Adrienne is a certified dog trainer and former veterinarian assistant who
partners with some of the best veterinarians worldwide.
How to stop a dog from pawing people.
Daniell Martins via Unsplash
Dog Pawing at Me Regularly
If your dog is repeatedly pawing at you, chances are you are getting tired of
this behavior. Let’s face it: pawing is a cute trick, but it can quickly get ”
out of hand ” if you allow it to. It can go from being cute to being
downright annoying, especially if it happens all the time. Not to mention,
pawing can even scratch you and other people, and not everybody is fond of
being pawed at.
Dogs engaging in insisting pawing behaviors are not unusual; indeed, it’s
actually fairly common. I even know some of my training colleagues who have
dropped teaching dogs to “shake” from their trick classes for the simple fact
that too many dog owners were reporting the cute trick turning into a bad
habit. That’s a shame because by pointing out a little rule, this could be
avoided and those busy paws can be put to work in more productive ways!
But here is an important fact: pawing behaviors are found to be particularly
endearing by most humans for the simple fact that it mimics a human handshake.
Dog lovers find it almost irresistible to ascribe human traits to dogs and
love imagining them as people in furry clothes. The technical term for
interpreting dog behaviors as human-like is ” anthropomorphism.”
Dogs who are extending their paws for a “handshake” are likely just repeating
a behavior that has a history of being reinforced rather than truly adhering
to “human social etiquette.” The truth is, when dogs meet humans or other
dogs, they rather greet them in common doggy ways such as sniffing in some
“odorous places” or giving an amicable nose touch to gather information and
get to know somebody. We don’t see dogs pawing at each other to say hello, and
actually, among dogs, pawing at the face and shoulders of other dogs is often
considered downright rude and can even result in a growl or scuffle!
Pawing Is a Natural Behavior for Dogs
Why does dog pawing behavior get so out of hand? Let’s say that pawing is a
natural behavior in dogs. Most dogs use their paws to hold down a toy or bone,
to play with toys or to wash their faces ” kitty style. ” Some dogs though
are more drawn to being more ” pawsy” than others. These are the dogs owners
known for using their paws to open cabinets and doors or to get a toy from
under the couch.
Even dogs who aren’t particularly “pawsy” may at some time in their lives
learn to put their paws to good use. This often happens when they are
particularly determined in solving a puzzle and they find that using their
mouth is ineffective.
Talking about solving puzzles, in training school, we were taught to train
dogs to give paw, by holding a smelly treat in our closed fist. Dogs would
sniff, lick at our hand, even gently nibble at our fingers, and then at some
point, they eventually pawed at our hand and then ” tada!” the pawing
behavior was reinforced by opening our hand and letting the dogs have their
When we train dogs to give us their paw, we may be exploiting a natural
behavior and positively reinforcing it (with treats, praise, attention), which
means that it will strengthen and increase in frequency. Once dogs learn to
improve their ” manual dexterity, ” this opens up a whole world of
opportunities, (you can train dogs to open doors, close cabinets, turn on
light switches etc.) but again, it’s important to not let this behavior get
Avoid this mistake when teaching a dog to shake hands.
Cole Wyland via Unsplash
Can Pawing Get out of Hand?
When we train a dog to give paw, we are basically using positive reinforcement
and the science behind it says: ” behaviors that are positively reinforced,
become stronger and repeat” In the meanwhile,” behaviors that are not
reinforced will weaken and eventually extinguish.”
This means that when you train your dog to give paw, he will engage in pawing
behavior more and more, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that the pawing
behavior will get out of hand unless you allow it to. My dogs are trained to
give paw, but they have been taught to give paw only when asked. Why is this
important? Because of one simple yet very important rule: Pawing behaviors,
just like any other trained behaviors, must be put under what in training
lingo is known as ” stimulus control. “
According to Karen Pryor’s glossary, a behavior is said to be ‘under stimulus’
control when it meets the following criterions:
- The behavior is always offered when that cue is presented;
- The behavior is not offered in the absence of that cue;
- The behavior is not offered in response to some other cue
- No other behavior occurs in response to that cue
What does this mean to dog owners? It means that they must be very vigilant in
reinforcing the pawing behavior only when it is asked. If you fail to follow
this important rule, you are not putting the pawing behavior under “control”
but the dog is!
