Adrienne is a certified dog trainer, behavior consultant, former veterinarian assistant and author of Brain Training for Dogs.
Not a Human-Sized Handshake
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 far more common than thought. 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 hand shake. 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 treat.
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 out hand!
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!
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.
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 close attention.
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 that 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 pet, 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 not how to interact with people in other ways and use pawing as a default behavior to avoid other types of interactions..
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 important directions.
- 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 a 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 under 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 your 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 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 do!
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 veterinarian immediately.
© 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 gentlemanly enough.
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!