Adrienne is a certified dog trainer and former veterinarian assistant who partners with some of the best veterinarians worldwide.
Stopping dogs from pawing and scratching at people is important considering the risks associated with this practice. Sure, a dog scratching may be perceived as less intimidating than a dog biting, but it carries risks nonetheless.
While a puppy pawing and scratching may look cute, once the puppy grows to be an 80-pound dog, the behavior is no longer charming. If your dog is a puppy, make sure to tackle this issue sooner than later.
Tuxie, the Lab Who Jumped, Pawed and Scratched
I will never forget the day when, some decades back, I got a foster dog from a shelter who was a friendly black Labrador mix with tuxedo-like markings, but her biggest flaw was a tendency for getting overly excited. She would jump on people which initially seemed more annoying than anything, until the day I realized the seriousness of this.
A group of kids approached and were eager to meet the dog. These were neighbor kids who knew I volunteered for the shelter, so they were always curious about any new dogs in my care. Of course, if I knew I had a dog with a bite history or a dog who didn't look friendly, I would never let them approach.
In any case, the kids approached and of course, Tuxie jumped on them and the kids pet her and said hello (back then, I wasn't a dog trainer so I saw no harm in this type of encounter).
Only seconds later, I realized one of the kids' arms was covered in red scratches! "Oh my, I'm so sorry!" I remarked as the other kids looked at his scratched arm. "Oh, no worries miss Adrienne, they'll go away in no time, see you next time," he said non-nonchalantly as he walked away.
A Problem Not to Be Ignored
I was pretty confident those scratches would go away as the kiddo was fair-skinned as much as I was. Most superficial scratches like that may initially look like something coming from an encounter with some Bengal tiger only to fade away a little later and disappear in no time.
Still though, I felt terrible and was later on debating on whether I should have stopped by to apologize to his mom. Yet I felt a little ashamed because these kids were closer to 15 or 16 the most, and perhaps I was exaggerating—yet maybe not.
One thing was for sure though: I had to prevent this from happening again. If this Lab went to a family with children or seniors with frail skin, it would surely be a disaster, who wants a dog who jumps up, pawing and scratching with her paws with such intensity?
The Dangers of Scratches
Things became more worrisome when I researched the topic and found out that dog scratches could be almost as dangerous as dog bites, yikes!
Just like dog bites, any time the skin is broken there are risks for bacteria to set in and cause dangerous infections. Not to mention, dog scratches can also transmit rabies, if the circumstances are right. If the dog isn't vaccinated for rabies and he has managed to recently lick his paws, rabies can be transmitted this way. This may not be very common, but it's scary nonetheless!
On a side note, now I knew why, back when working for a veterinarian, before euthanasia appointments, rabies law required us to ask dog owners whether their dogs had bitten or scratched somebody in the last 10 days.
So yes, dog scratches shouldn't be underestimated. If you are ever scratched by a dog, clean the area with mild soap and apply a thin layer of antibiotic cream to the wound once it is clean, dry, and no longer bleeding.
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Then, keep the area protected from exposure to more germs for the first 24 to 48 hours, suggests veterinarian Dr. Marcy McKeithen.
So if you have a dog who greets people too enthusiastically or who likes to paw at people, you may want to address this behavior at your earliest convenience.
How to Stop This Behavior
I wished I could go back in time and work on Tuxie using the knowledge I had gained years later, but as the saying goes, "don't cry over spilled milk." Hopefully, these tips can turn helpful to owners of scratchy dogs.
In order to stop your dog from scratching people, you need to first identify what triggers and contexts evoke this behavior.
Does it happen when people ask your dog to shake? Does your dog do this as a way for getting attention? Is it when your dog jumps? Here are several tips to stop a dog from pawing and scratching people.
For Dogs Who Give Paw and Scratch
- Train your dog to give paw only when asked to. Totally ignore (no positive attention, no negative attention) any pawing behaviors taking place without being asked. Simply, turn your back and ignore if you're standing or get up from the couch and leave if you're sitting. Request your guests do the same. Wear long sleeves and dress in layers to protect your skin.
- You can read more about pawing behavior getting out of hand here: How can I stop my dog from pawing at me?
- Be aware of the extinction burst phenomenon. When you first start totally ignoring the behavior, expect the behavior to initially escalate. Make sure to totally ignore this escalation in behavior, even if it changes form (from pawing to barking) otherwise you will be rewarding persistence and the pawing behavior will be even more challenging to extinguish.
- If your dog paws to get attention, for example, you are petting your dog and he paws at you when you stop petting him, say "that's enough" as you get up and leave. When you then feel that it's a good time to pet your dog, call him, ask him to sit and then pet him. Remember to always use your "that's enough" cue to provide closure.
- Is your dog pawing because he's bored and understimulated? If so, prevent this behavior from happening by taking your dog on walks, playing productive games that don't encourage pawing and providing more mental stimulation and interactive toys.
- Watch for behavior chains. If your dog paws at you and you toss him a toy, you may think you are re-directing the behavior, but you may be actually teaching your dog to paw at you to get the toy. Break the behavior chain by ignoring him when he paws, (get up and leave if he persists) then when he gives up and leaves, wait a few seconds before calling him to you, asking 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.
