Protect Your Dog’s Paws with Simple Training
Broken glass, extreme temperatures, and stinging insects are only a few of the many dangers your dog’s sensitive paws can encounter, even on routine walks. You can protect your best friend (and save yourself an expensive vet visit!) by training your dog to wear shoes. Following these simple steps, you'll be able to train your dog to love wearing their shoes in no time.
Why Should Your Dog Wear Shoes?
Not just for sled dogs running the Iditarod, dog shoes are a logical way to protect the health of your canine companion. They’re fast becoming a regular sight on city streets and hiking trails, with specialty shoes available for a wide range of uses. Choosing the right shoe is the first piece of the puzzle, but getting a dog to actually wear them without a fight can be another challenge entirely.
Here in Southern California, the air temperature regularly exceeds 100 degrees and the sidewalk can literally fry an egg. So when I adopted my rescue dog Banshee, I knew she’d need shoes to protect her tootsies from the scorching pavement. Shy, untrained, and wary, this 3-year-old shepherd mix needed some convincing, but thanks to positive reinforcement training, she now loves wearing her shoes.
Find the Right Treat to Motivate Your Dog
Some dog owners can get their pup to do complex tasks using regular kibble as a reward, and I sure envy them. Banshee needs a lot of coaxing to learn a new thing and knows how to hold out for the good stuff. Her training requires a steady parade of high value treats, and for a stray that mere months prior was eating garbage off the street, she’s turned out to be oddly picky.
After she didn’t respond to kibble and other traditional dog treats, I experimented with a few high-end, organic, and supposedly delicious treats. Not even the celebrated freeze-dried duck liver I offered her sparked the level of excitement from her that I wanted. Then I remembered that my dad had trained his cocker spaniels their emergency recall using simple cut up hot dogs. It was an instant hit! This unassuming, cheap snack was the ticket to capturing Banshee’s rapt attention and the first step on our journey to shoe wearing. But first, we had to address a major obstacle; Banshee hates having her paws touched.
Let’s Play the Paw Game
Teach Your Dog to Trust Your Touch in 4 Easy Steps
As an adult rescue dog with a mysterious past, Banshee understandably showed some fear-related behaviors when we first brought her home. Besides classic food aggression, she would also growl if we tried to touch her in some places. She quickly came around once we got to know each other and established solid trust (no, I do not in fact want to steal your bowl of salmon chunks and kibble!), but touching her feet was the highest hurdle we had yet to clear. Since wearing shoes obviously involves a lot of foot touching, we needed to revisit our training before we could continue with the mission at hand...er, paw.
It’s common for dogs to not want their feet touched, so don’t get discouraged if your dog pulls away or growls. You just need to establish new trust for this interaction, which you can do using something I like to call “The Paw Game.” (Spoiler alert: you’re going to be teaching your dog to “shake hands” on command.)
Step 1: Reward Your Dog Each Time You Touch Their Paws
Start by sitting on the floor to get on your dog’s level. The exercise will go more smoothly if you’re not looming over them, which can be intimidating. Lightly touch one of your dog’s forepaws while simultaneously saying your chosen marker word (the word you use to reinforce good behaviors, like “good!” or my favorite, “yes!”) as you give them a treat with your other hand.
Do this a few times with the same paw so they understand that when you touch them in that spot, good things are about to happen. Treat with one hand and touch their paw with the other so they’ll focus on the positive element of the treat, learning to ignore and accept the dreaded paw touching.
Step 2: Pick Up One of Your Dog’s Paws
Now that your dog accepts simple paw touching, let’s dial things up a notch. You’re going to pick up one of your dog’s feet while using the same combination of marker word and treat. The process should go like this:
- Pick up your dog’s foot
- Say your marker word (“yes!”)
- Treat them
- Put their foot down
Putting their foot down after each repetition is an important step to help your dog work up to longer paw holds. When you repeatedly and predictably close the exercise, you establish trust that this unpleasantness will be finite. This firm closure also discourages your dog from prematurely jerking their paw away before you’re finished.
Step 3: Gradually Increase the Duration of Paw Holding
Now let’s increase the length of time you can hold their paw without them pulling away. Keep a steady stream of treats flowing as long as their paw is in contact with your hand. Your dog will learn to associate paw holding with an awesome jackpot of deliciousness, all for the small price of letting you hold that foot. They might even begin offering their paw to you on their own in anticipation. This is great progress, and leads us to our final step in The Paw Game.
If your dog continues to struggle with having their paw held for more than a few seconds, don’t worry. Keep working on this step and don’t force them to move ahead too fast. Some dogs take longer to warm up to the concept than others, and that’s okay! It took Banshee two days at the same duration before we made a breakthrough.
Step 4: Assign a Command to Get Your Dog to Offer Their Paw
Now you’ll train your dog to offer you their paw on command. Repeat the process in Step 3, but add the command: while you’re picking up their foot, say your chosen command word (for Banshee, the word is “paw”). The process looks like this:
- Pick up their foot while saying “paw”
- Hold the paw and say the marker word “yes!”
- Feed them treats continually, repeating the marker word
- Paw down, treats stop
After a few repetitions of this exercise, Banshee began offering her paw to me whenever I asked! After doing this a few times with the same paw, I was comfortable introducing a second, separate command to offer me her other foot by simply saying “other paw,” which to her now means whichever paw we weren’t already touching.
