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Humans stand on two legs and dogs stand on four, right? Some of us big dog owners beg to differ! It’s all too common for big dog owners to literally come face to face with our dogs when we come home, in the middle of playtime, or even out of nowhere.
Whether you’ve been knocked over in the past or you just find the behavior strange, you may begin to wonder. Why does my dog put his paws on my shoulders? Is it a sign of affection or an attempt at domination?
Contrary to popular belief, putting his paws on your shoulders does NOT mean your dog is trying to establish dominance. Most of the time, dogs put their paws on our shoulders just to get their faces close to ours. This can help them communicate their affection or get our attention.
We’ll go over 4 major reasons dogs put their paws on your shoulders and how to discourage the behavior if you don’t like it.
1. They’re Being Affectionate
How is your dog supposed to give you a big, sloppy kiss if they can’t reach your face?
While dogs may lick your face for a variety of reasons, such as appeasement, most experts agree the behavior is a greeting derived from the wolf puppy behavior of licking their mother’s mouths in an attempt to have them regurgitate food.
Of course, your dog isn’t expecting you to deliver a half-eaten meal to you. Instead, adult dogs and wolves use this behavior to communicate affection and greet one another.
Even if the goal isn’t to lick you, your dog may want to reach your face or touch you as a way to express and receive affection. They may also enjoy the smell of your breath as an added bonus.
When you and your dog look in each other’s eyes, both of you secrete oxytocin, the hormone associated with bonding between a human mother and child. Even just touching your dog can be enough to fire up some loving synapses in both of you.
Plus, you use your hands to show your pup that you love it, so why not the other way around?
2. They’re Trying To Get Your Attention
If you’re reading this article, that means your dog may have succeeded in their goal– to get your attention!
There are many things your dog may be trying to communicate with you. Paws on your shoulders could mean “I want pats,” but it can also be a sign of more urgent business such as “I need to go outside,” or “I’m out of water.”
Putting their paws on you may be a last resort after barking, nose nudges, and scratching didn’t work, or just what your dog discovered is effective in expressing a specific need.
This is more likely to be the case if your dog isn’t visibly excited or if they are also whining.
Figuring out what your dog wants once they have your attention is all about context and knowing your dog.
Take a mental note as to if they ask to be pet, run to the door, or go near their dish. Most of the time, it’s pretty easy to figure out their motivation for putting their paws on your shoulders with some quick trial and error.
3. They Want To Play
When you know what to look for, play initiating behavior in dogs is easy to recognize. That said, a lesser known trait is that an excited dog will often paw at the face of the dog or person they hope to play with, either making contact or not.
So why paw your shoulders?
For one, your dog may not have the best aim and your shoulders are “close enough.” There’s also a good chance they don’t want to hurt you by scratching your face, or that you’ve expressed annoyance at their paws hitting your head in the past.
The easiest way to tell if your dog is putting their paws on their shoulder to play is to see what else they are doing. If your dog wants you to play, they will go into a play bow and wag their tail. They may bring a preferred toy or start to bark. As long as you’ve crossed out other reasons your dog might want your attention, let play time begin!
4. You “Trained” Them To
As BF Skinner would note, we are constantly training our dogs whether we know it or not. Intentional commands such as “sit” or “stay” for treats can be just as engraved in your dog’s brain as things like “scratch the wall for attention!”
Without knowing it, there’s a good chance you’ve actually been reinforcing your dog to put their paws on you.
Maybe you smile and pat your dog on the head whenever they put their paws on your shoulder during cuddle time. Perhaps when your dog “hugged” someone, you responded by laughing and calling them sweet.
Even things you may not think of as a positive reaction may still be the intended outcome for your dog. If you’re busy petting your other dog first or just not paying attention to your pup, they may put their paws on you. To a dog who feels ignored, even negative attention counts as a reward.
Is My Dog Trying To Be Dominant When He Puts His Paws on My Shoulders?
The short answer as to whether your dog putting paws on your shoulders is a sign of domination is a resounding no. While there are such things as appeasement behaviors or assertive behaviors, the myth that dogs are alphas or omegas is as widespread as it is false, and it’s very widespread. Of course, there’s a good reason this misconception is so prevalent.
Dominance Theory Has Been Disproved
This myth originates from a study on social structure and body language on captive wolves performed in 1947 by researcher Rudolf Schenkel. Based on these observations as well as his own experience, wolf researcher David Mech released a book on the alpha wolf concept in 1968.
So why isn’t this the case when two respected scientists are behind the theory? For one, despite how closely related they are, wolf psychology isn’t transferable to dog psychology. The process of domestication is an intense one that shapes every part of an animal, including its brain.
Even if wolves did have the traditionally assumed hierarchy that many people think they do, there’s no reason to assume dogs automatically share it.
More importantly, even the creator of alpha theory has debunked it in wolves and dogs alike. As shown by further research, the complicated behavior of the closely confined wolves in the original observations was not an accurate representation of natural wolf behavior.
Instead of having packs with alphas and omegas and all of the other Greek letters, wolves have a simple family structure where parents are in charge and their offspring may have an informal pecking order. That’s it.
