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Why Is My Dog Growling When I Pick It Up?

Adrienne is a certified dog trainer and former veterinarian assistant who partners with some of the best veterinarians worldwide.

Dog growling and biting when picked up.

Dog growling and biting when picked up.

My Puppy Growling When Picked Up

If your dog is growling when he is being picked up, you may be wondering what is 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 interspecies communication, and all that is needed is to better understand what our dogs are trying to say.

Not a Matter of Dominance

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 often contribute 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of grabbing the pup by the loose skin of the neck (scruff) and giving a shake; whereas, the alpha roll consists of an outdated technique where the puppy is pinned down until it "submits."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. It may even lead to defensive biting!

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 reputable 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."

Dogs Using Their Words

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.

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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.

Don't Punish the Growl!

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 will result in a dog who may bite without warning in the long term.

How would you feel if you are uncomfortable being at the dentist, and the dentist would 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.

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:

Health Issue/Pain

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 in 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 will benefit as well as this will help encourage 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 littermates.

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 dogs not being picked up correctly 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!

Negative Experiences

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.

Negative Consequences

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 ABCs of bite inhibition and handling exercises.

Make your dog love being picked up!

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 him 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 him 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! Below is a video of the process.
  • 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 thousands of 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.

Further Reading About Dog Behavior

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Questions & Answers

Question: Why does my dog show her teeth when I want to pick her up off the couch (she isn’t allowed on it)?

Answer: Your dog's snarling is a distance-increasing behavior. She doesn't want you to come near her when she's on the couch, most likely because she perceives the couch as a favorite resting spot and you as a threat to her restful sleeping. If every time you come near her you are sending her away, negative associations with you being around her when she's up there are being formed. You can read more about this here:

A better option if you want her off the couch may be to say "off" as you toss a tasty treat to the ground. This prevents you from being a party pooper and also keeps you safer considering that a snarl may turn into a bite one day that you reach towards her.

Once she's off, it may help to place some bulky items on the couch so that she can no longer get up there and also training her to sleep on a mat instead. Here's how: You may want to enlist the help of a professional considering the risks for a bite.

Question: Why does my dog growl when I try to kiss him?

Answer: 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.

Question: Why all of a sudden does my twelve-year-old Chihuahua want me to touch or pick him up?

Answer: 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.

© 2014 Adrienne Farricelli


Adrienne Farricelli (author) on August 15, 2020:

Hi Lindsay, it's not easy to tell why, it can be a lot of things such as they way he's picked up, whether he trusts him more or has bonded to him more, or perhaps other factors such as the way you approach, your tone of voice, your smell (some dogs don't like perfume) and many other factors. Please don't take it personally, dogs can be that way, we can take steps to help them trust us more.

Lindsay on March 18, 2020:

Why does my chihuahua only growl when I pick him up and not my brother?

Patricia L Shelton on January 18, 2020:

My little 8 month old Maltesepoo growls at every thing brushing.grooming to to bite.and picking her up.She is very loving towards me most if the time.when we take a nap or at bed time.She loves people very affectionate with people.

I need help.plays well with other dogs.not afraid of anyone.

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on September 03, 2019:

Allison, please take a look at this behavior modification method. It should be done though with the help of a professional to play it safe and for correct implementation. Keep me posted on your dog's progress or if you have any problems. Post them under the comments section. Once you obtain a good conditioned emotional response, please consider classes to further help boost his confidence.

Allison C on September 02, 2019:

I took my puppy from a dog foster home about a year ago. I love him to bits; he has a great personality, and I feel that he loves our family so much. BUT, whenever I take him for walks, we have problems. He hates other dogs and other people sometimes even growls at us. My husband and I were thinking about taking him to 'doggy school', but then again, it’s extremely expensive, and the nearest 'doggy school' is far away from us. Maybe you have some advice? THANK YOU!!!!

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on June 02, 2019:

The article outlines behavior modification under the section "Dealing With Dogs Who Don't Like to Be Picked Up". This should be done with the help of a professional dog trainer or behavior consultant using force-free methods who can provide guidance and in-person coaching for safety (dogs who growl when picked up may bite).

Cess4034 on May 30, 2019:

How do I reverse agression/fear on a 5 month old puppy when trying to pick her up? My mother-in law told me to use scruff shake as punishment and now I'm seeing the negative effects of this "punishment ". Help.

Hannah on May 09, 2019:

My dog loves being picked up normally and cuddled. But when it is time for his nightly potty outing he absolutely refuses and aggressively bites at our hands. He usually will cry to go outside (including before bedtime) but when he does he immediately runs away and doesn't want to go out the door. He will also do this aggressive act before going on walks too. Once outside he is happy as ever and totally normal. We try to speak calmly to ease any anxiety but are not sure what else to do. What could be causing this aggressive aversion to the act of going outside?

Ashley on May 08, 2019:

I try to pick up my 8 week old dog off my bed and he started growling at me. What should i do?

Leah on December 11, 2018:

I rescued a 6 year old dog who is submissive to a concerning degree. He cowers or rolls over when we pet him. Additionally, he growls or snaps at guests who visit our home. How can I help him be less fearful and submissive with people and less aggressive with other dogs?

Michelle on November 19, 2018:

I bottle fed 7 puppies .I kept one she is now almost 3 mths she's aggressive she has bit me and drew blood. When I try petting her or picking her up she growls and tries to bite im so frustrated help what do I do im almost ready to get rid of her

Teresa on November 13, 2018:

My dog was attacked by his brother when they were really young, now when I try pick him up he growl and stares at his brother whuch causes a fight. Please help as I need to stop him doing the growling

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on November 04, 2018:

Try feeding the pup tasty treats as she is being picked up in step-by-step gradual fashion. Lower fingers in her direction, drop treats. Touch with fingers her body, drop treats. Put pressure with fingers on her body as if picking up, drop treats. Lift her a tiny bit and feed treats, lift a bit more, feed treats, lift on bed, feed treats, put on bed, no more treats. The treats happen only when she is being touched/lifted. If at any time she attempts to bite, you have gone too fast in the process. Go back a few steps until she's more comfortable.Wear gloves if she is hurting your fingers. Good luck!

Teresa mcnutt on October 18, 2018:

Our puppy is very small we have to pick her up to put her on the bed she bites our pingers and runs a short distance we remove our hands she runs back same thing over and over same trying to put her down once on the bed she loves it we have tried walking away and comming back a short time later no luck what should we do

G.Lo on August 06, 2018:

Thanks for the great information...

D on November 03, 2015:

Excellent info well done...

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