Dog pawing and scratching owner's leg

Q. My large dog uses his paws to get our attention and accidentally hurts us sometimes. What can we do to discourage this behavior?

A. Pawing and scratching is a tactic dogs use to garner attention, ask for something they want, or as part of play. My parents have a 12-pound Pomeranian mix named Quixote who is the pleasure pig of all canines. Despite his small size, he takes on a demanding role when it comes to tickle time. He uses his claws to scratch a leg or foot until someone uses that foot to scratch him back. If he wants to be tickled on his tummy, he curls his paw around an arm like a hook and drags that arm toward his belly. My mom calls Quixote “the Velveteen Rabbit” because she claims he’s been rubbed so much, his hair is going to fall off. Despite my efforts to help Mom nix her dog’s bad habit, she takes on the responsibility of part-time masseuse for her canine without complaint, and proudly wears the tic-tac-toe marks from Quixote’s claws on her skin. But there’s reason to discourage such behavior. Pawing and clawing of hands for attention can move beyond a nuisance and become a serious problem, especially as the size of the dog increases. Pawing can cause severe skin injuries, especially to those most vulnerable, like young children and the elderly, and a large pawing dog can trip someone or knock her over. The behavior can be improved with training, in particular by replacing the scratching with preferable alternatives. Here are my go-to ways to stop pawing that work with pint-sized to pony-sized canines:

1. Train an alternative

Pawing is often used to get a person’s immediate attention, much like a young child may poke his mother repeatedly and say, “Mom, Mom,” until he gets attention or is given a privilege like being let outside or getting a toy. My grandmother’s dog, a Shih Tzu named Shing-I, trained my grandma to act like a vending machine. Every time she paws Grandma’s leg, Grandma reaches into a treat bag by her chair and delivers Shing-I a tasty morsel. My grandmother insists that Shing-I’s treat demands are adorable, and she doesn’t care to change. But change is entirely possible by replacing the scratching with a desirable behavior. In the case of Shing-I, if my grandma interrupted the scratching sequence by asking for one of the dog’s trained behaviors, like sitting. Before she reached Grandma’s leg to paw, Shing-I was rewarded with a treat from Grandma. Then she could ask for a series of other tricks, such as lying down, until the opportunity to earn treats ended, at which point she could use the cue, “All done.” The preferred behavior to be trained depends on each circumstance; for example, a dog could be taught to use a potty bell — a bell that he rings when he has to go out — instead of pawing to be let outside.

2. Remove attention for pawing

If a dog has been rewarded with attention or food for pawing in the past, teach him that pawing accomplishes the opposite of what he intends, such as the removal of attention. If a dog paws for attention, freeze like a statue, avert eye contact or even turn and walk away for 10 to 30 seconds. Give attention only when the dog is calm and his paws are grounded. Be aware that when you first start ignoring it, pawing is likely to get worse before it gets better in what is called an extinction burst, in which a previously successful behavior is tried with more gusto until the pet gives it up altogether. The more consistent all family members are in not rewarding pawing, the greater the chance of success.

3. Regulate playtime

When canines play, they often use their paws to touch the other dog. When a human plays with a dog, though, paws and nails on skin is not nearly as enjoyable, especially without the layer of fur protection that dogs have. Train your dog that the touch of a paw on human skin ends play if he has a habit of being rough with his paws. Hold a time-out period of ignoring the dog for 10 to 30 seconds before resuming, and continue only if the pawing has discontinued. Toys also can be removed if the dog paws, such as by tucking a tennis ball under your arm if the dog paws for you to throw it and tossing it only when all four paws are grounded. Stay away from faster games of chase or hand wrestling if they are too stimulating for the dog and pawing occurs. Also, keep toys low enough to the ground so that the dog doesn’t paw to reach them.

4. Teach your dog to “shake”

As counterintuitive as it may sound, teaching your dog to perform an unwanted behavior on cue gives you more control over the behavior. Training the dog to perform the behavior when asked gives the dog a greater awareness of his action and makes it more likely to happen only when asked for. Train the “shake” with a word or hand signal to better teach your canine that he will be rewarded only for the times the behavior was asked for with the cue, and never without it. “Shake” can even be a way to reward your dog for staying calm. For some dogs, the reason for scratching is simply to make a physical connection with a person. If a dog remains relaxed in a situation in which he normally would paw, give him the cue to “shake” and allow for a controlled paw touch as a reward for polite behavior. 

5. Increase exercise

In most situations, dogs are given too little exercise, intensifying all of their reactions within the home. The ideal amount of exercise for a dog will depend on the breed, size, age and physical limitations of the dog, but generally speaking, two to three activities per day that leave the dog panting from the exercise, rather than the heat, is ideal for keeping a canine calm. Lastly, never hesitate to work with a positive reinforcement trainer who can further guide you in honing your pet’s manners. More on