Dogs communicate with each other largely through body language and physical interaction, a method that sometimes creates confusion when interpreted by humans. For example, an owner might see a dog's behavior as playful when the dog is asking for something, or might view the dog's actions as threatening when in reality he's only trying to show affection. When a dog paws at your face, for example, he's typically not being threatening.
General Reasons for Pawing
People sometimes misinterpret pawing as an aggressive behavior, especially if the dog claws them or causes another type of injury in the process. However, pawing is typically a sign of friendly interest. If your dog paws at you, he's probably not showing aggression, but instead signaling that he wants you to pay attention or play with him. This tendency also could come from training. Some owners, for example, teach their dogs how to shake hands or high five. The dog might associate pawing with receiving praise or with bonding with his human companions.
Specific Reasons for Pawing
Dogs paw at humans for a variety of reasons, so it's important to observe your dog's normal behavior and consider the many needs he might be trying to communicate. For example, if his food or water bowl is empty, he might paw at you to get your attention in the hope you'll feed him. He might paw at you if he wants to play. He also might paw at you if he wants to go outside or go for a walk. Or he simply might be showing his affection.
Consequences of Pawing
When a small dog paws at your face, it can be endearing or nothing more than a nuisance. With a large or strong dog, however, the behavior can be frightening, especially to children or to people who don't know the dog. The behavior could be dangerous, particularly if the dog doesn't know his own strength or paws at someone much smaller or frail. A dog inadvertently might inflict serious harm if he paws at a small child or an elderly person who is weak or has delicate skin.
How to Prevent Pawing
Discouraging your dog from pawing typically comes down to finding better ways to direct his energy and teaching him other methods of communicating with you. It also requires not rewarding the behavior. When your dog paws at you, ignore him and refuse to make eye contact or otherwise interact with him for between 10 and 30 seconds. Dogs often touch each other with their paws during play, but when you're playing with your dog, stop play anytime he touches inappropriately you so he'll learn that's not acceptable.