A sweet dog sitting politely, lifting his paw in greeting is one of the most endearing sights to ever see. Very few people can resist a dog offering up his paw to shake hands and it will soften even the hardest of hearts. Having your dog shake hands with visitors is impressive and can set many non-dog lovers at ease. Many pet owners and trainers teach dogs to shake hands as one of the first tricks, shortly after ‘sit’ and ‘stay’ because it is not difficult and it's fun. There are times when a dog is lifting his paw but is not necessarily looking to shake hands. It is important to know the difference. Sometimes, a dog can start using his paw a little too often or aggressively and it can become a nuisance so it is also important to teach him boundaries. If his trying to shake hands does go over the top, you can speak to a trainer about ways to curb his pawing.
The Root of the Behavior
The act of shaking hands upon greeting in humans can be traced back as far as the 5th Century BC in ancient Greece. Initially it was a way of showing you were not bearing arms and setting each party at ease. Studies have since shown that humans often smell their hands after shaking, suggesting that our sense of smell is important to us just as it is to our dogs. Dogs do not necessarily think or perceive the world the way in which we do, so his offering his paw to you is not necessarily intended the same as if another person were offering his hand. Dogs tend to paw at things they want to move, or to get attention. When two dogs greet each other, there is a lot more sniffing than shaking of hands, but dogs are seen pawing at each other to gain attention and offer up an opportunity to play. Your dog does love to please you, so if you have taught him to shake hands, he will be interested and motivated to perform whenever he gets the chance.
A dog will raise his paw for several reasons that have nothing to do with shaking, so it is important to learn the difference. A hunting dog will often be in pointer position, ears back and will lift his paw in anticipation and excitement of seeing his prey. He is not doing this to say hello. If his tail is tucked and head is low with a paw lift, he is anxious and not looking for you to take his paw and shake it. Head and eyes up, tail out and paw up tells you that he is interested in something and is anticipating something good. Typically he sees or smells something such as a toy, a food item or perhaps his leash. Shaking this paw is not a bad idea, but also not what he has in mind.
Encouraging the Behavior
Teaching your dog to shake hands is one of the most popular dog tricks around and perhaps one of the most useful. Once your dog can ‘sit’ and ‘stay’ he is ready to learn to ‘shake’. Once he has mastered this trick, rather than jumping on people or lunging at them when they enter his area, you can remind him to ‘shake’ and he will sit and offer his paw. Such a greeting is a lot less alarming to visitors and will thus naturally reinforce his behavior. There are three simple and common ways to train your dog to shake hands. Regardless of which tactic you take, remember to limit your training to five to ten minutes per session, and be consistent and calm. For each method, it is necessary to start when your dog is calm, in a submissive mood, and in the sit position. One option is known as the back of paw method where you tap the back of his paw until he lifts it up. As soon as he lifts his paw, gently grab it and say ‘shake’ and offer reinforcement in the form of a highly desired treat or praise. Another option is to hold a treat in your hand that he can see. Close your hand but keep it within his reach. Eventually he will lift his paw to paw at your hand and you can gently grab it and say ‘shake’ while offering the treat and praise. Finally, you can just keep offering your hand and wait for him to paw at it. Once he does you can grab it and say ‘shake’ and offer a treat and praise. Training consistently, repeatedly, and with reinforcement will have your dog paw shaking in no time.
Other Solutions and Considerations
Dogs, like humans, have dominance on one side so having him shake his left paw may be more difficult than learning to shake his right and vice versa. Dogs do not generalize in their training, so if you teach him only to shake on one side he will only offer that paw to shake. If you want to teach him to use one paw specifically, you can teach him to shake on the right and use the ‘shake’ command and when teaching to shake on the left use the ‘paw’ command.
Dogs do use pawing to gain attention, and at times it can get out of control. An unwanted paw when your hands are full, or scratches from an aggressive pawing can be a problem. If your dog is offering his paw a little more than you would like, you need to train him to only use his paw when given the command. A more dominant or aggressive dog may try to use his pawing to establish dominance and this cannot be tolerated, as you need to remain his alpha. In the event that your dog is using his paw in an attempt to manipulate or control the situation, hiring a trainer to set your pup straight is a great idea.
Your dog loves to please you, so if he learns that you want to shake his paw he will happily oblige. It is important to identify different reasons why a dog may raise his paw and know the appropriate times to grab and shake it. A dog can be trained to shake, and it is a great way to manage how he greets guests. A dog can use his paw to control a situation, so make sure he learns to only use his paw when commanded to do so.
By a Black Lab lover Zoe Byer
Published: 02/15/2018, edited: 01/30/2020