I've been working professionally with dogs for over a decade. I'm a former veterinarian assistant and currently a certified dog trainer.
The Importance of Picking up Small Dogs and Puppies Safely
Knowing how to pick up small dogs or puppies properly is important. As a dog trainer and behavior consultant, I often stumble upon cases of dogs who do not want to be picked up, or even worse, dogs who growl and even bite in the process.
Don't make the big mistake of grabbing dogs incorrectly, and most of all, don't forget about involving them in the learning process too!
Here's the thing: dogs can be hurt if they are picked up the wrong way. Sometimes they are picked up correctly, but then they are dropped too high, assuming that the puppy or dog can just jump down. However, that's not always the case and there have been injuries caused by this.
Risks for Physical Injuries
There are many stories of puppies of small dogs being accidentally dropped, but often this happens because they are picked up incorrectly. Fortunately, more often than not, they just shake their fur and recover, but the potential for serious injury is often there.
Risks for Emotional Scars
Picking up dogs the wrong way may also lead to emotional problems. A small dog or puppy who doesn't feel supported may become frightened. A negative experience may lead to a dog who dreads being picked up, plays hard to catch, wiggles a lot, and in some cases, may even growl or attempt to bite when reached for or held in your arms.
I see too many videos of dogs being picked up the wrong way, roughly or with no conditioning involved and their body language denotes tension when you really want happy anticipation.
As the saying goes, "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure." Learn how to pick up your puppy correctly and create positive associations in the process.
Step 1: Learn How to Pick up Your Small Dog or Puppy Correctly
This section is dedicated to you, the dog owner, to learn how to pick up your companion correctly. This is how we were taught to pick up puppies and small dogs when I worked for a veterinary hospital when we had to place them on the examination table or carry them from their runs to the hospital area to prep them for surgery.
Please get familiar with the process first before trying to pick up your puppy or dog for the very first time, as you want your puppy or small dog to learn how it feels to be held in baby steps.
How to Pick up Your Dog Properly
- Bend down towards your puppy: Place your hand under your dog's chest area with your fingers protruding in the front of the chest area, and palm of the hand supporting the rear part of the chest, behind the dog's front legs.
- Lift your puppy slightly up.
- Help support your dog's back end with your forearm under the tail and your hand holding the back legs.
- Keep your dog close to your chest in an upright position.
You'll basically be supporting your puppy or dog's chest area with one hand, while you'll be supporting his back end with your other hand, keeping your forearm under the tail.
How to Place Your Dog Down Correctly
Just as it's important to know how to pick up your dog correctly, it's important to know how to place him back on the ground. Do so by gently accompanying his legs until all four feet touch the ground.
Step 2: Conditioning Your Puppy to Being Picked up
This guide is for your puppy or small dog who is learning about the process of being picked up. It's meant to allow your puppy to get accustomed to the sensation of being picked up, lifted and placed into your arms. The goal is to take baby steps and create positive associations through desensitization and counterconditioning.
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It basically combines the action of being picked up split into smaller components each being associated with something your puppy or small dog likes (tasty treats).
- Bend down towards your puppy and feed them a treat. Then go back to the standing position. Do this a few times. This is helpful because some small dogs and pups are uncomfortable when we loom over them. If your small dog or puppy pees when you loom over, you may be dealing with a case of dog submissive urination which needs to be tackled too.
- Next, bend down and place your hand under your small puppy's or dog's chest and feed a tasty treat while your hand is there. Once your dog finishes the treat, remove your hand. Repeat this several times, until your dog seems comfortable with this.
- Place your hand under your dog's chest again, and feed a tasty treat and lift your dog slightly off the floor. Once your dog finishes the treat, lower him down to the floor and remove the hand.
- Place your hand under your dog's chest again, and feed a tasty treat and lift your dog more off the floor. Once your dog finishes the treat, lower him down to the floor and remove the hand.
- Place your hand under your dog's chest again, and feed them a tasty treat and lift your dog more off the floor and place your other arm under his back end to support him. Feed him an extra treat while he's up in your arms (or have a helper feed them). Once your dog finishes the treat, lower him down to the floor and remove your hand.
- Add duration. Place your hand under your dog's chest lift your dog off the floor and place your other arm under his back end to support him. Feed him an extra treat or two while he's up in your arms and walks around. Once your dog finishes the treats, lower him down to the floor and remove your hand.
- Add a verbal cue (I like to use "up-up-up!") that tells the dog that you are about to pick them up and do the whole chain of behaviors, praising and rewarding with treats as you walk around. Dogs like routines, they like knowing what is coming. If you alert the dog of your intent, he'll be more relaxed rather than being startled by you suddenly swooping him up from nowhere.
