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Barks & Mewsings

The Trupanion blog

Why Does My Dog Paw at Me?

By: Kelli Rascoe

Close-up view of a brown dog paw being held in a human hand.

Wondering why your dog paws at you? You’re not alone. Although many pet parents learn to decipher dog communication over time, certain actions can still be confusing. And whether you’re a new dog owner or a longtime one, you may not always understand what your best friend is trying to say when he paws at you.

Fortunately, animal behaviorists and veterinary professionals have been studying this kind of behavior for years. As it turns out, there are several possible reasons for why your dog may paw at you.

6 reasons why your dog paws at you

1. They’re seeking attention

In many cases, your dog pawing at you is simply what they view as the most effective way of getting your attention. According to Trupanion veterinarian Dr. Caroline Wilde, this attention-seeking tactic can be for anything from food or water to playtime or just some pats on the head.

“It’s important to look at your dog’s behavior and the context in which they’re demonstrating the behavior,” notes Wilde.

2. They need a potty break

From puppyhood and on, most dogs are conditioned to go to bathroom outdoors. As the human, you’re the one who can open the door for them and take them out. While some dogs will sit by the door or scratch at it when they need to go, others will happily go directly to their humans and paw at them.

3. They’re stressed out (or notice that you are!)

Your dog may paw at you as a result of stress and the need for comfort. But interestingly, it may not always be their own stress levels that they’re concerned about.

“Pets can be emotional support during stressful times, and the more you understand what your pet is communicating, the stronger the bond and support may be,” Wilde says. “Pets can also help reduce stress, anxiety, and ease loneliness.”

4. They want something to stop

A dog pawing at a human is usually a canine attempt at communication, and sometimes the message is as simple as “please stop doing that.” Pay attention to your own behavior. Are you doing something that could be potentially upsetting to your dog? Are you sitting too close or holding your pet in your arms? Try moving further away and redirecting your attention somewhere else.

5. You smell funny

Have you recently spilled something or are wearing a new fragrance? Dogs are known for their highly sophisticated sense of smell, and they could simply be pawing at you because you smell differently than usual.

In rare cases, your dog repeatedly pawing at you could be a sign you need to go to the doctor. Studies have shown that dogs are able to detect cancer by scent. If your pal is pawing at the same area over and over again, it could be that they don’t like what they smell there.

6. They need veterinary care

Sometimes dogs paw at humans because they are injured or don’t feel good. Wilde advises pet owners to take this seriously: “If it’s unclear whether the held paw is for attention or due to injury, talk to your veterinarian. They can examine your dog and recommend the next course of action.”

A mixed shiba inu paws at their human’s leg while laying on the floor.

The importance of understanding dog body language

Many dogs paw at humans in conjunction with other behaviors in an attempt to communicate effectively.

“Try watching your dog’s posture, ear position, jaw tone, and overall behavior,” Wilde says. “It may tell you a lot about what your dog is trying to communicate. A behavior like yawning or a tense jaw may be a sign of anxiety, for example.

Of course, it’s not just about deciphering what your dog is trying to say. Your dog is pawing at you or otherwise trying to communicate for a reason, and it’s up to you as the pet owner to take action.

“Consider all the behaviors to determine what they’re trying to tell you. Understanding your dog’s body language can help build the bond you have with your pet,” Wilde explains. “This can also help avoid conflicts with other dogs and people. If you understand your dog is anxious or afraid, you can take appropriate steps to decrease fear and redirect focus to avoid a conflict.”

How you may be reinforcing your dog’s behavior

It’s important to remember that each dog’s communication style can be unique and nonconforming to general canine behavior, though humans often influence it unknowingly. Some dogs may use their paws frequently to gesture and get attention, while others may resort to other kinds of conduct (like vocalizations). Dogs tend to use whatever works best at getting their human’s attention, so if you respond to your pal pawing at you, she’s bound to keep doing it.

Fortunately, by paying attention to your behavior as well as that of your furry friend, you can better understand dog communication for years to come.

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We’re the official blog of Trupanion—chosen by veterinarians as the #1 pet insurance in America. Here you’ll find useful dog and cat care tips, interesting veterinary insights, and fun pet topics galore.

While you’re browsing our pet blog, please note that the views expressed here are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily reflect those of Trupanion. Our articles are reviewed by veterinarians for accuracy, but they are not a substitute for professional diagnosis and treatment. Always consult with your own pet’s veterinarian for advice.

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