Paws for Thought

During a training session with one of my students the other day we observed that their dog was displaying a pattern of paw raises whilst we were working with them. This developed into a really interesting discussion about why dogs raise their paws and what purpose does it serve. Observing a dog can generate so much positive discussion and really help to engage the student. This led me to consider some of my own experiences of observing this behaviour. I must admit I’m not a fan of training a dog to paw raise in return for access to food or other reinforcing activity. Yes it’s a bit of fun and may look cute, but what purpose does it serve? Your dog already has a wonderful and natural ability to communicate with paw raises and we shouldn’t really need to muddy the waters by adding additional and unnatural paw raises for our own benefit.

Ralph

When Ralph first came to live with us I observed that when I reinforced Ralph for a sit he would raise his right paw but when my partner did the same sit exercise Ralph would raise his left paw to her. I found it fascinating that Ralph could process the different emotions he was feeling about both of us and display a behaviour commensurate to his emotional state so rapidly. The right side of ours and our dogs body is controlled by the left side of the brain and the left side of the body by the right side of the brain, this is known as lateralization. The right side of our brain may be associated with negative emotions, like fear, anger or danger, the left side with positive feelings, like love, a sense of attachment, and feelings of safety and calm. Twelve months on and we do the same exercise and if Ralph does raise a paw to either me or my partner it is predominantly the right one. Knowing Ralph as I do know, it makes the alternate use of his paws when we first starting working with him understandable, he was very wary of strangers but was strongly attached to me. Your dog can also convey emotional states such as curiosity and anxiety, through paw raises and my young Spaniel Chester often uses paw raises when in new areas or in response to an unfamiliar noise or dog. I have two German Wirehaired Pointers who often point when they are curious and focusing on movement in the hedges, deciding what course of action to take next.

Angus using his left paw to grip

Dogs use their paws for many tasks such as holding onto a ball, pointing at prey or holding onto prey and you can discover if your dog has a left/right preference by observing which paw they use to hold items such as Kong’s. As you can see from the image of Angus above he is holding onto the toy using his left paw and he predominantly uses his left paw to grip and secure items. Another method you can use is to observe which foot your dog uses to step off with, do they lead with their right or left foot? You will need to do plenty of observations over a period of time before coming to any conclusions and in some cases you may find that your dog is bilateral using both paws equally. The use of the paw to communicate emotions will vary between individual dogs and within my own group of dogs three of the four use the paw in this manner, Anton being the only one that doesn’t. if your dog doesn’t do it it doesn’t mean that that they have no emotions or live in some kind of dog utopia. This is really interesting for me as Anton is the most timid of all of my dogs and can be wary of strangers and new environments, yet doesn’t use his paws to convey his emotions. He does however, show other behaviours that signify his emotional state so maybe his genetic code for this behavior has switched off as it was superfluous to his needs in his past life, culture and environment.

Angus uses his right paw once the item is secured by his left paw

There is a lot of advice about the meaning of paw raises that you can find on the web but this can sometimes be confusing and misleading. Every dog is different and the behaviours that they do display will vary in degree and so we shouldn’t cover a repertoire of paw behaviours with one description or function. As with any type of behaviour you need to consider the context that it is displayed in and a left paw raise to signal negative emotions alone should not be construed as your dog is having a panic attack. If your dog does raise its left paw to signal some type of negative emotion consider the environment around you, could this be unsettling your dog? New places, meeting strange people, other dogs, sudden noises could all trigger a negative emotional response. You can also use the paw raise to measure how effectively you are communicating with your dog and the level of trust you have between each other. On the flip side observe any positive paw raises and note down the environmental conditions these were observed, could you use these same positive conditions and environment to train your dog in?

Anton is also predominantly left pawed for task orientation

This is only a short insight into this fascinating topic and I hope that it encourage readers to observe their dogs behaviour closely and increase their understanding and knowledge. I get really excited when I work with students who observe behaviours such as this, and ask me, “What does that mean”? It opens up so many interesting areas to explore. The students that I work with now, will be dog guardians themselves one day and having the opportunity to develop their knowledge and understanding at this stage in their lives is one that I am extremely proud of. Early engagement with students and dogs greatly increases the welfare of the dogs and students, encourages positive social cohesion and develops social and cognitive skills. I work with some fantastic students who are so positively engaged with dog behaviour, and I am comforted to know that as I grow older there will be other like minded people out there caring for dogs with knowledge, compassion, trust and understanding.

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