What Does It Mean When a Dog Gives You Its Paw?

by Adrienne Farricelli Google
    Pawing can become your dog's parlor trick in hopes of treats.

    Pawing can become your dog's parlor trick in hopes of treats.

    BananaStock/BananaStock/Getty Images

    So Scruffy has learned how to give you his paw. He's impressed your family and friends, made them laugh, but now that he's giving you his paw over and over you're starting to feel like things are getting a tad bit old. If you ever wondered why your dog seems so focused on this behavior, a closer look into doggie psychology reveals some interesting dynamics.

    If you ever wondered why some dog trainers aren't too eager about teaching a dog to give a paw, now is the time to figure out way. As cute as Scruffy is as he gives you his paw, things can easily get a bit "out of hand." While your pooch is always willing to give you his paw when asked to, if you aren't careful, he may end up discovering a whole world of "pawsiblities" Soon you' ll have a dog pawing at you for attention, pawing you to play and even pawing as to remark: "Hey, it's about time you cook up my dinner, now get your butt off the couch and just make it happen."

    If you're looking for a better scientific explanation as to why your dog gives you his paw, your curiosity may be satiated by looking at Edward Thorndike's Law of Effect. According to this American psychologist's theory "any behavior that is followed by pleasant consequences is likely to be repeated, and any behavior followed by unpleasant consequences is likely to be stopped." This means if every time your dog paws he gets attention under the form of treats, play, praise or any kind of attention, all bets are off he'll increase the pawing behavior because it has a history of reinforcement.

    There's more to pawing though than attention soliciting behaviors and a history of reinforcement, and it's meaning generally varies depending on the context. In some cases, dogs may fall back on the pawing behavior if they don't know what else to do. What may seem like giving you a paw may actually be your dog's way to express uncertainty or feeling a bit under pressure. Your dog may, therefore, start pawing at you when you're training him to do something else just because he's not sure what you're asking him to do.

    If your dog's pawing is getting out of hand, you may want to do something about it to reduce its frequency. A good way to do this is by finding out what's ultimately fueling this behavior. If you have been petting your dog every time he raises his paw, you'll need to be persistent and stop petting him every time he paws. Same goes with giving him any form of attention when he paws and you didn't ask him to. Expect the pawing behavior to increase at first, but if you're persistent, Scruffy will eventually give up pawing as it no longer works.

    Some dogs actually don't need to learn to give paw as they're naturals who discovered how they can use their paws on their own initiative. If your dog has talented paws, you can train him to perform other cool tricks other than pawing such as turning on lights, pushing a ball and even playing the piano. Just make sure every time you give your dog a command to use his paws that you praise him lavishly, and when you notice annoying and pushy pawing behavior, you ignore it. Scruffy this way should learn that pawing is on your terms and should paw at you only when you explicitly ask for it.

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    About the Author

    Adrienne Farricelli has been a writer since 2005, serving as an editor, steward and writer for several online publications. She brings expertise in canine topics, previously working with the American Animal Hospital Association and receiving certification as a dog trainer from the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers. Farricelli offers reward-based training and behavior consults at Rover's Ranch Home Boarding and Training.

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