It’s completely up to you whether you want to introduce a separate command like that. Given Banshee’s issues with paw touching, I felt it would be far easier if she knew how to hand me each of her forelimbs independently. Especially when dealing with the paws closest to her bitey end, I didn’t want to risk any misunderstanding.
For the back feet, I took a different approach. Since there’s no real comfortable way for a dog to offer a hind foot, my goal was to get her to allow me to lift it. I followed a slightly modified version of this step’s process: While she was standing, I lifted up her back foot while saying “paw,” gave treats and praise so long as I kept her hind foot raised, and stopped the treats when I set the foot down. This process told her, “Heads up! I’m going to be touching your foot now like we did with the others, so please sit still and you’ll get treats.”
Introduce Your Dog to the Shoes
By now you should be able to pick up and hold your dog’s feet without them protesting; with luck, they’ll be enthusiastic about playing along. Now the real fun can start as we introduce the shoes to your dog. Banshee’s shoes are Summit Trex by Ruffwear, which are slightly more heavy duty than a simple paw barrier. I chose these because our regular hiking locations contain the risk of cholla cactus and sharp rocks.
Start by holding out one shoe or even putting it on the ground so your dog can investigate. When they show interest, reward them with praise and a treat. If they’re too wary to come near, place the shoe on the ground with a treat on top of it and give them space. When your dog comes to get the treat, say their marker word to let them know that touching the shoe was what you want them to do.
In Banshee’s case, I also assigned a command word for coming to touch the shoe. When I say “shoe”, she gets a reward for touching the shoe with any part of her body, whether she nudges it with her nose or paws at it. Next, I have her lay on the ground, where I lightly place the shoe on top of her corresponding foot while saying “shoe.” As long as the shoe is making contact with her, I say “yes!” and reward her with treats. This is the same process as in Step 4 of The Paw Game, but instead of becoming acclimated to receiving paw touching, you’re teaching your dog to be comfortable in contact with the shoes.
Put the Shoes on One at a Time
By now, your dog should welcome having their feet touched, offer you their paws on command, and tolerate being touched by the shoes. Now we’re going try putting on the first shoe using a combination of the steps we learned above:
- Let your dog touch the shoe. If you have assigned a command word to it (like “shoe”), command them to touch the shoe
- Command them to offer you their paw (“paw”)
- While holding their paw and saying your marker word (“yes!”), slip the shoe on their foot, but don’t adjust it yet
- Reward your dog with a treat
- Release their foot with the shoe still on
Don’t worry about strapping the shoe on yet; first let your dog get accustomed to the sensation of having it on their paw. Once you’ve done this exercise a couple of times and they’re comfortable with it, you can adjust and fasten the shoe. Let them walk around in it and adjust further if necessary.
No Laughing Matter
Though it may be tempting, it's important that you not laugh at your dog’s silly walk while they’re getting used to the shoes. They’d never admit it, but dogs are very sensitive and know when they’re being made fun of. If you absolutely must laugh, excuse yourself and continue your praise, showing your dog the positive “way to go!” attitude that makes for a good training environment.
Don’t be discouraged if you don’t get all of these steps squared away in one day. It might take several training sessions over a few days or even weeks to get to this point. The important thing is to go at a pace that’s comfortable for your dog.
Combine All Steps
By now, the hard parts are done! Now you can apply what you’ve learned to all four feet. Your dog should be exhibiting the following behaviors that will yield their corresponding rewards:
- Investigate shoe on command, receive praise and a treat
- Offer foot on command, receive praise and treat (repeat 4 times)
- Stay still for each shoe adjustment, receive praise and treat
- Receive a final praise and treat for tolerating the whole ordeal
Before your dog goes out on the town with their fancy new footwear, you’ll want a break-in period in a familiar environment to make sure the shoes fit and that your dog has adjusted to wearing them. The last thing you want is for ill-fitting footwear to cause your dog pain or inspire a revolt halfway through a long walk. Let them wear the shoes casually around the house, or turn shoe wearing into a fun precursor to your short evening walks. Eventually, they’ll come to associate the shoes with fun times ahead!
As for Banshee, her next assignment will be learning to love her new backpack.
But maybe later.
About the Author, Nicole Dornsife
Nicole Dornsife is from San Diego and enjoys writing, illustrating, and spending time with her husband, Jeff, and dog, Banshee. She is not a professional trainer, but she is passionate about giving her adopted pup the best life possible, which starts with a close bond built on trust. Sometimes when Nicole thinks about dogs she gets weepy, but you can’t pet every dog.
About the Dog, Banshee
Banshee is a 3-year-old German shepherd mix adopted through the San Diego-based Labrador Retrievers and More in 2017. Yes, she lives up to her name. She was found wandering around the high desert of Apple Valley, homeless and pregnant with 12 puppies, clearly dumped by a previous owner and forced to live by her wits. If you’re hearing Sarah McLachlan crooning in your head, don’t worry—she has a loving home now, and enjoys frequent naps in the sun, chewing on bully sticks, and screaming at her adoptive parents. Follow Banshee on Instagram @banshee_dog