It’s so tempting to want to pick up and hold our puppies all the time – they’re snuggly, soft, and have the irresistible smell of puppy breath!
In addition to wanting to hold your puppy for snuggles, it’s often tempting to carry your puppy when they don’t have good leash manners or when they are getting into trouble.
However, if your puppy has started growling when being picked up, you need to re-evaluate the situation. In this article, we will be exploring reasons why your puppy may be growling when you pick them up, as well as how to teach your puppy to be comfortable being picked up in the future.
We’ll also be addressing when you need to seek a professional trainer for your puppy’s behavior, as well as alternatives to picking up your puppy so you can avoid the uncomfortable situation.
Why is my puppy growling when I pick them up?
The reasons why your puppy may be growling when you pick them up include pain, discomfort, frustration, and fear. If you address the underlying reason for the growling, you can start to change your dog’s feelings regarding being picked up.
If you think your puppy may have a problem with aggression, please read our comprehensive guide to puppy aggression.
Pain and Discomfort
If your puppy is picked up in a way that causes pain or discomfort, or is painful in general, then they might be growling to tell you they aren’t physically comfortable.
You should especially consider pain or discomfort as a reason for your puppy’s growling when you notice other signs that your puppy may be in pain, including hesitation in their movements or lethargy.
More obvious signs of pain may include yelping and limping, although dogs can be very good at hiding their discomfort.
Pain is often the reason for sudden growling, when your puppy has normally been comfortable with being carried in the past.
Your dog might physically be comfortable being carried, but still not enjoy the process.
It can be frustrating to be carried when you want to explore the world! It also just might be more awkward than walking on their own.
However, if your dog is growling because you are picking them up when they are sleeping, it’s best to avoid picking them up when they are sleeping at all. It can be scary!
Instead, try to lightly wake your dog up before proceeding with picking up your puppy.
If your puppy is only growling when kids or one specific family member picks them up, it can be tempting to assume that your puppy must have had a bad experience with them in the past.
While this can certainly be true, your puppy might just not enjoy the awkward way that kids hold them, or might not trust a specific family member as much in general. Both of these can be changed with training, for both the puppy and the person.
The context in which you are picking up your puppy can also play a role in their behavior. For example, if you pick up your puppy in the bathroom in order to give them a bath, they might resist being carried when in the bathroom.
If this is the case for your puppy, you’ll want to practice having positive associations with being carried in that context.
You can also teach your puppy to be comfortable with having a bath, so they aren’t worried about being carried to the bathtub.
If you’ve ruled out pain and discomfort as a medical reason for your puppy growling when being picked up, you’ll want to follow the steps outlined in the rest of the article to teach your puppy to enjoy being picked up.
If your puppy has had a bad experience in the past with a person, they will likely have a fear of being picked up. They will want to protect themselves and so will give their warning by way of a growl.
If this is the case, then it will take time to build trust in your puppy. This is achieved through lots of treats during play, petting, and eventually, picking up. But don’t rush to pick them up if they’re having a fear response. This will be a slow process.
And giving them lots of love during this time is vital.
The worst thing you can do is force the process and pick up your puppy no matter what. Scolding them for this behavior will only create a fearful dog and fear will present itself in troublesome behaviors later on. Behaviors that can be become very difficult to teach out of your dog.
How to teach your puppy to enjoy being picked up
If you think about times when you pick up your puppy, it often comes with little warning to your dog. This can make it a scarier and more uncomfortable experience for your puppy.
One of the most important steps to teaching your puppy to enjoy being picked up is to put it on a cue. This cue will alert your puppy to the fact that they are about to be picked up, and it can help them feel more comfortable with the process.
The first step in teaching your dog a cue for being picked up is to decide what you want to call it. “Boost”, “up”, “ready”, etc. are some options, but you’ll want to use whatever you’ll easily remember and won’t say too often otherwise.
Next, pair this cue word with being picked up for just a moment, and give them treats!
Here is the action to teach a cue:
Give your cue
Pick up your puppy
Feed a treat
Set your puppy down
With practice, your puppy will start to anticipate that this cue will mean you’re about to pick them up and feed treats, so it’s nothing to be worried about. In fact, it’s something to love doing!
