Foot-Sensitive Dogs

(Originally written for DogWatch, a newsletter for the general public from the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine)

Why does my dog constantly pester me to shake his paw, but then when I try to hang on to it, he tries to get away?

Although we can sometimes get into trouble equating human with canine behaviors, hand- and paw-related displays do have some parallels. For example, when Sharon shakes another person’s hand, she sees that handshake as an automatic part of the greeting. Similarly, when she teaches her dog, Ripley, to shake hands, she views this as a fun trick. However, just as that human handshake originally communicated, “See? I’m not carrying a weapon,” to other people, contemporary dogs may interpret their owners’ attempts to hold their feet as anything but a game.

Why does this happen? In order to survive, wild canines depend on their feet to perform many functions. Dogs rely on their four feet to successfully hunt food as well as to avoid becoming food for some predator. Scent glands in their feet enable dogs to lay down a scent trail they can follow in limited light. Scratch marks made with the hind feet following urination visually announce the dog’s presence to other animals in the area. Canine front feet dig cooling holes in summer and dens to keep them warm in the winter. Those front feet also permit dogs to dig up potential meals as well as bury any leftovers for safe-keeping. Finally, dogs use their front paws to hold pups, mates, or prey, and to signal dominance to other animals.

From all this we can see that domestic dogs carry a legacy of very sound physical as well as behavioral reasons why they shouldn’t let others to mess with their feet. However, because dogs naturally use their paws to communicate and they see us as members of their packs, we also can appreciate why they would use their paws to communicate with us, too. When Ripley jumps up on Sharon and puts his paws on her shoulders, she thinks he wants to dance; when he paws at her, she thinks he wants to shake hands. She dances and shakes hands with her pet and sees both interactions as evidence of their great relationship. However in dog language, Ripley also communicates his dominance over Sharon via these same displays, and her acceptance of them communicates her willingness to assume a subordinate position to him. Put another way, while Sharon thinks she’s playing fun games with Ripley, he thinks she’s telling him he’s in charge.

Given that, suppose Sharon wants to continue the game but Ripley doesn’t, so he resists. She then becomes quite irritated and shouts, “Ripley, stop being such a baby! I’m not hurting you one bit!” However, Ripley’s resistance has nothing to do with pain, and everything to do with communication. He resists because Sharon’s positive response to his jumping and pawing told him that he was in charge of her. When she hangs on to his paws, though, she communicates exactly the opposite: “Oh no, you’re not!” When he pulls away, he’s saying, “Oh yes, I am!” At this point, what Sharon viewed as an innocent game may rapidly deteriorate into a power struggle between her and her pet. Or she may back off rather than risk upsetting Ripley.

These same foot-related dynamics often come into play with dogs who hate to have their nails clipped. Sharon excuses Ripley’s frantic struggles, saying the process hurts him. She can even point to a specific incident in which his attempt to pull his foot away caused her to cut his nail too short and draw blood. However, there was no pain associated with the nail-trimming when Ripley struggled initially. Initially, his resistance sprang directly from the dominance Sharon’s paw-holding communicated. That behavioral problem led to the struggle that caused his owner to accidentally cut the nail too short, which she then used as the excuse for her pet’s resistance to handling.

Once Sharon realizes how Ripley’s touchiness about his feet communicates dominance, she begins to run her hand down his legs and feet in one smooth motion several times a day. When he becomes used to that, she accustoms him to having his feet held. Then she spreads his toes and manipulates each foot so he learns to accept that, too. During this time, she also replaces their dances and paw-shaking with games like fetch that further reinforce her leadership role.

If you’ve ever watched people communicate in sign language, it seems so incomprehensible if you don’t know what the signs mean. However, once you master the basics, you can’t help but marvel at how much meaning a simple gesture can convey. The same holds true for canine foot signals: Once you learn to read canine foot-language, you’ll never see dog-paws as just furry feet again.