Some dogs are picked up as if they know how to fly and most don’t like it. They show signs of stress and may even try to bite.

Article by Dr. Lisa Radosta, DVM, DACVB

Daisy has learned that being picked up is not pleasant. Notice the lip lick indicating stress and a desire to feel more secure.

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 pet parent 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 and then turned and tried to bite her hand. I explained 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 their 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, up onto couches and beds, and into cars that don’t involve picking the dog up. It is not a necessity at all in most cases, but instead one of our expectations of our little dogs. Expectations can be changed.


This worried pup’s back legs are hanging without adequate support. His tense and turned-away face is key.

Why is aggression due to being picked up 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 pet parents pick their puppies up, they don’t pick them up securely. For example, as I wrote this at a local coffee shop, a man standing next to me picked up his Cavalier King Charles Spaniel underneath the front legs and held him with one arm while he entered the shop. That is not a secure hold. Many pet parents 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 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 pet parent. He lowered his head to show that he was fearful of what was about to happen. Then, he turned his head away from his pet parent 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. Then, when she still didn’t listen, poor Simon with his infinite patience, asked for her to give him space again with a lip lick. Finally, after all of that “talking,” he tried to bite her. Puppies evolve into dogs who bite when being picked up most likely start out by talking to their pet parents as Simon did. Then, 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 pet parent or they will continue on to aggression.

Help! Please put me down! This dog is obviously not relaxed as indicated by his stiff posture and turned-away gaze. He does not feel safe or secure in this position.

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.

Start by learning how to carry a dog correctly. Practice with a pillow or a stuffed animal. 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.

  1. Put the pillow on the floor.
  2. Bend down next to the pillow so that your hip is next to the pillow.
  3. Put your arm around and under the pillow.
  4. Scoop the pillow up and bring it close to your body like a football.
  5. 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 or a ramp in order to get on the couch so that you can pick him up.

1. Say, “Let’s fly!”

2. Put a couple of ¼ inch or smaller treats on the floor.

3. Let your dog start to eat them.

4. Bend down next to your dog and pick him up as described above.

5. Hand your dog a tiny treat.

6. Repeat.

Winston is stiff, turned away, stressed, and unhappy. A moment later he will be struggling to be put down. A better alternative is to teach him to respond to what you want him to do instead of picking him up and placing him where he needs to be. Or practice picking him up properly, paired with lots of good things such as treats, so he begins to enjoy it.

Cody looks happy and secure!

Practice this throughout your dog’s life. While you may not have to use treats forever, you should use them for the first 2 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. Even then, what is wrong with making something fun for the rest of your dog’s life?

Remember that dogs don’t fly so if you want your puppy to like being picked up, you have to teach him!

Bella learned at an early age that lifting and carrying can be a safe and happy experience.

Instead of being picked up, Morgan has been trained to go to her bed when asked. Good dog! Good pet parent!