Your dog may want belly rubs, need more space, or be looking for some chow. Learn how to decipher all the doggy desires your pup could be expressing by laying paws on you.
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Dogs only have so many ways to get your attention and pawing tends to work pretty well. "At a very early age, puppies learn that if they paw at their mother's teats then milk will drop," says certified professional dog trainer and Daily Paws Advisory Board member Irith Trietsch Bloom. "As they get older, they try this pawing behavior in other scenarios. So your dog may paw at your leg, a toy, or a door. Your dog learns in which instances pawing gets a good result." Pawing behavior also harkens back to the way wild canid puppies lick and paw at adults to prompt them to regurgitate food.

Wondering why your dog is pawing at you? Find out what could be running through your pup's mind.

7 Reasons Why Your Dog Paws at You

Some breeds are especially pawsy like Siberian huskies, Akitas, Samoyeds, poodles, and boxers, Bloom says. But all dogs may use pawing behavior to communicate. It may be to ask for something, signal they're no threat in an appeasement gesture, show uncertainty, or even warn others, depending on the context. Here are some of the most common motives dogs have for pawing at their pet parents:

1. Your pup needs to go potty.

Does your pooch paw at you when you're asleep? He may need to go potty. Dogs do what works. So if pawing gets you up so that he can go outside and do his business, he'll continue to do it whenever the need arises. Are you snuggling him on demand whenever he paws you? Then expect this behavior to continue when your dog feels like cuddling, regardless of whether you have an early wake-up time. Whatever you do after your dog paws you is likely the reaction your pup was going for. Your response reinforced that pawing works for your dog in this situation.

2. It's time to eat.

Your dog is getting hungry. But you seem oblivious that, hello, it's past the regular feeding time. Your pup may try to express his desire to be fed by intently staring at you. If that doesn't work, he'll up his game. Pawing at you around mealtime is a pretty clear indicator that your pooch wants some kibble in his bowl.

3. Your pet is petting you.

If your dog places his paw on you while being pet, it could be one of the ways your dog shows love, says Amelia Wieber, dog behavior consultant, trainer, and Daily Paws Advisory Board member. Does it happen when you stop petting him? Then it's his way of asking for more. "Do the 'consent to pet' test. Stop petting and see if your dog solicits more attention by pawing or nosing your hand. This is a gesture to encourage you to keep going," she says.

4. It's so boring.

Like people, dogs need physical activity and mental stimulation. Dogs who are bored may paw to say, "Hey, let's do something," which is much nicer than going off and doing something destructive for entertainment. Your dog may be requesting that you play, go on a walk, let him outside, or give him a belly rub.

chihuahua pawing at camera
Credit: Hillary Kladke / Getty

5. Back off, your pup needs some space.

Pawing at your face is probably a sign that your dog would like something to stop. Are you putting your face right up to his when this happens? Try moving your head further away. Are you carrying your pup when he paws your face? He may be telling you that he doesn't like being held, Wieber explains. You'll need to see what the rest of his body language tells you to know for sure. For instance, a dog with a stiff posture and his head held high is trying to tell you to give him space.

6. You might need to see the doctor.

Dogs have an extraordinary sense of smell—up to 100,000 more powerful than ours. They can even sniff out cancer in us, according to the American Kennel Club. There are reports of dogs obsessively sniffing and licking a spot on their pet parents that ended up having cancer. So if your pup keeps pawing a certain area of your body, it might be because he notices that it smells different, Bloom says. The good news: Dogs often detect cancer at its earliest stage, when it's most treatable. So consider having the area checked out by your doctor.

7. Something is causing your dog to have anxiety.

Your dog looks to you for comfort and security. If there's something causing him stress or anxietythunder, fireworks, or he's in pain—your pooch may paw you for reassurance. Of course, he'd be really happy if you'd make the problem go away too.

What Does It Mean If Your Dog Paws at Other Things?

Besides laying paws on people, it's normal for dogs to also paw themselves as well as other animals and objects. Here's how to read that behavior:

Pawing at Ears and Mouth

A trip to the veterinarian is in order if your pooch is frequently scratching at his ears or mouth. "That indicates pain and discomfort," says Lisa Radosta, DVM, a board-certified veterinary behaviorist at Florida Veterinary Behavior Service. "Possible causes include a foreign object that's stuck, dental problems, an ear infection, or allergies."

Getting Pawsy With Other Animals

Putting a paw on another animal is a sign your pup wants to play. "Puppies learn at a very young age that pawing gently at each other is a way to say 'play with me," Wieber says. Just keep a watchful eye on your dog's interactions—pawing could unintentionally injure smaller dogs and animals like guinea pigs, rabbits, and cats.

Pawing at a Toy or Object

Dogs use their paws to flip and push toys or other objects in play, Wieber says. "Getting the object to move like a small woodland creature makes it more fun and interactive. They can chase, grab, and subdue it."

How to Stop Pawing Behavior

Dogs communicate largely through body language. Pawing may be a great way for your dog to express his needs, but what if it's getting out of hand? You can use positive reinforcement training to get your dog to ask for attention differently.

For example, you can teach your dog to gently nudge your hand when he wants attention, says Wieber. Here's how it works:

  1. If your pup paws you, ignore it and then wait a few seconds.
  2. Then say "touch" and present your open palm.
  3. As soon as your dog sniffs your hand, mark the behavior with a clicker and give him your attention, which is the reward.

Another option is to limit your dog's pawing at inconvenient times. Let's say you'd rather not have your dog pawing at you while you're on a video meeting. Send your dog to his bed with a puzzle toy or bone—something that will keep him occupied, suggests Radosta. "You're communicating to your dog that you're unavailable at this time. And in case you get bored, here's a toy to keep you entertained. Dogs are smart and will catch on if you make it a routine."

Pawing at you is a natural way for dogs to express their emotions and needs. Learning how to decipher your pup's body language will help you both avoid frustration and bring you even closer together.