Some time ago, I was at a client’s home for the first time. Simon, her dog, was a cute Havanese who had been shaved recently, so he looked even smaller than usual. The owner had asked me to come out because he was afraid of thunderstorms, but while I was talking to her, she mentioned that he bites her when she goes to pick him up. She insisted on showing me the behavior.
As she bent over him, he lowered his head and looked away from her. Then she reached for him and he turned his head farther away. Then she picked him up and he licked his lips as he turned and tried to bite her hand. I explained to my client that biting while being picked up is extremely common in small dogs. Then I asked her the question that I ask every client who has this complaint about her dog: "Why do you have to pick your dog up?"
Really, there are only rare occasions when you have to pick your dog up. There are lots of ways to get little dogs into carriers, cars, and up onto couches and beds, which don’t involve picking them up. It is not a necessity at all in most cases, but is instead one of our expectations of our little dogs. Expectations can be changed.
But why is this so common anyway? Dogs weren’t meant to fly, that’s why.
The resistance to being picked up starts in puppyhood for some dogs. When most owners pick their puppies up, they don’t pick them up securely. For example, as I write this outside of my local coffee shop, a man standing next to me picked up his Cavalier King Charles Spaniel underneath his front legs and held him with one arm while he entered the shop. That is not a secure hold. Many owners hold the dog away from their body, flying it through the air. What could be scarier than that?
When a pup doesn’t feel secure, he is likely to struggle or to show his insecurity as Simon did. If you read the description above carefully, you picked up on all of the body language exhibited by Simon before he was picked up by his owner. He lowered his head to show that he was fearful of what was about to happen. Then, he turned his head away from his owner to give her a larger signal that he really needed her to disengage from him and step away. When she didn’t listen to him, he amplified the signal to a bigger head turn. When she still didn’t listen, poor Simon, with his infinite patience, asked her to give him space again with a lip lick. Finally, after all of that "talking," he tried to bite her. Puppies, who end up becoming dogs, who bite when being picked up most likely start out by talking to their owners as Simon did. When they aren’t heard, they will either accept this action as a necessary evil to be able to go on car rides and be close to the owner, or they will continue on to aggression.
If you have a small breed puppy, you probably got him partially because you wanted to carry him around. If you have an expectation of your pup which includes carrying him around, you should teach him to accept this and learn to carry him securely.
Practicing with a pillow or stuffed animal, start by learning how to carry a dog correctly. You will have to bend down to do this properly. If you can’t bend down by bending at the knee and the hip, practice with the pillow on the couch.
- Put the pillow on the floor.
- Bend down next to the pillow so that your hip is next to the pillow.
- Put your arm around and under the pillow.
- Scoop the pillow up and bring it close to your body like a football.
- Stand up.
Once you know how to pick up the pillow properly, you are ready to start training your pup. If you are able to bend down, you will start with your pup on the floor. If you can’t bend down, you will have to teach your pup to climb stairs in order to get on the couch so that you can pick him up.
- Say, "Let’s fly!"
- Put a couple of ¼ inch or smaller treats on the floor.
- Let your dog start to eat them.
- Bend down next to your dog and pick him up as described above.
- Hand your dog a tiny treat.
Practice this throughout your dog’s life. While you don’t have to use treats forever, you should use them for the first two months of training if you are practicing at least once daily. You will need to use them for a longer period of time if you aren’t practicing that much. Then, when this is an enjoyable interaction for your pup, you can intermittently reinforce him by giving the treat only sometimes.
Remember, dogs don’t fly, so if you want your puppy to like being picked up, you have to teach him!
Dr. Lisa Radosta