You’ll want to make sure your puppy stays happy and engaged in this process. If your puppy is backing away when you try to pick them up, it’s a sign that they are nervous about being picked up.
Instead, we want our puppies excited enough that they are at our side and ready when given the cue.
Placing them down
You can also use setting your puppy down as a reward for calm behavior when being held. While it’s not advised that you struggle against your puppy and continue to hold them, you can try to catch them in calm moments to set them down, instead of waiting for them to start to struggle.
By picking your puppy up for a short period of time, and setting them down when they are calm, they will also learn that being picked up doesn’t have to ruin their fun.
Sometimes, your puppy might not want to be picked up because they want to continue engaging in the activity they are doing, or because they are having fun and don’t want the fun to end!
Instead of only picking your puppy up to remove them from situations they enjoy, practice randomly picking your puppy up for a brief moment and then letting them go right back to their fun activity.
As your puppy becomes comfortable with being carried, you can start to teach your puppy to tell you when it’s OK to pick them up. This is called a voluntary behavior, and Amber with Summit Dog Training has some great tips for this process – and even a video – in her blog post on the topic.
Important: If your puppy is uncomfortable just with being touched, you’ll need to back up further in your training process.
Teach them to love being touched
Instead of starting with picking your puppy up and feeding treats, you’ll want to start just with touching your puppy and feeding treats.
At first, this means you should only be reaching towards your puppy and touching them where they are comfortable. If your puppy is backing up away from you, growling, or snapping, this means you are going too fast in the process.
Once your puppy is comfortable being touched, you can start to wrap your arm under your puppy as though you were going to carry them. Make sure to continue feeding treats as you do so, to make the process enjoyable for your puppy.
If there’s a particular family member who your puppy has decided they don’t like very much, they will need to follow this process to gain trust and teach them that they’re a friend who will give them treats.
Finally, you’ll be able to start picking your puppy up for a brief moment. Some dogs may need this process broken down even further, such as by only picking up your puppy for a moment so their front legs are off the ground and their back legs are still touching the ground.
Slow and steady wins the race is a saying that really holds true in dog training, especially when working on a cue that you will use for the rest of your dog’s life.
How to stop your puppy from growling when you pick them up
If you don’t yet have a problem with your puppy growling, or the problem is mild, there are several other steps you can take to make your puppy more comfortable with the process.
Teaching your small dog to be picked up on cue is still an important step, but there are others you can add in as well!
Sleeping and Unaware Puppies
First, you’ll want to avoid picking up your puppy when they are unaware. This includes picking up sleeping dogs. The surprise of being lifted into the air can be a cause of concern for many puppies.
By making sure that your puppy sees your hands, and is aware of what’s coming next, you’ll avoid accidentally surprising your puppy when you pick them up.
In some cases, you can wake up your dog by gently petting them before picking them up. However, if your dog is likely to still growl or bite at any form of physical contact waking them up, you’ll want to try something different.
Simply making some noises, by noticeably walking across the floor or talking, can help wake up your puppy. You can also try moving the bed or couch cushion that they are sleeping on first.
Naughty Puppy Pick-ups
You can also help keep your puppy comfortable with being carried and picked up by only picking them up when it’s absolutely necessary. It’s easy to scoop up puppies that are getting in trouble, but there are other ways to redirect troublesome puppies as well.
Rather than picking your puppy up when you catch them chewing on something, practice redirecting your puppy to something else instead, or removing the object they are chewing on from their vicinity.
This is especially true if your puppy won’t remain small forever. While small dogs will benefit from being trained to be picked up on a cue for the rest of their lives, a larger dog may quickly outgrow the ability to be carried.
Rather than relying on carrying your puppy out of trouble when they’re small, and having to change tactics when they grow up, it’s easiest to start with a training method that applies to their adult size as well.
The redirection of behavior is the best method for this, so be sure to have lots of toys around that you can easily access.
What to do when your puppy growls when you pick them up
If your puppy is growling when you pick them up, you’ll want to follow the training and management information in this article for dealing with future situations of growling.
