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Dear Open Paw:
What does it mean when my dog lifts a front paw? He's not offering to
shake (he knows that trick). Does he want his belly rubbed? He's
sitting when he does this...

Thanks, Barbara


What a great question Barbara!

Of course we can only surmise what a dog is communicating by observing context and consequences, we humans will never really know what is in a dog's mind and they aren't speaking! However we humans have been living with, and studying, dogs for years and most experts agree on the meaning of dog body language.

Raising front paws appears to be a sign of friendliness or appeasement in dog body lingo. Actually, the telling sign is all about bent elbows. A play bow, single paw raise, double paw raise (yes even as when jumping
up), batting with paw, tap dancing etc. all are meant to convey friendliness and sociability. Dogs will use this language with other dogs as well as with people. A dog might do this to invite play, to solicit attention, when unsure and under-confident about a social situation, or in dog play right before doing something that would be
considered rude in another context- as if to say "I am going to pounce on you now and bite at your neck, but I'm only joking, okay?"

A cute paw raise may also be (purposefully or inadvertently) trained in by the owner. If the dog is rewarded when he raises his paw because his human thinks it is cute, he will start offering paw raises more frequently in hopes of getting an extra bit of attention or treats.

As part of the Open Paw Shelter Dog Training Program we teach dogs to tap dance and/or raise their paws in a cute manner in an attempt to catch the fancy of potential adopters.

The information above covers the behavioral reasons a dog might lift his paw, but please don't forget to also consider the physical reasons a dog might do this same thing. A dog will also lift his paw if it is sore or injured, such as from a sprain or a cut in his pad. Inspect your dog's paw and watch for signs of limping or favoring the paw to rule out any physical discomfort.

Best wishes,


Dear Open Paw:
I adopted a shelter dog just after Christmas, and have dealt with her issues pretty well so far. She is a two year old Blue Heeler.  When I got her, she was a bit of an ankle nipper, and a car chaser.  Didn't know any basic commands.  Now, those issues are resolved, or at least resolving, but a new one has surfaced.  She is an obsessive shadow chaser.  So bad in fact, that one of my family members commented that she must have something wrong with her since that's all she does!  Now of course I know that she does not really have any mental problems, but at the same time, can almost see where our family member is coming from.  She is getting worse and worse, to the point that she really seldom actually looks at any of us, or even our other dog. Choosing to focus instead on our shadows.  She chases our shadows with the same fervor that she herds our goats!  She gets plenty of exercise, I do believe anyway, and does get training at home every day.  Do you have any suggestions for a way to get her to stop obsessing with the shadows?

--Obsessive Shadow-Chasing

Dear OSC,
Thank you for taking the time to make an inquiry on your dog's behalf; you sound like a very dedicated "mom".

Shadow chasing can be a real problem.  It can be the manifestation of an overly refined genetic herding characteristic, or it could be a sign of some degree of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.  They’re similar problems, but one is more severe than the other and may benefit from medical treatment.  Either way you’re smart to intervene, because regardless of the root cause, this type of behavior is self-reinforcing and will get worse without intervention.

It is generally a good idea to start with the most likely/most common problem before jumping to the conclusion of a true behavior disorder. So I will first address the possibility of a refined genetic instinct and the possibility of under-stimulation. It sounds like your dog is a very "hard worker" and is looking for employment. As a herder her first outlet was to chase (nip) people and cars.  You put the kibosh on that (rightly so) and, not unlike a pressure cooker, she needs a new outlet for the energy she has and the activity she is compelled to do. It sounds like she has decided shadow chasing is the way to go.

I know you said your dog is getting plenty of exercise and daily training, but I would like to know a little bit more about that, because “plenty” is a subjective term, and the amount of exercise required will vary from dog to dog. A young Blue Heeler most likely requires 45-90 minutes of intense activity on a daily basis. This exercise should be a focused activity, not just running around willy-nilly. I recommend retrieve games such as fetch with a ball or Frisbee (Heelers excel at Frisbee), or controlled long-range hikes of at least 4 miles a day. Another great option is to join an agility class.  Chances are she will both enjoy it and excel in the sport as well. Training and mental stimulation are an important ingredient to having a happy working dog. A tricks class or the video series Take A Bow Wow (available at will give you hours of entertainment and keep your girl busy. Because you have goats, she can also herd as an activity if you control it, you can stop her, and she is not traumatizing the goats with inappropriate behavior. If you don't know how to control her while herding please find a qualified herding instructor before allowing her to herd.

Another important part of the solution is to make sure your dog is given a daily project by giving her all of her meals in food dispensing toys. This will give her a project with a real purpose, and a high-value reward every single day. Please see Open Paw's information on Chewing and The Magic of Chew toys for more detailed information on this topic. The important thing to remember is that all of your dog's daily food ration should come from these toys. Here at the links to the appropriate pages on the Open Paw website:

It is also essential that your active girl learns how to slow down and relax. Too much activity and over-stimulation will feed itself and become a merry-go-round that your poor girl can't stop. To make sure she knows how to relax and chill out I recommend following Open Paw's instructions for Alone Time and Confinement:

Follow the recommendations above and also redirect her to a more desirable activity, such as a food-stuffed chew toy, a trick, or game of fetch, whenever you see her shadow chasing.  Confine her with her chew toy projects when she is alone so that she doesn’t have the opportunity to practice shadow chasing in your absence. Do this (long term confinement) for at least 6 months to get her out of the habit of shadow chasing when she has nothing else to do.

