Nothing gets your attention quite like a dog paw on your leg, in your hand or on your face.
And dogs must know this because pawing is one of the most common behaviors that dog owners report.
It’s cute and charming at first, but after a while, you just want your pup to keep his paws to himself. After all, if you want him to shake his paw, you’ll tell him “shake paw,” dang it!
As with many dog behaviors, pawing can be difficult to decode.
Does your dog need food? Water? Walk? Play? Anything?
Or does pawing have a whole other meaning that’s just lost in the translation between dog language and human language?
Let’s figure out the root of this curious behavior and find out once and for all what it means when your dog paws at you.
Dogs Paw When They Need Something
If dogs could talk, life would be easier in many ways. You’d always be able to tell what they’re thinking and feeling, for one — no more guessing games!
But they’d also be able to say, “Hey, my water bowl’s empty, can you fill it up? I’d do it myself, but I don’t have thumbs!”
Or, “I know you’re caught up in your TV show right now, but let me outside! It’s an emergency!”
Alas, communication between our two species is mostly visual and physical, not verbal.
So when sitting by the food bowl or staring out the back door doesn’t get your attention, dogs need to get up in your business a little in order to get what they need.
And often, that means pawing.
Like tapping someone on their shoulder to get their attention, pawing is, to dogs, a polite way to get someone to notice them. It seems a little rude at first, but when the alternative is whining, jumping or headbutting you, it does seem preferable.
What to Do About Needy Dog Pawing
If your dog paws at you when he needs something important, like water or a bathroom break, the short-term solution is obvious: give him what he needs.
Food is also considered an important need, but only to a certain extent. Your dog’s instincts tell him to eat as much as he can whenever he can, so he may want food even if he’s just eaten.
If it’s been a while since his last meal, it’s fine to respond to your dog’s needy pawing with food.
But if it’s not dinnertime yet, don’t give in just because he’s pawing at you. Don’t be fooled by those pleading eyes — extra food is a want, not a need.
In general, if your dog only paws at you when he needs something, the behavior isn’t a problem.
If it bothers you, the best way to control it is to prevent it by staying on top of your dog’s needs. Try to pay more attention to his body language throughout the day, as pawing often occurs after other attempts to get your attention have gone ignored.
Dogs Paw When They Have Strong Feelings
The desires in this section go beyond basic physical needs and into the emotional realm. Strong feelings provoke many different behaviors, and pawing is one of the most common.
Attention is one of a dog’s most prominent and recurring desires. In particular, dogs with high social drives and energy levels are more prone to attention-related pawing.
It can seem excessive, but remember that it’s not done to annoy you. Pawing for attention is caused by emotions that your dog has no control over: longing, loneliness and closeness.
Every dog is different, and these emotions run much higher in some pups than in others. Just as different people have different thresholds for loneliness, so too do different dogs.
Try to think of pawing not as attention-seeking but as an attempt to fulfill these emotional needs. They’re more abstract, sure, but they’re just as important to your dog’s well-being as food and shelter.
When stress is running high or scary changes are afoot, fear and anxiety can take over your dog’s brain.
And when this happens, he’ll instinctively seek out a source of comfort and security.
Guess where he thinks he’s most likely to find it? Aww, it’s you, of course!
Anxious pawing is your dog’s way of letting you know that he’s uncomfortable with his surroundings or situation. It’s an attempt to feel safe and protected in the face of strange or upsetting things.
You’ll be able to tell if your dog’s pawing is associated with anxiety by reading the rest of his body language. Anxious or fearful dogs may have wide eyes, hide their tails between their legs or whine, and quiver.
Whoever said animals don’t feel love clearly never owned a dog!
The bond that forms between dog and owner is undeniable. You know it, and so does your dog.
Touch is a universal communicator of closeness and love, transcending species and language differences. And just like you hold your sweetheart’s hand to show affection, your dog may paw at you as an act of love.
Some dogs seem to instinctively paw you when you pet them, a good sign that this behavior is purely a show of affection. And if the pawing starts after you stop petting your dog, it’s probably the same story — he loves you so much, he doesn’t want you to stop!
If the rest of your dog’s demeanor is relaxed and happy, chances are that he’s pawing you because he loves you. Go ahead and paw him back — nothing feels as good as reciprocated love, whether you’re canine, human or any other animal.
Dogs Paw When They Want to Play
Look at the way dogs play with one another and take note of which body parts they use the most.
Some dogs get a little mouthy, pretending to bite one another. Others prefer full-body slams that would impress even the most seasoned wrestlers.
But just about every dog uses his paws during play. And not just for running, either: whacking, kicking and, yes, pawing are all common play behaviors.
In fact, many dogs use pawing as a way to initiate play. It’s more cautious than immediately entering roughhousing mode and lets the dog test the waters a bit before getting too rowdy.
So it stands to reason that when your dog paws at you, he may be trying to start a play session. Break out one of his favorite toys to find out for sure — if he lights up with excitement, well, you’ve just solved your pawing problem!
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Dogs Paw When They Want to Help You
Get to know a dog and it becomes obvious just how in-tune they are with human emotions.
Highly perceptive and emotionally intelligent, dogs can understand and differentiate between many of our feelings. What’s more, they adjust their behavior accordingly, a sign of interspecies empathy.
When you’re sad, your expressions, posture, and movements change, and your dog picks up on it. He may come over and paw at you, an action that’s easily mistaken for neediness on his part.
But it’s likely that what he’s doing is trying to comfort you.
Your dog wants to return all the love and care you provide him with, even if he can’t do much except be there with you. Pawing may not solve your problems, but it’s the thought that counts.
And when you recognize it as a display of empathy and support, you may find that you don’t feel so alone in your struggles anymore. He may not be a person, but your dog’s love is as real as any human’s.
"If you think dogs can’t count, try putting three dog biscuits in your pocket and then give him only two."
-- Phil Pastoret