Why Did My Dog Bite When We Tried to Remove a Thorn From His Paw?

It is very common for dogs to struggle with their paws being handled, but there are ways to turn it into a positive experience.

Why Did My Dog Bite When We Tried to Remove a Thorn From His Paw?
It is very common for dogs to struggle with their paws being handled, but there are ways to turn it into a positive experience.


My Dog Attacks When a Thorn Is Removed From His Paw

"We have a 4-year-old, rescued, deaf red heeler. He has been with us for 3 years now. We've never had a heeler and have learned that they are very different. Although loyal and loving, he was very badly abused as a puppy and sometimes bites. We don't have cattle, so he can't fulfill his "job."

My husband was walking him on a leash when the dog got a thorn in his foot. My husband went to help him, and the dog attacked him. This has happened before, and my husband is fed up with him. My husband says he's done with him and we need to get rid of him. The dog has been through training. I don't think any rescue would take him due to his aggressions. Do you have any ideas? Thank you." —Kathy

Dogs Do Not Like Having Their Paws Touched

If your red heeler is attacking your husband when a thorn is removed from the paw, consider that many dogs struggle with having their paws handled. Again, it’s important to make safety a top priority, and if the bites are damaging, the situation can be critical. Even in this case, there are several options available.

A Word About Dog Paws

Many dogs struggle with having their paws touched. This is why it’s important to put a great emphasis on getting puppies used to being handled from a young age. Almost all dogs dislike having their paws touched, which starts to make sense if we take a closer look at a dog’s anatomy and the function of their paws.

  • They're Full of Sensory Receptors. First of all, a dog’s paw pads are lined up with very sensitive sensory receptors that are known as "pacinian corpuscles." Pacinian corpuscles provide dogs with the ability to detect minimal mechanical and vibratory pressure.
  • They're Loaded With Nerve Endings. The top of a dog’s paws are also very sensitive as they are loaded with nerve endings that fire off sending all sorts of warnings to the brain upon sensing pressure.
  • They're Critical for Survival. On top of this, a dog's paws play a critical role in their survival. Paws are essential for locomotion, and a loss of functionality in the wild would mean being deprived of the ability to hunt and possibly turning into some other animal’s dinner.
Your dog doesn't understand that you're trying to help them—they just want to avoid more paw pain.


Why Do Dogs Bite When Their Paws Are Touched?

Considering all these aspects about paws, it makes somewhat sense for dogs not to be trusting of having their paws touched. It’s almost as if they’re aware of the vulnerability of this body part from an instinctive, adaptive level.

Your Dog Has Had Painful Paw Experiences Before

To add insult to injury, carrying out procedures that may be uncomfortable or cause pain to a dog’s paws will leave a deeper, more lasting impression. Veterinarians know this well. Many dogs require sedation in order to have their nails trimmed.

Your Dog Is Trying to Avoid Pain

In this case, the function of the dog’s “attacking” behavior is to avoid, or at least attempt to forestall, an interaction that is perceived by the dog as aversive. Dogs don’t understand we are trying to help them, and they’ll likely think we are contributing to the pain (especially when fumbling with an embedded thorn that hurts!), so they will instinctively react by biting.

This Avoidant Behavior Has Been Reinforced

Because most humans will stop attempting to manipulate the paws when a dog growls/snaps/attempts to bite, the behavior “works” and therefore is reinforced, making future paw handling close to impossible.

With removing a thorn, things get challenging because there is always some level of pain going on, and it’s impossible to fully eradicate its aversiveness. There are, however, some options to ameliorate the situation.

Avoiding areas with thorns will reduce the likelihood of paw issues while out on walks.


Option 1: Long-Term Management

In this case, long-term management may entail taking steps to prevent the dog from getting thorns and otherwise lowering the chances for “attacks.”

  • Avoid Walking in Areas With Thorns. This could mean taking the dog on walks where thorns are close to impossible to encounter. Depending on where you live, this could mean driving to a town or city or areas where there is pavement.
  • Use a Bite-Proof Muzzle on Walks. To add an extra layer of protection, you can have your heeler wear a bite-proof muzzle on walks. This can prevent the instance of biting should you have to remove an unexpected thorn. However, it’s important to point out that just because your dog is wearing a muzzle doesn’t mean you should let him endure an unpleasant thorn-removing procedure.

The ultimate goal should be addressing any reluctance to dogs having their paws handled so that removing thorns no longer causes the same aversion.

The Flaws of Long-Term Management

Management can be difficult to implement all the time, and it is prone to failing at some point eventually. There's always a chance that you'll encounter a thorn or a piece of glass on walks, no matter how well you try to avoid them, and a muzzle may accidentally come off. Not to mention, a time may come when we may need to treat a paw pad wound or trim a nail.

Treat-training can help your dog create positive associations with their paws being handled.


Option 2: Behavior Modification

In this case, desensitization and counterconditioning can help by gradually acclimating dogs to us touching their paws under the direct guidance of a behavior professional.

  • Desensitization: Desensitization entails exposing the dog to a trigger or situation at a low-intensity level that doesn’t evoke the problem behavior. Care must be taken in not causing the dog to go “over threshold.”
  • Counterconditioning: Counterconditioning entails creating positive associations (often through the use of high-value treats like baked liver/chicken) with the goal of altering the dog’s emotional response so as to no longer feel motivated to chase/bite visitors.

Treat-Training to Make Paw-Touching a Positive Experience

It may start with very light paw touches, feeding treats contingent upon the touch (while wearing a bite-proof basket muzzle that you can feed treats through). When the paw is no longer touched, no more feeding treats. Treats always happen when the paw is touched, in an open bar/closed bar fashion.

The touch would then gradually progress to lifting the paw for a second, then lifting and lightly touching the paw pads, then lifting and touching in between the toes, always feeding treats when the paws are manipulated and no more treats when the paws are put down. Of course, this is just a general example; a behavior professional may add in several intermediate steps.

The goal is to obtain a positive conditioned emotional response and strong history of reinforcement so that if your dog were to get another thorn in his paw, he would be more cooperative as you feed him tasty treats through the bite-proof basket muzzle while removing the thorn as gently and quickly as possible.

Training Your Dog to "Give Paw"

It may also help to train a dog to voluntarily give paws through clicker training, but rather than a click, you can use a flick of a light from a flashlight since your dog is deaf. This may give him a little more confidence in having his paws handled.

Owner-Directed Aggression Can Be Curbed

Finally, some encouraging news. A survey conducted by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Radosta while at the University of Pennsylvania showed that 86 percent of owners reported an improvement in their pet’s behavior six months after their initial appointment for treating owner-directed aggression.

I hope this helps!


  • Guilherme-Fernandes J, Olsson IAS, Vieira de Castro AC. Do aversive-based training 756 methods actually compromise dog welfare?: A literature review. Appl Anim Behav Sci. 2017; 757 196, 1-12
  • Vieira de Castro AC, Fuchs D, Pastur S, et al. Does training method matter?: Evidence for the negative impact of aversive-based methods on companion dog welfare. bioRxiv 2019:1-34
  • Muller and Kirk's Small Animal Dermatology -by William H. Miller, ‎Craig E. Griffin, ‎Karen L. Campbell · 2012

If your puppy or dog shows signs of potential aggression (lunging, barking, growling, snapping, biting), please consult with a dog behavior professional for direct in-person guidance. Articles, videos, and general information provided online are not meant to replace in-person training/instruction. By using this service, you are waiving any liability claims or other types of claims related to any of your dogs' behaviors against you or others.

© 2023 Adrienne Farricelli CPDT-KA, Dip.CBST

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