- Even better, prevent the pawing from happening in the first place. For example, if you know your dog starts pawing and scratching at you every time you sit on the couch in the evening when you want to watch a show, walk him before the show and then before sitting down, give him a long-lasting chew that will keep him occupied during your movie.
For Dogs Who Jump Up and Scratch
- Provide more exercise, training and mental stimulation. Dogs who jump up and scratch are often dogs who have too much energy and need their instincts to be channeled to more productive activities.
- Redirect your dog to another activity before he has a chance of rehearsing the troublesome behavior. Options include offering a tug toy you have kept in your pocket. Playing with the tug toy, in this case, provides your dog a controlled outlet that doesn't involve jumping and scratching. If your dog isn't interested in a regular tug toy, try using one made with rabbit fur (Etsy sells a variety).
- Redirect to a flirt pole that you bring along on walks. A flirt pole is like one of those cat toys with a toy attached to a string. Many dogs go bonkers over these.
- Redirect to a treasure hunt game. Say, "Find them!" as you scatter a bunch of high-value treats on the ground to let your dog focus on searching on the ground rather than jumping upwards you (or your friends) and scratching. This strategy can help de-escalate over-aroused dogs effectively considering that sniffing and searching for treats requires quite some concentration.
- Ask your guests to turn their back to your dog if he attempts to jump up. If he insists on jumping on their back, tell them to walk away and leave.
- Erect a baby gate so that your dog cannot jump on your guests.
- Aim to train your dog to interact with your guests in a more productive way. Train your dog to sit when he meets people or to target their hands. Make sure to praise and reward these behaviors with high-value foods so that these behaviors outrank the reinforcement gained by jumping and scratching.
- Enroll your dog in obedience classes to train him how to stay more composed and calm when nearby people. Make sure the trainer uses force-free methods!
How to Minimize The Effect of Dog Scratches
While you train your dog, it is possible still for some scratching to occur. Hopefully, this is short-lived, but better be prepared! Here are some ways to reduce any potential damage.
- Walk your dog enough. Dogs who are inactive or walk only on soft surfaces tend to have longer and sharper nails. Walking on cement and blacktop can reduce the sharp edges. On top of reducing the sharpness of nails, walking (along with training and mental stimulation) can get rid of pent-up energy, allowing for some calmer greetings.
- Trim your dog's nails in a way that they aren't sharp. Normal clippers generally will leave sharp edges. Make sure to file those nails down or use a nail grinder (or Dremel) to remove any sharp edges. Ask a groomer for help if needed.
- Try Soft Claws. These are nail covers that can be placed on your dog's nails and that can reduce the effects of scratching.
- Have your family and guests wear old clothing with long sleeves and long pants. Wearing layers can help minimize the scratching as your dog learns calmer greetings.
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.
© 2021 Adrienne Farricelli
Sp Greaney from Ireland on April 06, 2021:
This is one thing that annoys me about dogs especially when an owner doesn't address it. Your tips are really good. Dog owners have a responsible and need too train their dogs correctly. Dogs will pick up things quickly especially when their behaviour is constantly corrected.
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on April 04, 2021:
So true, training dogs is a lot about training humans. Behaviors that are reinforced such as pawing for attention or toys, repeat, so we soon have a problem that puts roots and becomes more difficult to eradicate. Happy Easter to you too!
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on April 04, 2021:
Hi Peggy, a dog jumping up excitedly and scratching can be problematic. Glad to hear your dog wasn't large. It makes the problem much more easy to manage.
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on April 04, 2021:
Hi Flourish, I can imagine how intimidating it must feel dealing with a dog who scratches and tears nylons and pants! At the least, the dog should be kept away (or at least leashed and under control) during visits.
FlourishAnyway from USA on April 04, 2021:
A relative has a large dog that persistently paws and jumps up on guests and has torn my mother's nylons and pants. We have all but stopped going over there because they do not control the dog after having tried everything else. We've tried expressing how frustrating (and painful sometimes) that the pawing and jumping is, but they really don't understand.
Heidi Thorne from Chicago Area on April 03, 2021:
This is another situation where training the humans is so critical! Dogs are associative. And if they think that pawing gets them treats or toys when they stop, they'll certainly keep doing it.
I can feel your apprehension about neighbor kids approaching a high energy dog who paws people. This is a situation where you have to be on high alert and guide both the dog and the kids, sometimes at a second's notice.
Thanks as always for sharing. Happy Easter!
Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on April 03, 2021:
You always provide us with ideas of how to change a behavior pattern in a dog. We used to have one dog who used to jump up excitedly when we would come home. I wish I could have read this back then. Fortunately, he was not a large dog.
Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on April 03, 2021:
I love labs. You have provided numerous suggestions for changing a dog's behavior. This is a vy good article, Adrienne.
Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on April 03, 2021:
HI alexadry This is most helpful and Pawing happens often when playful. Scratching can be avoided or stopped as you mention. It is exactly what is needed for dog lovers or anyone in contact with dogs.