However, in the moment, the best thing to do is to put your puppy down if it is safe to do so.
Growling is a warning sign that your puppy is uncomfortable with the situation, and may bite if pushed any further. It’s best to respect this warning sign, so you don’t end up with a bite injury.
Continuing to hold your puppy or pick them up again is only going to teach them that growling doesn’t work, and make your puppy more likely to bite in the future.
TIP: Don’t scold your puppy for growling. This is their way of giving a warning. If you train it out of them, they have no warning signal and can go directly to a bite.
Alternatives to picking your puppy up
While it’s easy to pick up your small dog or puppy to move them places, there are several alternatives to picking up your puppy that can help them avoid learning that being carried is scary or uncomfortable.
One reason for picking up our puppy is to quickly move from one place to another. Instead of relying on carrying your puppy, think of this moment as ideal training time!
Your puppy won’t be small forever, so it’s ideal to teach your puppy how to walk nicely on a leash and follow you wherever you go from a young age.
Taking a few extra moments to make sure your puppy follows you by talking to your puppy and offering a treat is a great way to start this process.
Along similar lines, it’s also important to avoid letting your puppy pull on the leash. Instead of letting your puppy pull, you should turn the opposite direction while calling your puppy back to your side.
Once your puppy is back with you, continue to reward them for choosing to stay at your side. It may take a little longer to get into the vet’s office or puppy class, but practicing in these situations sets your puppy up for a lifetime of success.
Read our post on leash pulling to correctly train your puppy not to pull on their leash. Although this post is centered around the Beagle breed, the process is the same for all breeds.
Resource guarding growling
Another reason for picking your puppy up is if they’re getting into trouble, digging in trash, or eating something they shouldn’t.
Instead, unless their safety is immediately at risk, this is the perfect opportunity for practicing trading your puppy the object they are chewing for something else, or calling them away from a potentially troublesome situation.
Trading your puppy for objects they have, such as a shoe, or using a treat to reward your puppy for moving off the couch or bed when asked, is a great way to prevent resource guarding from your puppy in the future.
In fact, if your puppy is growling only when you go to pick them up from the bed to move them, they likely aren’t as uncomfortable with being picked up as they are displaying resource guarding behaviors.
Resource guarding occurs when a dog is worried that you will take away something they have and want. In this example, the dog is comfortable on the bed and doesn’t want to lose their cozy spot.
Pretend that you are the dog in this case. If your partner came to bed and picked you up to put you on the floor instead, you’d also likely be irritated!
You can help prevent (or change) this behavior by teaching your puppy an on and off cue, to ask them to jump on and off of furniture when asked.
In addition, practice rewarding your puppy specifically for jumping onto the floor, so that leaving the bed doesn’t become something your dog hates.
You can also help by making sure your puppy has their own comfortable and cozy place to sleep, such as their own bed or a couch or chair they are allowed to sit on.
When you ask your puppy to leave their place on the bed, you can also redirect them to this other place so they have another comfy place of their own.
When to seek professional help
If your puppy is growling every single time you pick them up, or if your puppy has bitten you when you’ve picked them up, it’s time to seek help from a professional trainer.
This type of aggression is abnormal for puppies, and it’s best to get a professional involved right away to avoid any further damage and to get a proper assessment of the situation.
There are some cases where this more extreme behavior is due to your puppy’s genetics, their prior learning history, or a variety of other circumstances.
Not only can a professional trainer help you identify the reasons your puppy may be growling or biting when you pick them up, but they will be able to help you problem solve ways to fix your puppy’s behavior.
When working with a professional trainer, such as a Karen Pryor Academy graduate or a Certified Professional Dog Trainer, they will be able to help you form a complete behavior modification plan specifically for your puppy.
In the meantime, if your puppy is growling at only one person in your family and not another, it’s best to have said person completely avoid picking up the puppy. If your puppy has been growling at kids, it’s best to keep them away from kids.
This management – avoiding the situation where the puppy is growling and may feel the need to bite – is important in any effective behavior modification protocol.
By starting this process right away, you’ll not only keep everyone safer, but have a jump start when you do work with a professional.