If your dog has ever gently nudged your arm and placed a paw on you, you might wonder why they do this. Most often, it's a signal they want something, like pets, food, or to be let out. However, a dog can also put their paw on you as a sign of affection, or to calm themselves down. Use your dog's body language to discover what they're trying to communicate with a gentle paw tap.
Why Does My Dog Put Their Paw on Me?
Dogs have many ways of expressing themselves, including whines and barks, and some may learn to use nudges to communicate with you. What is your dog trying to say by pawing at you? It's probably one of these four messages:
1. "Pet Me!"
You're petting your dog, then stop for a moment. Next, you feel their paw nudging you. A paw on your hand means, "Keep petting me!" Pets and scratches feel great for a dog, so it's understandable they'd want you to continue.
2. "I Need Something"
Your dog pawing at your arm or leg might be a sign that they need something. Maybe they're hungry, need to go out, or are not feeling well. Check to make sure all your dog's basic needs are met, including adequate exercise and enrichment. It's possible they just might want attention!
3. "I'm Anxious"
In times of stress, your dog will often run right to your side. A nervous dog might put their paw on you in order to feel safe. Consider whether something frightened your dog right before they placed their paw on you. Was there a loud noise, thunder, or were you getting ready to leave? Monitor for other signs of stress and take measures to keep your dog calm.
4. "I Love You"
If you're lying on the couch and your dog gently puts their paw on you, they're probably saying "I love you." Physical touch is an important gesture of affection for dogs. They're also very sensitive creatures and can easily pick up on your emotions. If you're crying or visibly upset, they may present their paw to you in an effort to provide you with comfort.
How to Stop Your Dog from Pawing
Regardless of why your dog puts their paw on you, this action is a learned behavior. Even if you didn't intentionally reinforce the behavior, your dog picked up on it. At some point, they discovered you would continue petting them or give them a snack whenever they paw at you, so they do it repeatedly until they get the desired outcome. Unintentionally, you've intermittently reinforced the behavior, and intermittent positive reinforcement is the strongest form of conditioning there is.
Pawing isn't just annoying. It can also be dangerous if your dog unintentionally scratches you or pushes you over. The first step in training your dog to quit pawing is to stop rewarding the behavior. If their paw is a sign for you to keep petting them, don't. Simply get up and walk away to signal that the petting session is over. When they're calm and no longer pawing you, you can resume petting.
Of course, if your dog needs to urinate, you don't want to ignore them. Instead of ignoring their pawing, have them sit at the backdoor, use their paw to jingle the potty doorbells, or whatever other action you'd like them to take when they need to go out, then reward them by taking them outside and praising them for doing it right.
Don't Let Pawing Get Out of Hand
Your dog is definitely trying to send you a message by touching you with their paw. If they genuinely need something - for example, they need to go out to relieve themselves or are feeling ill - you shouldn't ignore their pawing. However, if they simply want attention, you can train them out of this behavior. Make sure your dog gets plenty of exercise and playtime with you to keep them from constantly seeking attention, then use positive reinforcement to reward them when they don't paw.