or shift into that space, they'll get the barrier and not Baxter. That might help Baxter be less aware of it and less inclined to react by biting toes. But, the only way to be certain there will be no middle-of-the-night toe nibbles would be to prevent Baxter access to the toes, which means sleeping on his own bed on the floor.
How you decide to proceed is up to you. There is no one right way. Just variations on the theme - provide him a barrier and distance so that humans aren't disrupting his sleep with unintended physical "attack".
I hope this helps. Please let me know what you decide to do and how it works out for you.
Jody, CPDT-KA, APDT
Los Angeles Behaviorist