Yes, your dog wants to communicate with you. Since he can’t use words, he will use an array of tools at his disposal, including his paws. But how do you know what he is trying to say? Just what is he communicating with the use of those precious paws?
Your dog may put his paw on you to signal a range of things. He may want attention, affection, play time, food, to go for a walk, or he may be anxious or in pain. Let’s look at how to interpret what your dog is really saying.
As with human communication, context is an important element in determining what your dog is saying. Context is determined by what is going on around what is being said. For example, if I say, “It’s red,” you won’t have a clue about what is red or even why it matters without knowing the context of the rest of the conversation. If you were a part of the whole conversation, you would know the additional information needed in order to make that one phrase meaningful. Similarly, when you pay attention to the context, or additional cues your dog gives, when he is putting his paw on you, you will have a better understanding to determine what he is trying to communicate.
Where Is Your Dog’s Paw?
Where your dog places his paw may be an indication of what he wants. Again, always take it in context, however. While there may be commonalities between the ways dogs communicate, each dog, with his individual personality, may have his own unique ways to let you know what he wants.
Affection and Attention
When your dog places his paw on your knee or on your shoulder, he is probably looking for affection or your attention, or possibly both. What else is he doing with his paw there, however? Is he staring at you? Is he trying to rest his head on you as well? These could be further signs that he is looking for some affection from you. Often when a dog wants affection, he will put his paw on you and lean into you. He may even use his paw to try to keep your hand where it is when you are petting him.
Is his paw on your lap while he starts to climb on you (easy on you if he’s 10 pounds, more difficult if he’s 80 pounds)? This could be a cry for attention. If he has his leash or a toy in his mouth at the same time, that could be a hint. He may be bored and looking for something to do with his favorite playmate.
Part of the Pack
Dogs are pack animals, and as such, are highly social. You are your dog’s pack leader. Each dog in the pack has a particular connection with the rest of the pack. Your dog desires to feel a connection with you as well. Putting his or her paw on you can be a way for him to let you know that he wants to connect. It is a way to reinforce the bond that he has with you. Take the opportunity to assure your dog by touching his paw and looking into his eyes. Let him or her know that you feel the same connection with him, that he is an important part of your pack.
Asking for Something
Is your dog’s paw pulling on your arm or hand? He may be trying to get your attention to go outside or he may be guiding your hand to the spot on his back that he wants you to scratch. Try scratching and see what he does next. If he pulls away, he may want to go out or need something else from you. If he leans into you further, he is probably enjoying the scratching time.
Is his paw pulling at your feet while you are sitting down? It may be that he wants to play and is already on the floor ready to go. Again, if he has a toy with him while he paws at your feet, that’s a good sign that he wants his best friend to join in some fun time.
Your dog has his own way of saying he’s sorry. You can see it in his eyes when you correct him, and he knows that you are unhappy. He may lower his head and give you the classic “puppy dog eyes.” He may lay down or roll over in submission. This submissive behavior is his or her way of letting you know that he poses no threat to you. Some dogs will put their paw on you at that moment looking for reassurance. As with a child, the correction that you give to a dog should be specific and limited in time. Correct the behavior, but reassure them afterwards of your love.
Who’s the Boss
In some cases, your dog may want to demonstrate his own superiority by using his paw. This is common behavior among other dogs. He will put his paw on the back or shoulder of another dog to signal that he is the boss. It is a part of the “positioning” that happens in the pack. That could be a problem, however, if he tried to do the same thing with a human family member. Again, you will usually see other associated signs if he is trying to show superiority. For example, you may notice that your dog is putting his paw on the paw or shoulder at times that the dog is in a higher position, like when the family member is sitting on the floor or lying down. If you are seeing this kind of positioning behavior, correct your dog by pushing his paw back down, and telling him, “No.”
Sensing Your Feelings
Occasionally, your dog’s behavior may be less about his own needs and more about yours. When you are particularly sad or sick, you may notice your dog come and lay beside you and put his paw on you. He wants you to know that he is there for you as much as you are for him. Your dog loves to give you comfort as a part of giving back for all the love that you give to him.
Why Won’t My Dog Stop Pawing at Me?
Ongoing pawing is a more aggressive way that a dog may use to get your attention. Usually this means that it is not just cuddle time that he is after. Once again, the context of this pawing behavior will likely help you understand what it is that your dog wants.
Most of the time, if your dog brings you a toy, there’s a good chance that he wants to play. Often, pawing behavior is also used to communicate that he is ready to play. This type of pawing will be displayed along with a lot of energy. This is the same way that he or she will signal play time with other dogs as well. When the other dog paws back, it signals that he is ready to play too. In the case of this type of pawing behavior, he may not even be actually pawing on you, he or she may just be pawing at the ground. This could also be accompanied by the classic bowing kind of pose while tail wagging (remember the T-Rex in Night at the Museum).
It’s possible that if your dog is continually pawing at you, that he might want food. Are you eating? Is he looking for you to share? Did you remember to feed him at his normal eating time? If you realize that it’s been a while since he has eaten, he may be just hungry. If you are eating, regardless of whether or not there is food in his bowl, he may just be begging.
Sometimes your dog may paw at you when he is nervous or feeling anxious. Evaluate what might be making him feel that way. Are there fireworks or lightening outside? Is it a time that you normally leave the house, causing him to feel some separation anxiety? Is there something else going on outside that may have him distracted?
Another way to determine if your dog may be feeling anxious is to look at his other behaviors while he is pawing at you. Is he carrying his ears, head or tail low? Is he panting excessively? These may be associated with distress or a heightened level of anxiety.
When to Not Let Your Dog Paw
Knowing that your dog is trying to communicate is the first step in knowing how to react to your dog’s pawing behavior. It is important that you give your dog the attention, affection, reassurance, play time, and other things that he needs. You don’t want to alienate him. He needs to know that he is a valuable part of the family. At the same time, you don’t want to spoil your dog and give him the idea that he can monopolize all of your time and attention. He is not meant to be in charge. There are times that you should tell your dog, “No.” You could also give him a “Sit” or “Lay down” command if he is just looking to be with you, but you are not able to spend that time right now. Another thing that you can do is walk away from your dog and turn your back on him. Ignoring him may be an additional way to let him know that his pawing behavior is unacceptable.
Learn Your Dog’s Language
As you continue to grow in relationship with your dog, it is important to learn what he or she is saying to you. Your dog will communicate with you in a variety of ways, some vocal and certainly a lot that is non-vocal. Pawing is one of the ways that your dog will frequently talk to you. Paying attention to the other contextual cues accompanying the behavior is a great way to gain understanding to what your dog wants to say. Take the time to learn your dog’s language, and your relationship with him or her will be richer for it.