Why Does My Dog Put His Paw on Me?
You talk with your hands. Why shouldn't your dog? Find out what it really means when your dog puts his paw on you.
To say we’re fascinated by our dogs is an understatement. Truth is, we’re kind of obsessed. It’s as if every little thing those lovable tail-wagging creatures do, from gazing at us lovingly to sighing dramatically, from licking our faces to licking our feet and watching TV with us, is imbued with a sense of mystery and magic. So if you’ve ever “pawsed” to wonder, Why do dogs put their paw on you? you’re not alone. In fact, it’s one of the doggy behaviors that veterinarians and dog behavior experts get asked about the most, according to Colby Lehew, head trainer at Chicago’s Dogletics dog training facility. We talked to Lehew and several veterinarians to get to the bottom of this sweet, if a little perplexing, dog habit.
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About the experts
Pawing is a form of communication
In its most basic form, “pawing” is a form of communication, explains Gerardo Perez-Camargo, DVM, Vice President of Research and Development at Freshpet. Or, more specifically, it’s a communication initiation, akin to you clearing your throat to signal that you’re about to speak or tapping a friend on the shoulder to get their attention. But your dog could accomplish that just as easily with barking. So when your dog chooses to put his paw on you to get your attention, he’s making a choice. The question is: Why?
Dogs, like humans, speak with their hands
Many dogs are inclined to “speak” with their “hands,” observes Sarah Wooten, DVM, vet expert at Pumpkin Pet Insurance. The reason, according to Lehew, is that we’ve taught them to do so. When your dog hands you his paw, you’re likely to react positively. Sometimes you’ll even offer a reward (for example, praise, physical affection or food). By rewarding our dogs for communicating with their paws, we’re encouraging them to do so again.
Here’s what your dog is saying when they put their paw on you
1. Please keep petting me
Krit of Studio OMG/Getty Images
When you get the “paw” while you’re already petting, tickling or otherwise lavishing physical attention on your dog, you probably won’t even have to ask, “Why do dogs put their paw on you?” Chances are, you’ll understand intuitively that your dog wants you to keep doing exactly what you’re doing. This is one of the most common reasons dogs will put their paws on their people, says Dr. Wooten.
2. Why did you stop?
Similarly, a dog may place a paw on you if you were giving him physical affection but stopped, Dr. Wooten notes. It tends to happen very quickly: As soon as you start to withdraw your hand, he’ll reach out and paw you. It tends to be very effective, leaving little room for interpretation. “Give me more,” your dog is saying.
3. It’s gonna be OK
“Good or bad, dogs feel our energy, and they care about how we feel,” Dr. Wooten tells Reader’s Digest. “When we are feeling sad or down, our dogs can easily pick up on that.” And that’s when your pup may reach out to you with his paw, as if to say, “Hey, I get that you’re going through something, and I want you to know, it’s going to be all right.”
4. I love you
Petri Oeschger/Getty Images
“Touching you with a paw is one way dogs can communicate love,” according to Texas-based veterinarian Sara Ochoa, DVM, who consults for DogLab. “Just as dogs adore belly rubs, they also seem to understand that their people like to be touched as well, and since they love us, they want to make us happy.”
5. I’m not feeling so good
Dogs associate giving us their paws with getting rewards from us. But not all rewards come in the form of praise, affection or food. Sometimes, the reward is the offer of comfort and assistance when your dog isn’t feeling well. Your dog’s body language will offer clues as to whether he’s offering a happy paw versus an “I’m not feeling so good” paw. But in case there’s any doubt, be on the lookout for warning signs your dog is in pain.
6. I’m anxious
Our dogs can feel unwell both physically and emotionally, points out Caroline Wilde, DVM, staff veterinarian at Trupanion. So if your dog is feeling anxious or stressed, for example, he may seek out comfort from you by offering a paw. In such a case, you might also notice your dog licking his lips or yawning repeatedly. In addition, if he’s licking his paws, that could be a clue that your dog is feeling anxious or stressed.
The long “pawse”
Most of the time, when your dog offers his paw, the gesture is brief. Sometimes, however, he doesn’t just tap you with his paw but actually leaves it on you. Sometimes, it’s almost as if he appears to be gripping you. “Why do dogs put their paw on you and leave it there?” you might ask.
The reasons behind short and long dog touches are essentially the same, according to Jennifer Coates, DVM, who serves on the advisory board for Pango Pets. However, a long “pawse” tends to happen when a short “pawse” has been ignored or has gone unrewarded. On the other hand, if a sustained paw-touch seems to come out of nowhere, you can probably rest assured that you’ve just received the doggy equivalent of a bear hug.
Why trust us
At Reader’s Digest, we’re committed to producing high-quality content by writers with expertise and experience in their field in consultation with relevant, qualified experts. For this piece, Lauren Cahn tapped her experience covering canine behavior and dog breeds for Reader’s Digest. We verify all facts and data, back them with credible sourcing and revisit them over time to ensure they remain accurate and up to date. Read more about our team, our contributors and our editorial policies.
- Jennifer Coates, DVM, member of the advisory board for Pango Pets; interviewed, February 2022
- Colby Lehew, head of dog training at Chicago’s Dogletics; interviewed, February 2022
- Sara Ochoa, DVM, a Texas-based small-animal and exotic veterinarian and a veterinary consultant for DogLab; interviewed, February 2022
- Gerardo Perez-Camargo, DVM, Vice President of Research and Development at Freshpet; interviewed, February 2022
- Caroline Wilde, DVM, staff veterinarian at Trupanion; interviewed, February 2022
- Sarah Wooten, DVM, a veterinary expert at Pumpkin Pet Insurance; interviewed, February 2022