Why Is My Dog Growling When I Pick It Up?
Does Your Dog Growl When Being Picked Up?
If your dog is growling when he is being picked up, you may be wondering what may be triggering this behavior. There are several possibilities, but before going into depth on them, let's first see what your dog is trying to communicate and let's debunk some common myths. Behavioral problems often stem from a lack of clear inter-species communication, and all that is needed is to better understand what our dogs are trying to say.
First and foremost, it's a common myth that dogs that growl when being picked up are trying to be dominant. This is far from true. Many people still believe that their puppy or small dog is growling to say something like: "I am trying to rule this house and exert my power over you, so get your hands off of me, or I will bite you!" I have heard people make such claims even over a 12-week old puppy! To make things worse, vets, groomers or old-school trainers are often contributing to the problem, telling owners of these puppies to put the pup in its place and perform a scruff shake or an alpha roll! The scruff shake consists of grabbing the pup by the loose skin of the neck (scruff) and giving a shake; whereas, the alpha roll, consists of an outdated technique where the puppy is pinned down until it "submits." Both techniques are harmful, and the end result is a puppy who is misunderstood and only learns to mistrust his owners!
If you are seriously thinking you are dealing with a dominant puppy or dog, I ask you to re-think it over and look at what the important associations have to say. Reading the Position Statement on the Use of Dominance Theory in Behavior Modification of Animals by the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior is a good starting point. The Association of Professional Dog Trainers also offers a nice read and clearly claims:
"Dogs that use aggression to "get what they want" are not displaying dominance, but rather anxiety-based behaviors, which will only increase if they are faced with verbal and/or physical threats from their human owners."
The ASPCA claims:
"Techniques like alpha rolls, scruff shakes and other violent maneuvers frighten many dogs and can trigger defensive aggression. These techniques aren’t just unpleasant for dogs and dangerous for pet parents to administer. They’re also irrelevant to most behavior problems, and they can erode the bond between dog and pet parent."
So, if the puppy or dog isn't growling and trying to bite out of dominance, then why is he growling and trying to bite in the first place? Let's look at an example. You are in middle school, and a kid is teasing you. You tell the kid to stop it or you will tell the teacher about his behavior. The kid stops teasing you. Next time, another kid tries to tease you, you use the same technique, only that this time it doesn't work. The kid blocks your pathway, so you cannot go tell the teacher, so you're forced to use plan B. In this case, you push him out of your way. This works to help you make a point, and the kid leaves you alone for the rest of the day.
Something similar happens to dogs. Your puppy lets you know he doesn't like it when you pick him up, so he may try at first to hide or squirm away when he sees you looming down to get him. When you get a hold of him, he'll emit a growl. If you respect the growl, you'll likely let him down the moment you hear him, but if the growl goes unheeded, he'll also have to resort to plan B, which is trying to bite. When this starts working, he'll use this strategy more and more as the growling is getting him out of a bad situation.
It may be tempting to want to try punishing the dog for his growling or biting behavior, but this worsens things even more. First off, growling should never be suppressed in dogs as this in the long term will result in a dog who may bite without warning. How would you feel if you are uncomfortable being at the dentist, and the dentist would you strap you up, force you to endure the procedure and even slap you in the face for not staying still? Most likely, you would lose trust in the dentist and never want to go there again. Dogs who growl and bite when being picked up are trying to communicate something, are we listening? In the next paragraphs, we will see some common causes for a puppy or small dog to resent being picked up.
How to Stop Unwanted Behavior: The Positive Interrupter
Reasons Why Your Dog Growls When Being Picked Up
So, your dog growls when being picked up and you're wondering what can be done to stop this behavior. The most important question at this point is why is your dog growling when picked up in the first place? Until dogs can talk, you may never know exactly what triggered this behavior, but we can certainly make some assumptions that may even be accurate. Whether you own an adult small dog or a puppy, the following list offers some possible causes for this behavior:
If your dog has always been fine being picked up, but now suddenly he seems to resent it and growls, it may be you are dealing with an underlying health problem. It could be Rover hurt his front legs somehow, or he has some pain somewhere that causes him to be a bit grumpy when being touched certain ways. A vet check-up is always a must when you notice changes in your dog's behavior and cannot find a plausible explanation for it. Once health issues have been carefully ruled out by your vet, you can then consider a behavior issue.
Lack of Handling
All puppies should be accustomed to being handled through positive associations. These positive experiences will pave the path to pleasant vet visits, grooming appointments, and dog owners benefit as well as this paves the path to cooperation when being touched and picked up. These positive handling sessions should start at the breeder's home when the pups are still with their mother and litter mates. A breeder gets the young pups used to being touched and handled, and then it's up to the owner to continue these handling exercises during the critical socialization period.
Puppies and dogs who aren't accustomed to being handled and picked up will have a tense, rigid body and may growl and even attempt to bite when they're being touched and lifted. After all, consider that that lack of control when he's off the ground can be a scary experience for dogs not used to it!
