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It’s common knowledge that dogs wag their tails when they’re happy and tuck them in when they’re anxious. Some body language, however, is a little less clear. Like have you ever wondered what it really means when they put their paw on you? Turns out, it could be a sign of affection that translates into the three words that we long to hear: “I love you.”
Rebecca Forrest, an assistance dog trainer for The Dog Clinic, wrote about how your dog’s paw could be a sign of thanks for the petting they’ve already received—and want to show that the loving feeling is mutual. “Studies have shown ‘feel good’ hormones such as oxytocin are released by both human and dog during a petting session,” wrote Forrest. “By putting his paw on you whilst you are stroking him, he is further extending contact and reciprocating affection back.”
Forrest expresses that this interpretation makes sense in the right context, like if you’re cuddled up on the couch with each other. If you’re already petting your dog and he touches you to return the favor, then it’s a fairly sure sign.
However, in another setting, it’s possible that the paw could mean something else. The key is to look for hints in their body language to give you hints as to what their paw touch might mean. For example, if your dog is lip smacking, yawning, or displaying flat ears, the paw could indicate that they’re anxious and are looking for some comforting attention.
Another thing to look out for is how you usually respond to the paw. Do you take it as a sign that your pet might be hungry and usually feed him or her as a result? In that case, Forrest advices you to pause. “Make sure you don’t respond to continual pawing if it’s related to food,” advises Forrest. She stresses that it could lead to health issues if your dog is the one who dictates when they eat.
Regardless of the other possibilities, it warms a dog owner’s heart to know that it could be exactly what it feels like—a way to show how much they care.
Nicoletta Richardson is the Senior Associate Editor of News and Culture at Apartment Therapy.