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However, interestingly, many owners of dogs who paw excessively all the time
report that they have never really reinforced the behavior when it wasn’t
asked. In that case, since they did not reinforce it, shouldn’t the pawing
behavior extinguish in those circumstances? Well, here comes another important
phenomenon to keep in mind: the power of accidental reinforcement.
Tobias Tullius via Unsplash
Follow This Rule
Accidental reinforcement takes place when a dog owner inadvertently reinforces
(rewards) dog behavior. Let’s face it, when we think about dog rewards, we
often think about treats or toys, but there are many more subtle forms of
rewards going on all time and we don’t even notice them if we’re not paying
And one of the biggest rewards is attention. Yes, dogs can be great attention
seekers, particularly, those bored and under-stimulated latchkey dogs who are
left at home alone for long hours and the biggest perk of the day is being re-
united with their owners. These socially deprived dogs are the poster child
for attention-seeking dogs. These fellows are super happy when the owners come
home and one can almost feel their disappointment when the owners come home,
say briefly hello to the dog, take a shower, eat and then ” pluff” sink into
the couch with the remote in hand.
“Hey what about me? I have needs ya know? Look at me, yo!” The dog may bark
and then may start pawing at the owner. Because pawing behavior was rewarded
in the past, it doesn’t hurt to try it out and see what happens. If the owner
glances at the dog, talks to the dog (hey, Rover what’s up?) or touches the
dog: bingo! The dog got his much desired slice of attention, which to a dog
who is bored and under stimulated can be almost as reinforcing as a small
slice of baloney.
But it doesn’t end here. Even attention of the negative type may be perceived
as reinforcing to a dog who is eager to have any form of attention. So if
you briefly looked at your dog or perhaps even scolded him (off, Rover! Let me
watch the show!) or pushed him away, you may still have inadvertently
reinforced the pawing behavior.
Another troublesome scenario is accidental attention which happens when one
is distracted. For example, you may be talking on the phone and your friend on
the end of the line is very emotional, she has just been dumped by her
boyfriend and you are showering her with empathy. Next comes Rover, who nudges
at your hand and then perhaps paws at you and you inadvertently start petting
him. If your dog loves being petted, chances are good that the pawing behavior
may repeat as your dog has learned that pawing is the solution to activating
your otherwise lifeless hand. Next thing you know, your dog is pawing at you
every time you sit on the couch and you cannot figure out why!
And then you have social pawing, dogs who have learned to entertain family,
friends and guests by pawing, just in exchange of people saying “Ohh, what a
cute dog! Well, hello there!” and several pats follow. Soon, after your dog
receives feedback from several people who just melt at the sight of this
endearing behavior, pawing at people becomes the default method of interacting
with them. Another type of pawing that needs close observation though, are
dogs who engage in social pawing because they are a tad bit uncomfortable
around people. These dogs may not know how to interact with people in other
ways and use pawing as a default behavior to avoid other types of
Finally, here’s another important knowledge nugget when it comes to
reinforcing dog behaviors. Consider that ” behaviors that are reinforced on a
variable schedule develop a tendency to becoming quite addicting.” What does
this mean for dog owners? It means that if you occasionally reward pawing
behaviors with attention and at other times you do not, there are good chances
that you will be rewarding persistence.
So if say, you are again talking on the phone and your dog paws at you and you
ignore it, and then your dog paws at you again and again, when you finally pet
your dog on the third, fourth pawing behavior you would have not only rewarded
pawing, but on top of it, also persistence. In other words, you risk sending
your dog the message that “If you don’t succeed the first time, try again
until you get the desired response” which leads to stubborn pawing.
