Why do dogs like to shake hands? Let's face it, seeing a dog shake hands is quite an endearing sight and we mostly like it because it makes dogs look smart as if they're adhering to our social etiquette. While there's no doubt about the fact that dogs are smart and adept to learning many amazing tricks, their handshaking is a far cry from our ritualistic grasping of one another's hands, accompanied by a brief up and down movement. Yet, dogs seem to sure like to shake hands, so much that some dogs would engage in pawing behaviors almost all day given the opportunity, so what makes dogs so prone to pawing behaviors?
The Human Hand Shake
Handshaking in human culture traces back to many centuries ago. If we look at ancient archaeological ruins, we can find proof that the practice of shaking hands was already practiced in ancient Greece, as far back as the 5th century BC. The traditional explanation though stems from the Roman times when the handshake was considered a gesture of trust meant to show that the strong right arms were not carrying any weapons, explains English zoologist and ethologist Desmond Morris in his book " The Naked Man: A Study of the Male Body."
Interestingly though, there may be more to that. Recent research now seems to suggest that our handshake ritual makes us closer to dogs than thought. According to a study published by an Israeli team of researchers, our handshake allows transfer of chemical compounds from one person's hands to another. Following the handshake, it was found that both men and women spent time smelling their hands, potential evidence that our sense of smell still plays an important part in our social interactions--quite like dogs, no?
The Dog Handshake
Obviously, in dogs, shaking hands is not the dog's way to say " I don't bear arms" as a dog's main weapons are stored in the mouth and not within the paws. Nor is a dog's handshake a way to greet and meet people as, given the preference, dogs would rather get a good sniff in some other places instead. So why do dogs like to shake hands?
First of all, pawing is a hardwired behavior. While some dog are more "pawsy" than others, dogs tend to use their paws when they want to move something or gain access to something. Training a dog to paw is therefore fairly easy because it encourages a natural, innate behavior. Secondly, pawing often gains a strong history of reinforcement once trained.
A History of Reinforcement
How are dogs trained to shake hands? For the most part through reinforcement, a training method that aims to increase the probability of a behavior to repeat in the future. Most commonly dogs are trained to shake hands by what is known as positive or added reinforcement. Positive reinforcement entails the addition of something immediately following a response for the purpose of increasing the probability of that response to occur across subsequent occasions.
Training a Dog to Shake
A dog is asked to sit and he is shown a treat held in an open hand. The moment the dog sees it, the hand is closed and the dog is allowed to sniff it. Since the dog cannot gain access to the treat, he will feel instinctively compelled to paw at the hand. The moment the dog paws at the hand, the handler says "yes!" or clicks a clicker and the hand is opened so to give the treat. Since most dogs love treats, the addition of the tasty treat will therefore motivate the dog to keep on pawing at the hand.
After several reps, the hand can be kept in the same position, but this time minus the treat, so as soon as the dog paws, the treat is given from the other hand. This is repeated several times. Then, the hand is kept gradually more and more open and the dog is asked to paw at the open hand. At this point, once the dog paws at the open hand fluently, the cue "shake" can be added, right before offering the open hand. After several reps, the treats can stop being given for each and every handshake and can be given on a variable schedule, which means every now and then.
While treats are a common type of reinforcement added to increase the probability of behaviors, there are other forms of reinforcement that can motivate dogs to shake hands. One of them is attention. Some dogs love and crave attention! To the point that they would do anything that gains it. Social pawing is an easy way for dogs to get attention, either to ask for something they want or to initiate play. People who see the dog trying to shake will likely make happy remarks such as "awww...what a good dog you are!" or will give friendly pats which are reinforcing to attention-seeking dogs who like these types of interactions.
Things Getting Out of Hand
For a good reason, certain trainers are hesitant to train dogs to shake; they hear many dog owners complain that the shaking behavior "gets out of hand" because the dog starts pawing at them or other people repeatedly for attention! This can lead to minor scratches or even more serious skin injuries. How can this type of pawing be discouraged?
There's a good way to prevent a dog's shaking from getting out of hand: bringing it under stimulus control. In other words, this means teaching the dog to shake only when asked to. When the dog complies to the request to shake, the dog is rewarded. Once the shaking behavior is under control of the vocal cue"shake,"any pawing behaviors that occur off cue (that is, without being asked) are either ignored or suppressed by the owner getting up and leaving. This often suffixes to send the dog a clear message: "pawing only works when I am asked for it, if I paw without being asked to, I do not get attention."
Putting Paws to Work
Once a dog learns how to shake, this opens the door to many further training opportunities. Pawing behaviors may lead to other tricks such as high five, salute, wave or paw targeting behaviors that can be useful to train a dog to paw at certain objects, push buttons on and off, file nails by pawing at sandpaper board or even playing a battery-operated piano. The sky's the limit to putting those paws to work, so take advantage of "pawsy" dogs to teach them a vast array of pawsy tricks.
Did you know? Dogs have paw preferences which are similar to the hand preferences seen in human beings. Therefore there are dogs who are mostly left-handed and dogs who are mostly right-handed.