Humans are either right or left handed but some can be ambidextrous which means they can use either hand to do things such as write and catch a ball. As a dog brain has a broadly similar structure to that of a human, it is perhaps not surprising that they too are right or left handed like humans. Or, perhaps we should say, right or left pawed. Here we examine why your dog s paw preference is important and how you can tell what it is.
Are Dogs Left or Right Handed?
Just like humans, dogs can be right or left pawed. In the human world, most people are right handed with only around 10 percent preferring the left hand and even fewer are ambidextrous.
The situation in dogs is different. Researchers have found that there is a more even spread of preference for the right or left side. Also, a larger proportion of dogs are ambilateral (ambidextrous) and are equally happy using both the right paw and left paw. However, the situation is not clear cut and studies come to different conclusions depending on the methods that the researchers used. Experiments that are carried out to establish whether dogs are left or right pawed are called laterality tests.
We also have an influence on our dogs left handedness. Some research has indicated that dogs become right handed in response to their human owners. They develop a right paw preference because this is the side that most humans prefer. We usually ask dogs to walk on our right side and give us their right paw to hold because we are right handed.
Do Dogs Have Dominant Paws and Why Does That Matter?
As a dog owner, you may have noticed that your pooch has a dominant paw but why is this important? At a simple level, it is useful when training them at home. If you want to teach dogs a cute trick such as offering you their paw, to high five you or even to wave, it is useful to know which is their dominant paw as they will find that easier to use.
It is even more important for agility training programs. In dog sport, a right pawed dog would be described as having a right leading leg. When they are running, right pawed dogs would strike the ground with their right front leg first, ahead of the left paw. The rear legs do not show dominance so it is best to ignore them!
However, the lead leg is very important when it comes to your dog’s ability to make a tight turn. It affects both their balance and how easy they find it to make a turn. The lead leg takes most of the weight and must be both strong and coordinated. To achieve success in agility competitions, you will need to establish your dog’s current paw preferences and work on the strength and co-ordination of the non-dominant leg so that their transitions will be fluent and injuries are less likely. It may also be important in the higher level training of guide dogs and other assistance dogs.
Can Dogs Be Left or Right Handed? – the Science
Studies have been carried out to investigate paw preference in dogs and to establish the biology behind it. One of these studies was conducted by Bari University and looked at paw preference in agility dogs. They found that male dogs were more likely to have a left pawed preference but female dogs were more likely to have a dominant right paw. Interestingly, dogs were slower at completing the weaves when their owner was on their left side. This may be because what the dog sees on their left side, is processed on the right hemisphere. Conversely, what they see on the right side of the body is processed as a stimulus on the left side of the brain.
Further research has discovered that dogs use the right hemisphere of their brains to experience emotions including fear, anxiety and aggression. They use the left hemisphere for carrying out tasks. Therefore, if they see their human handler using their left eye, it is likely to create an emotional response that distracts them as they are performing.
Interestingly, the left side of the brain controls the right side of the body, and vice versa, in both dogs and humans.
How to Establish Paw Preference in Dogs
If you are interested in finding out your own dog’s paw preference, this is quite easy to do. However, it is important to note that each of these tests can give different results!
The Stairs Test
Stand at the top of a flight of stairs and call your dog to you. As they run up the stairs, observe if they seem to prefer the left or right. Dogs will naturally use one paw to do most of the pulling and use it as their lead leg as they are climbing the stairs.
The Toy Test
Place a toy at the other end of the room from your dog. Then, command them to go and get it. But, just before they reach it, give the command to leave it and call them back to you. Do they turn to the left or right. This will indicate which is their dominant side but you may have to repeat this several times to get a clear picture.
The Lie Down Test
Simply observing your pooch as they lie down will indicate which is their dominant side. Dogs often turn in circles before they settle. If they turn towards the right, it means that this is their dominant side. Left pawed dogs tend to turn towards the left before they settle. Again, you should observe this on several occasions before reaching a conclusion.
The Kong Test
The Kong test is based on a study carried out by animal behavior researchers to investigate canine laterality. Get a Kong and fill it with your dog’s favorite food or treats. Then offer the Kong to your pooch. A Kong is designed to move around so a dog has to work hard to get at the food. They will need to hold the toy still with one of their paws. Observe which paw they use over several occasions. This should indicate which paw is dominant as they will prefer to hold it with their dominant paw.
The First Step Test
This method has also been used in a study that aimed to determine which side was dominant in guide dogs. All you have to do is observe which front paw your dog uses to take their first step when they move forward from a standing position on a level surface.
This also needs to be completed several times but it does not depend on your dog’s food motivation. Researchers found that in this test, more dogs showed a right paw preference than in the Kong test.
Food Dish Test
Another study placed food dishes at 45-degree angles on both the left and right. Dogs could eat from either but their first choice was recorded as an indication of laterality. In these tests, more than half of the dogs were actually ambilateral!