A dog may be trained to tolerate or even enjoy being handled, but if something unpleasant happens when being picked up, the dog may then categorize being picked up as a negative event and react accordingly. For instance, let's say you are picking up a small dog, and as you grab him from the front leg and lift him, he squeals in pain. It wasn't your intent to hurt the little guy, but it's often forgotten how delicate small dogs can be. If you often pick your dog up to do something unpleasant such as a nail trim, this may be a factor too. It, therefore, shouldn't come as a surprise if next time, the dog will naturally be more reluctant to being picked up and may emit a small growl. Consider as well, that when dogs are restrained such as when they're being picked up, their flight option is taken away so all that's left is to fight. For more on this, read the fight or flight response in dogs.
If you are picking up your puppy or small dog to interrupt unwanted behaviors such as chewing your shoes and he growls and tries to bite you upon picking him up, you'll need to find better ways to interrupt unwanted behaviors. A positive interrupter may be a better option. See Kiko Pup's video on how to train this. In this case, your puppy likely doesn't like to be picked up because when you pick him up, you are putting an end to things your dog likes. And most likely, when you do this, you are also mad, possibly rough and move in an assertive way that can be intimidating and triggers defensive behaviors.
And of course, there is the typical nipping and play growling that you normally see in young puppies. If you are not sure if your puppy is playing or being aggressive, have a force-free professional come take a look at the behavior and help you out. Young puppies need to learn the ABC' s of bite inhibition and handling exercises.
Make Your Dog Love Being Picked Up!
Dealing With Dogs Who Don't Like to Be Picked Up
As seen, dogs may have their own reasons for not liking to be picked up. Whether you are dealing with a puppy or an adult small dog, you likely want to know how you can make the whole picking up ordeal more pleasant. Following are some tips.
- Always start with a veterinary exam to rule out any physical problems. Implementing behavior modification when there's an underlying medical problem will waste your time and money and will get you nowhere.
- If you are picking your dog up when he's misbehaving, train how to interrupt unwanted behavior by using a positive interrupter-- see video above.
- Recognize what part of picking up your dog doesn't like. Does he simply dislike being touched in certain areas? Does he freeze the moment he sees your intent in picking him up? Does he start squirming the moment he's lifted off the ground? Or does he particularly dislike it when he's up in your arms? Many times, dogs learn to dislike the whole sequence as they chain one behavior to another.
- Desensitize and counter-condition your dog to being handled and picked up. Have a force-free professional show you how. Divide the exercises into small segments and go very slowly. If your dog dislikes being handled, create positive associations by touching him briefly and immediately giving a treat. Touch should become a cue that a treat is coming. Repeat several times until your dog appears more comfortable being touched. Afterward, start lifting him up very briefly and give a treat. Repeat several times, for several days and then lift him up and put him on your lap. Feed treat while on your lap. Then put him down and no more treats. Finally, hold him up and feed him tasty treats, and put him down and no more treats. If at any time in the process your dog seems uncomfortable, take a few steps back and go more slowly. With time, if you are consistent and persist, you may see a conditioned emotional response to being handled and picked up!
- Learn how to pick up dogs the correct way. Start by approaching the dog from its side. Then, bend down and gently scoop him up, cradling his bottom so it won't slip downwards. Support his spine by gently keeping one hand across his chest while the other holds the rear. Never pick up a dog from its forelegs!
As seen, these are gentle, force-free ways to help your puppy or dog learn how to better tolerate being handled and picked up. With these methods, trust is instilled, and it paves the path to a bond between dog and owner. The goal is to transform a tense puppy into a puppy who looks forward to being touched and picked up. I originally wrote this up as a response to a Wikihow article showing how to alpha roll a tiny, poor puppy to show who is in "charge." Sadly, this article is still up and has been read 62,948 times! I hope this doesn't mean so many people are alpha rolling puppies.
A reminder: if your puppy or dog is showing aggression, please see your vet to rule out any medical problems and then consult with a force-free trainer/behavior consultant to ensure safety and the correct implementation of behavior modification.
Does your dog like to be picked up?
Correct Pick Up Technique for Small Dogs
For Further Reading
- A Guide to Dog Behavior Modification Techniques and ...
Successful dog behavior modification requires the correct implementation of techniques. Familiarizing yourself with dog behavior modification techniques and terms will turn out helpful.
- Understanding Dog Counterconditioning
Dog counter-conditioning is behavior modification technique that goes to the root of your dog's problem by changing your dog's underlying emotional responses.
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.
Questions & Answers
Why does my dog growl when I try to kiss him?
Dogs do not understand humans kisses nor hugs as we do. To a dog, approaching our face close to theirs is felt like an intimidating gesture. Dogs do not kiss each other, and putting one face close to another may be perceived as a gesture suggesting an impending bite. Please use caution and avoid putting your face too close. The growl is a distance-increasing behavior meaning that your dog is asking for space and doesn't appreciate such behavior. Ignoring the growl may lead to a future bite, please be careful. Never punish a dog's growl as it may lead to a bite with no warning. If your dog is aggressive, please play it safe and consult with a dog behavior professional using humane behavior modification methods.Helpful 10
Why all of a sudden does my twelve-year-old Chihuahua want me to touch or pick him up?
Some dogs as they age become more clingy. They start feeling more vulnerable at times due to not feeling too well, or they may not see or hear as well as before. Of course, this is just an assumption.Helpful 9
© 2014 Adrienne Janet Farricelli