How to Train Your Dog to Stop Pawing
So how would you deal with persistent pawing behaviors? First off, consider
that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. If you want to train
your dog to shake and prevent it from becoming a bad habit, follow these
- Train your dog to give paw only when asked to
- Totally ignore (no positive attention, no negative attention) any pawing behaviors that take place without being asked
- Ask your guests to do the same.
- Avoid inadvertent reinforcement.
- And last but not least, be aware of the extinction burst phenomenon. In other words, if your dog has been pawing at you for some time, when you first start totally ignoring the behavior, expect the behavior to initially escalate. Make sure you totally ignore this escalation in behavior, even if it changes form (from pawing to barking) otherwise you will be rewarding persistence and the behavior will be even more challenging to extinguish.
- If you pet your dog, and your dog paws at you when you stop petting him, you can say “that’s enough” as you get up and leave. This should inform your dog that he should give paw only when asked to.
- To reduce pawing behaviors when your dog wants to be pet, you can try to replace it with another behavior. When your dog paws at you, ignore him and if he insists, get up and leave. When you feel it’s a good time to pet or groom your dog, call your dog, ask him to sit and then pet him.
- If your dog is bored and understimulated, make sure you dedicate a certain amount of time each day to the form of walks, play, brain training under the form of mental stimulation and interactive toys.
- Consider that if your dog paws at you and you toss him a toy, you may think you are re-directing the behavior, but you are actually only teaching him to paw at you to get the toy. Instead, break the behavior chain by doing this: when he paws at you ignore him, when he gives up and leaves, wait a few seconds and then call him to you, ask him to sit, lie down or do some trick, and then reward him with an interactive toy that will keep him busy for some time.
As seen, with some effort, you can reduce annoying pawing behaviors, but don’t
extinguish your dog’s tendency for being “pawsy” completely! If you train
your dog to paw only when you ask to, you will have reduced the chances for
annoying pawing, but why not build-up on the pawing behavior to teach some
cool tricks? You can train your dog to salute, high-five, wave, say his
prayers and cover his eyes. You can put those precious paws to work by
training your dog to open doors, close cabinets, turn lights on and so forth.
The sky is the limit and those idle paws are just waiting for something fun to
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It
is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription,
or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional.
Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a
© 2017 Adrienne Farricelli
Es1 on June 21, 2020:
My dog always paws me when I am sitting at my computer but I dont mind to me
he is showing affection
Shyron E Shenko from Texas on April 18, 2017:
My new puppy is bad about pawing at me when he wants something or attention.
Thanks for the information.
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on March 12, 2017:
That’s too cute Suhail!
Suhail Zubaid aka Clark Kent from Mississauga, ON on March 07, 2017:
I attribute the farmer’s handshake to his being from pastoral breed ha-ha.
Kuvaszok are a livestock guardian dog breed.
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on March 07, 2017:
That’s funny, Suhail, I like the “farmer’s handhake” comparison!
Suhail Zubaid aka Clark Kent from Mississauga, ON on March 04, 2017:
Great article with lots of useful information.
I have no pawing problems with my boy, except that he has a farmer’s handshake
He doesn’t use paw at all, but when asked to shake hands, he just isn’t
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on March 04, 2017:
Heidithorne, thanks for stopping by, yeah, if it’s improperly reinforced, then
it can quickly become a bad habit and then dog owners are stuck with a problem
and they are not aware of how it put roots, happy weekend to you too!
Heidi Thorne from Chicago Area on March 03, 2017:
So true! Our “kids” are pretty good, but our boy is more likely to do it. He
only does it in certain situations, sometimes with neighbors or hubby. Depends
on how wound up he is at the moment. Good to point out this seemingly innocent
behavior that can quickly get to be a nuisance. Happy Weekend!