I shared my workspace this week with a tiny dog—the kind of scruffy, cuddly-looking pup that makes you want to pick him up and carry him around with you all day. However being carried, or even held, is not on this dog’s agenda. He prefers to have his feet on the ground (or the desk!) at all times. His way of showing displeasure at being picked up is to wriggle and scratch at the person attempting to hold him. Other dogs and puppies I have met will stiffen, growl, or even snap when someone tries to pick them up, and the unfortunate consequence of these behaviors is that the dogs are usually punished. In turn that means the next time a person goes to pick him up, that dog associates being held with punishment, and he may lash out more aggressively than the first time.
I can’t state it more clearly than The Association of Professional Dog Trainers does in their statement against dominance in dog training: “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.”
Respect the growl. Pay attention to body language in general. If you suspect your little dog or puppy does not enjoy being picked up, or hands make him nervous, it is time to work on this problem in a constructive manner. First, make sure it isn’t a physical issue; that your dog is not hurting. Next, if you are picking the dog up to correct a misbehavior, please stop. Remove him from the “bad” situation with a leash or interrupt him by clapping and guiding him away from the problem. It’s important while you are teaching him to like being held that he does not associate it with punishment of any kind. Once this is accomplished, you can start counter-conditioning.
We teach “Lift” in puppy and small dog manners classes. Starting where the dog is comfortable, we pair touching with treats. This is touching the dog’s back, head, legs, belly and hind quarters. If the dog is loving this, we say “Lift!” and grasp the dog under the chest (not lifting yet!) and popping a treat in his mouth while the hand is still in place. Once he’s fine with that, we move on to just lifting the front feet off the floor along with giving him a treat. Finally, we scoop him up by supporting the rear and lifting under the chest just a little ways off the floor at a time, paired with treats (it helps to have a partner, especially if the pup is wiggly), until he is being carried at a normal height. If at any time the dog is uncomfortable with the procedure, we go back to where he was having a good time. It usually only takes a few sessions to have the dog begging to be held!