If you follow these recommendations and still have a problem you may need to seek the help of a veterinary behaviorist to prescribe medication to help resolve the problem. I am happy to help you find a behaviorist in your area if necessary.

Good luck!


Dear Open Paw:
I love to take my dog for long hikes or to the dog park, and she’s great with people and other dogs. The problem is that she never comes when she’s called! How can I train her to come to me when I call her?

– Abandoned at the Park
Dear Abandoned,
Dogs have a very difficult time coming when called at the park, where there are so many interesting things around. Every time the dog is not under the control of her guardian, though, she is in danger. She needs to be taught to return to you pronto when you call her. First, don’t let her off leash in a public place until she reliably comes when called in the backyard, on leash, and in class. Begin small: the backyard or even indoors. Start from fairly close to the dog when she’s not distracted and say in a low voice “Come here.” Waggle a treat and, when she comes to you, praise her and offer the treat. Then tell her to “go play,” let her go back to what she was doing for a bit, then call her again. With lots of repetitions, she begins to learn that coming when called does not mean that the fun is over. On the contrary, coming when called means it’s time for a treat, a quick pat, and then more fun. Once she reliably comes from a short distance, begin to gradually increase the distance. Practice this “low impact” recall in various safe places, e.g., a friend’s fenced yard, a local tennis court after hours, or different parts of the house. Now begin to practice around distractions, such as toys and other dogs.

Start with short recalls, and then gradually increase the distance with distractions around until she can come from quite a distance away. As soon as she comes over when called, she can return to play some more, until she’s called over again for a treat and some praise – then it’s back to play. If she does not come even after hearing “come here” for a second time, you should either leash up the other dog and end the play, or remove the treat or toy that was distracting her. She will learn that, if she does come over, the play quickly resumes, but if she doesn’t come over, the game ends immediately. Gradually increase the number of distractions until the biggest distraction of them all can be tackled: the park.

Dear Open Paw:
I don’t want to take my cat to the local animal shelter, but she has just clawed and ruined by favorite armchair, the fifth chair in all. I can’t take ! this anymore. Can you recommend anything short of making that drive?
– Scratching Mad    
Dear Scratching Mad,
Take the time to teach your cat the use of appropriate scratching places and you will have provided her with a valuable skill that may save her life.

Prevent your cat from making a mistake by removing her access to anything you don’t want her to scratch. A great many cats will select a vertical surface over a horizontal one much of the time, so you must provide acceptable places for her to scratch. While she is learning her new skill, give your cat her own room, complete with litterbox, food and water placed in the opposite corner of the room, a place to sleep, and, of course, a vertical scratching post with safe cat toys dangling from it.

Using a simple phrase such as “scratch your post”, request that your cat scratch the post. At the same time, waggle a food treat high enough up the post so that kitty must stand on her hind legs to swat at it. When she does scratch the post, praise her and give her the food treat (the reward). After a few successful repetitions, she will go to her scratching post upon request. And, whenever you see kitty using her post of her own accord, be certain to praise her profusely.

Now you may allow her access to other areas of the house when you are able to supervise. Be certain she has easy access to a scratching post at all times. If she begins to scratch at an object that is off-limits, merely request her to “scratch your post”. Be certain to give her praise and a food treat when she shows you her newly-learned skill.

As your cat becomes more reliable, you may allow her into previously forbidden areas of the house when you are not around. Be certain she always has easy access to a scratching post. If ever she should resume sharpening her claws on non-approved surfaces, return her to her “errorless scratching post room” and give her a refresher course in “appropriate scratching surfaces 101”.

Dear Open Paw,
 I think there’s something wrong with my cat! All the cats I’ve owned have always known how to use the litter box, but this one won’t use it. I do! n’t want to get rid of the cat, but my house is becoming a disgusting mess. Can you potty train a cat?
– Litterbox Blues
Dear Litterbox Blues,
 A cat looking around her living space for a place to go to the bathroom is usually happy to find a litter box. “A-ha,” says your cat, “a tray full of particulate matter. Thank heaven there’s somewhere around here where I can dig a hole and bury my poop.” But cats are particular, and some are more particular than others. Cats do not like to poop where there is already a pile of poop, or where the smell of pee or poop hasn’t been sufficiently eliminated. Instead, he finds some other spot to go in: generally right near the litter box. Your first line of defense, then, is to scoop the poop as soon as you find it, instead of waiting until the end of the day. That way, the most ideal location is clean, and your cat can feel free to use it.

If that doesn’t work, your cat may need a refresher course in potty training 101. If you have an un-neutered male cat, you’ll want to neuter him to eliminate problems with “spraying.” To potty train your cat, you’ll want to set things up so that it’s almost impossible for your cat to make a mistake, and very easy for her to succeed. When you’re away (either physically or mentally) from the house, you’ll want to put your cat in a smallish room with a non-absorbent floor (like a kitchen, laundry room, or bathroom.) Put a warm bed in one corner, fresh water and stuffed chew toys nearby, and the clean litter box in the corner farthest from the bed. Animals do not like to eliminate near where they sleep, so your cat’s instinct will be to go in ! the litter box. While you’re at home, you’ll want to keep your cat confined to a small den such as her carrying crate. Every hour on the hour (or every half hour, if the cat is young), take your cat to his litter box and give him a chance to eliminate. If he does, it’s three high-value treats and some free time around the house. If not, it’s back in the den until the next potty break. After your cat has been using her litter box 100% for a few days, you can start expanding her range of the house. Eventually, your cat can have the full run of the house again, and you can have the enjoyment of your house again! 

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