The only way dogs can communicate to us what their intentions are or what’s on their mind is by using their body language, barks, whines, and growls. It’s a foreign language all humans should learn and understand to avoid confrontations that need not happen between people and canines. Dogs use their entire body to send signals, including their paws, and most dogs are quick to learn pawing their human may come with a reward.
For the most part dogs don’t like to have their paws messed with. Shaking hands is one thing, but having their feet held when cutting toenails, trimming hair between the paw pads, or inspecting the feet is not something dogs enjoy. It shouldn’t come as a surprise because a dog’s paws are important for their survival, and a way to communicate. Scratching the ground with their feet after urinating or defecating is a way of spreading scent from glands located on their paws over a larger area, as well as a visual sign to other dogs that come across it. The feet are used to find prey, flee from danger, dig holes to get down to cooler soil when it’s hot and dig a hole to stay warmer when it’s cold. Most dogs have their own comfy beds inside, but digging is still an innate instinct dogs use to find comfort when they’re outside, bored, or hunting prey underground. Some dogs slap the ground with their paws when they are overly excited or focused on prey they can’t get to. Modern dogs don’t have to hunt for their own food, but their ancestors did and protecting the feet is a hardwired instinct.
Pawing is a way for dogs to get our attention, even though we don’t usually appreciate having our arms or legs raked with sharp toenails. There’s nothing wrong with teaching your dog how to shake hands or to give you a high five. All of my dogs know how to shake. The trick is to reward the behavior you want and discourage behavior you don’t want. When a dog puts his paw on your lap, leg, or arm, it can be an intimate touch of affection. A paw slapped against you during play could be saying how much fun your pet is having. However, when a dog uses his paw in a more persistent and demanding way, that’s when things can get out of hand, and it can turn into a hard to break bad habit if allowed to continue.
Dogs use their paws to express confusion when they aren’t sure what they should do, are feeling stressed, or afraid. When a dog wants to give you his paw during a thunderstorm, when meeting unfamiliar people, or during training sessions it could be his way of communicating to you he is scared, unsure, or confused about what you are trying to teach him.
Stopping unwanted attention pawing isn’t that difficult, but it does require commitment, consistency, and rewarding positive behavior you do want. Dogs are quick to learn they can get your attention when they use their paw and if you rewarded them with any kind of attention, positive or negative, it is a behavior they will continue. Negative attention is still attention. When your dog paws your leg or arm, turn your side to him. Don’t talk to him, just turn away. If he follows you and reaches out with a paw, turn your side to him again and if he follows, stand up and walk away. Redirect his focus to a behavior you want him to learn like sit, or lie down and reward him for doing what you asked. It can take a little time before he gets the idea pawing at you won’t get him attention, so be patient and consistent. If your dog is good at using his paws teach him how to turn on lights, or how to bat a ball around the yard. Reinforce behavior you want with lots of praise and positive rewards. Stand up and walk away from unacceptable pawing. Dogs learn to repeat behavior that gives them positive feedback.
Pawing is a way to say let’s play, please give me some attention, I’m confused, or I need a hug, but it can also be a sign of submission when you see other body language that indicates your dog is being submissive. It’s a way of saying, “I mean you no harm.” On the other hand, dogs that put their paws on the backs of other dogs are saying, “I’m the boss.” This is not behavior you should allow your dog to do with any human member of the family.
Dogs use their entire body to communicate how they feel and what’s on their mind. Some signals are more subtle than others and each one has meaning. What a dog wants when he uses his paws may not always be obvious, but it is one way dogs have of telling us what they need. It could be for attention or an attempt to understand what we want. When you open your heart and mind to what your pet is trying to say it’s a step towards a better understanding of dog behavior, and a lasting relationship between you and your dog.
Natural Instincts in Dogs that Came from the Wolf
Body Language of Dogs: Understanding Raised Hackles (Piloerection)
Debunking Five Small Dog Myths