Do Dogs Have a Dominant Paw?

Do Dogs Have a Dominant Paw?

We can tell whether a person is left- or right-handed by their actions. Their dominant hand is determined by how they eat, open doors, play music, write or do many other functions. Dogs do not use their paws in the same way as humans, so it can be more difficult to determine whether they are right- or left-hands (or, more accurately, right- or left-pawed). It is even difficult to tell whether they have a dominant paw at all.

For this reason, AnimalWised asks do dogs have a dominant paw? We find out about what a dominant paw means for dogs and how we can tell which of theirs is most dominant.

Do dogs have dominant paws?

Some people may find it surprising, but dogs can indeed have a dominant paw. In fact, it is something which can be said of many animals. Dogs can be classified as left-pawed, right-pawed or ambidextrous. This is because the brain of a dog is divided into two hemispheres, both of which are responsible for processing specific motor and cognitive functions.

Depending on the dog's dominant hemisphere, it will prefer to use one leg over the other when performing certain activities or movements. For example, if the animal tends to use the right paw to touch objects, play or start walking, it is because its dominant hemisphere is the left. In this case, the dog is considered right-handed. On the contrary, if the paw of preference is the left, the dominant hemisphere is the right and the dog is left-handed.

This difference between the dominant sides of the brain is known as cerebral lateralization. The main difference between cerebral lateralization in dogs compared to humans is to do with percentages. Approximately 90% of the human population are right-handed, while in dogs it is about 50%. Only about 1% of humans are truly ambidextrous, i.e. they are equally proficient with both hands. However, it is believed this is use of both paws equally is more common in canines.

According to several studies[1][2], while female dogs are more likely to have a more dominant right paw, most male dogs are left-pawed. This could indicate that sexual hormones influence cerebral lateralization. However, not all studies have been able to corroborate this declaration.

Differences between left-pawed and right-pawed dogs

There are many studies dedicated to investigating the possible behavioral differences between left-pawed and right-pawed dogs, the equivalent of being left-handed or right-handed. Despite some quite revelatory results, further research is required to better understand the subject. This is because we are not yet able to confirm how exactly cerebral lateralization affects the physical, emotional and behavioral health of dogs. Part of the issue is the fact that many dog guardians will train their dog to lift a certain paw, biasing their natural impulse.

Below, we provide some of the most interesting results from these various studies.

Left-handed dogs

According to research dedicated to the study of canine cerebral laterality, left-handed dogs are mostly male[1][2]. In addition, according to an immunological study published in 2004, they have a higher number of total lymphocytes in their immune system[3].

In terms of their behavior, left-handed dogs did not obtain significant results in tests of behavioral problems. In this sense, cerebral lateralization does not seem to have a consistent relationship with the appearance of this type of problem[4].

Right-handed dogs

Right-handed dogs are mostly female[1][2]. They have a higher number of both granulocytes and γ-globulins[3]. In the study that compares cerebral lateralization with the existence of behavioral problems, only a positive correlation was found between the preferential use of the right paw and an increase in aggressiveness towards strangers[4]. It is important to note this study is not conclusive.

Ambidextrous dogs

There is less evidence about ambidextrous dogs. One of the most prominent studies on laterality and behavior did find some interesting trends[5]. It showed that ambidextrous dogs present more reactive and exaggerated behaviors when faced with certain stimuli, compared to left-handed and right-handed animals. Such stimuli include intense sound of thunderstorms or fireworks. This could indicate that reactivity is associated with cerebral lateralization.

If your dog is one of those who get very scared by loud sounds like those mentioned, don't miss this related article where we explain what to do if your dog is afraid of fireworks.

How to tell which of my dog's paws is dominant

At this point you will likely want to know if your dog is left-handed or right-handed. Determining which of your dog's paws is relatively easy. We can do it with some basic tests which you can try out on your dog at home. They are:

  • Ask the dog to give you their paw: this exercise might be obvious, but it is useful to know if your dog shows a clear preference for giving you their right or left paw when you ask them to. For this exercise, it is necessary to have taught the command for giving a paw, but not taught them to give a specific one. Do not point to either paw and keep your own hand in the middle of their front paws.

  • Hide food: take some food with your hand and make a fist. Place the clenched fist in front of your dog's nose. The dog will likely try to get the food by licking or nibbling your hand. There should come a point where they will get a little frustrated and start hitting your fist with their paws. See which one they use most often to try to get the food. For this exercise you can also put the food in an interactive toy and see if they push it with a particular paw.

  • Play tug-of-war: during tug-of-war with a rope toy, it's common for the dog to try to snatch it from you by grabbing it with one of their paws. They may even hit you with it to get you to let go of the rope. The paw they tend to use most will give you a clue about whether they are left-pawed or right-pawed.

  • Put something annoying on their face: for this simple exercise you will have to paste a sticker on your dog's forehead or put a hat or other object on their head. The animal will feel annoyed and will try to take it off with one of their paws. If your furry friend is not used to wearing a muzzle or does not like to wear it, you can also use this to see which paw with which they try to remove it.

  • Make them walk or go down stairs: when the dog is at rest, stand a few meters in front of them and call them by their name. Make note with which leg they begin to walk towards you. Another option is to make them go down or up stairs to observe with which leg they start the movement, since this will likely be the dominant leg.

  • Offer a chewy treat: many dogs hold their treats or toys with their paws while chewing to prevent them from moving. Notice if your dog does this and, if so, see which paw they place on top of it most often.

You must repeat all the tests several times and write down which leg predominates in each of the tests. If in all or in the vast majority of activities the dog preferentially uses the right paw, it means they are right-handed, and vice versa for left-handed dogs. It can also happen that your dog uses one leg sometimes and the other sometimes in a totally indistinct way. In this case, the dog is most likely ambidextrous.

Find out some information on how dog's use their legs with this article on why my dog keeps lifting their paw.

If you want to read similar articles to Do Dogs Have a Dominant Paw?, we recommend you visit our Facts about the animal kingdom category.

  1. Wells, D. L. (2003). Lateralized behavior in the domestic dog, Canis familiaris. Behavioral Processes, 61(1–2), 27–35.
  2. Laverack, K., Pike, T. W., Cooper, J. J., & Frasnelli, E. (2021). The effect of sex and age on paw use within a large sample of dogs (Canis familiaris). Applied Animal Behavior Science, 238(105298), 105298.
  3. Quaranta, A., Siniscalchi, M., Frate, A., & Vallortigara, G. (2004). Paw preference in dogs: relations between lateralized behavior and immunity. Behavioral Brain Research, 153(2), 521–525.
  4. Wells, D. L., Hepper, P. G., Milligan, A. D. S., & Barnard, S. (2019). Lack of association between paw preference and behavior problems in the domestic dog, Canis familiaris. Applied Animal Behavior Science, 210, 81–87.
  5. Branson, N. J., & Rogers, L. J. (2006). Relationship between paw preference strength and noise phobia in Canis familiaris. J Comp Psychol, 120(3), 176-183. doi: 10.1037/0735-7036.120.3.176. PMID: 16893254.
  • Poyser F, Caldwell C, Cobb M. Dog paw preference shows lability and sex differences . Behavior Processes. 2006Sep;73(2):216-21. doi: 10.1016/j.beproc.2006.05.011. Epub 2006 Jun 2. PMID: 16815644.