Whether or not dominance exists at all in doggy behavior is unclear. Many trainers and scientists outright deny that dogs understand dominance, but others believe it exists as a nuanced concept.
As for our pets themselves, the idea of trying to be the “alpha leader” by putting paws on you isn’t one that’s in your doggy’s noggin.
Your Dog Is Not Trying To Intimidate or Scare You
For those of us who have grown up around dogs, understanding when they are scared or excited is often second-nature. Even beginner dog owners know a wagging tail and kissing tongue means your dog loves you! But when it comes to decoding more subtle body language, it can get a little confusing for even the most experienced of us.
For as good as we usually are at understanding our dog’s social cues, several of them easily go over our heads or get misinterpreted outright. For instance, frequent yawning is often a sign of anxiety, and a wagging tail can signal all sorts of emotions, including aggression.
Many people assume that by putting its paws on your shoulders, a dog is trying to scare you by showing how large it is or by getting close to your face. For as subtle as some physical cues can be in our pets, it’s pretty straightforward when a dog is trying to be intimidating. Raised hackles, growling and snarling, baring teeth, a tense body, and intense eye contact are all means for a dog to express hostility.
Putting their paws on your shoulders, on the other hand, is almost always a friendly gesture.
How To Make Your Dog Stop Putting His Paws on Your Shoulders
Even though we’ve disproved that your dog putting paws on your shoulders is a sign of dominance, there are still many reasons you may want to control the behavior. You may want to stop your dog from knocking you or others over, or maybe you just want to keep your clothes away from muddy paws.
Lean Down To Greet Your Dog
As we’ve established, there’s a good chance your dog is just trying to bring its face close to yours to greet you. A great way to avoid getting a pair of paws flying at you is to do the work for your dog.
Immediately taking a knee when you come through the door can allow your pup to have access to every part of you that is important for a greeting– namely, your face and your hands.
Depending on how rowdy your dog is, you may want to have them sit or lay before leaning down so you don’t get knocked over.
Do Not Punish or Yell at Your Dog
One of the negative side effects of the alpha dog myth is the idea that you have to assert dominance over dogs with punishments and harsh discipline.
In reality, punishment is a detrimental method of teaching your dog to change their behavior. While aversive things like spray bottles or yelling may “work,” positive reinforcement training is equally if not more effective and doesn’t damage your relationship with your dog and cause undue anxiety.
Plus, the likelihood of your dog understanding why you are scolding them is slim. They may think they are no longer allowed to greet you when you enter the house, or be dissuaded from approaching you altogether.
Additionally, the negative attention you are giving your dog may actually be reinforcing their behavior. Instead of punishing your dog when they jump, ignore them entirely unless all four paws are on the floor. The lack of a reward is just as meaningful to a dog as punishment, and doesn’t come with all the negative side effects.
Teach Your Dog an Alternative Way To Communicate
Despite what some movies might suggest, your dog can’t learn to talk. When your dog puts its paws on your shoulders, they’re typically trying to say something, whether it’s “I love you!” or “I need to go out!”
If you don’t want your dog to jump up on you or put their paws on you, they need a better behavior they can use instead.
Some owners, like the one in the video below, have taught their dogs to push buttons to communicate complex ideas.
For a pup who just wants to say hi, teaching your dog to lay down or even roll over before receiving those coveted pats is a good option.
Consistency Is Key
As long as you make sure your dog has four paws on the ground most of the time, it’s alright to let them jump every now and then, right? Or maybe it’s fine for your pup to put their paws on you only when they are clean. Well, not quite.
Your dog probably won’t catch on to the specifics of what makes jumping or putting their paws on you in one situation okay and another not. Instead, you will be providing your dog with a reward on some occasions and not on others.
A behavior is much less likely to go away if it’s inconsistently rewarded, either by pets or treats. Variable ratio rewards, or rewards that are given after a random number of attempts, are highly addicting to us and our dogs alike. If you’ve ever wanted to put in “one more coin” into a claw machine or do “one more spin” on virtual slots, you know just how tempting it is to keep trying something when a reward is possible but not guaranteed.
If your goal is to reduce a behavior, it shouldn’t be rewarded period.
Consult A Behaviorist
Whether you’ve tried it all or you just don’t know where to begin, consulting a dog trainer is always a good idea. A certified trainer can teach you to work with your dog instead of against them.
Should I Worry if My Dog Puts Their Paws on My Shoulders?
Unless the behavior is unwanted or dangerous due to a dog’s size, there’s nothing wrong with your dog putting their paws on your shoulders.
Dogs do not express dominance by putting their paws on you, and instead the gesture is probably friendly in nature.
By putting their paws on your shoulders, your dog is trying to communicate something to you. This can be affection, asking to play, asking to go out, or more– figuring out the exact meaning based on context is your part to do!
When your dog puts their paws on their shoulders, you may find the behavior perplexing, cute, or downright annoying. More often than not, this is to express affection, ask to play, or get your attention.
If you don’t mind the paws and kisses from an affectionate dog, happily accept them. If you’re not a fan of this, introduce an alternative means to get your attention with some positive reinforcement training.
Regardless of the exact cause, take your dog’s gesture for what it is– a desire to communicate and maybe even bond.