- Finally, give a treat every now and then when you place your dog on the floor so he associates this part too with tasty food. Being placed down can be scary too for a young pup and some may struggle with this portion a bit.
If at any time you notice your dog is struggling with any one of these steps, split them into smaller sub-steps and do not move to the next step until he is fully comfortable with the previous one. Below is a video on the conditioning process.
How Can You Tell Whether a Dog Likes or Dislikes Being Picked up?
Generally expect to see some happy anticipation such as leaning on your legs, standing up against you, or jumping on you repeatedly, and even barking for wanting to be picked up. Once you pick them up, they act relaxed without acting restless and the expression on their face looks happy.
Dogs who dislike being picked up may play hard to catch, try to nip hands as you lower them or hold your dog into your arms and will wiggle a lot in hopes of being placed back down. If your dog growls when being picked up, you may find this read helpful: help, my dog growls when being picked up.
Here's the thing: working on these cases by tackling the underlying emotions is important. If every time you pick up your dog, he growls and tries to bite, and you let go of him, he'll come to learn that his biting and growling got him out of the unpleasant situations. Hence, he'll growl and bite with more frequency upon being picked up, or even as you approach with the intent to pick him up.
Avoid These Mistakes!
Of course, just as there are right ways to pick up puppies and dogs, there are also wrong ways. When placing your puppy or dog in your arms you, therefore, want to avoid these mistakes:
- Avoid grabbing the dog from the front legs or armpits. The armpit area is greatly innervated (there's the brachial plexus, a bundle of nerves that runs through the armpits) and therefore when you pick up a dog by the armpits, you stretch those nerves, which likely hurts and may lead to a yelp, explains veterinarian Dr. Vivian Carrol in an article for PetMD.
- Avoid lifting from the belly.
- Avoid lifting by the tail. I know handlers in dog shows lift some dogs by the tail but these are often dog breeds selectively bred to have a strongly built tail so their owners could pull them out of burrows when in danger.
- Avoid cradling your dog like a baby.
- Avoid dropping your dog to the floor even if from a low height.
- Do not pick up a puppy by the scruff of the neck.
- Don't allow your children to pick up your dog without first learning the correct way. Always provide guidance and remind them how to lower the puppy gently down until all four feet touch the floor. Supervise all interactions. Consider that young children may lack the manual dexterity to hold a small dog or puppy correctly, so keep this in mind to prevent accidental injuries.
- Avoid picking up your puppy and then doing something the puppy dreads such as being closed in a room by himself, clipping his nails or giving him a bath. With time, your puppy may play hard to catch because he knows something bad is about to happen. If you need to do these things, try picking him up, then feeding him several treats, then walking around with him for some time first. The goal is to break a bit of the association. Also, aim to make the activities he dreads more pleasant by creating positive associations with them as well (e.g when you close your puppy in a room give him a Kong stuffed with some tasty food or anything your dog loves).
Whoops! I Dropped My Small Dog or Puppy! Troublesome Signs to Watch For
It is always scary when we accidentally drop a puppy or small dog from our arms. Dropping from several feet can cause damage to fragile dogs such as fractures and head concussions. Many dog owners may, therefore, wonder what signs of trouble they need to look for in their companions after accidentally dropping them from their arms.
According to veterinarian Dr. Christian K, signs to watch for and that would require an immediate veterinary visit include the following:
- The dog showing signs of pain
- Staggering or an inability to walk normally
- Dragging the back legs
- Acting confused or 'spaced out"
- Having dilated pupils or pupils of different sizes, medical term, "anisocoria" (which can be suggestive of head trauma)
After the incident, close monitoring is important Keep an eye on your dog for the next day or so. Make sure your puppy or dog eats, drinks, plays urinates and defecates normally. If you notice any of the signs or any other abnormalities, please play it safe and have your puppy or dog see the vet at your earliest convenience.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
© 2020 Adrienne Farricelli
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on May 16, 2020:
Picking up small dogs may seem like an easy task, but as with everything in life we want to make sure to do so with safety in mind and making sure the dog is also happy being picked up.
Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on May 16, 2020:
You have some great dos and don't in this article. I don't have a small dog but I never gave much thought to picking one up. I appreciate all of your very good information.
Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on May 15, 2020:
I have learned of how to pick up a dog from this interesting hub. These tips are useful.
Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on May 14, 2020:
You always give such useful information for people to know, particularly first-time pet owners. Knowing how to pick up a small dog or puppy safely is essential.