From a dog's perspective, being picked up and held can be a scary experience. From your dog's view, he's hovered over before long arms reach out to abruptly snatch him off the ground. If he's picked up roughly, chances are, he'll feel discomfort or pain. Once in your arms, he's prevented from moving freely. Determining if a dog likes being held or not requires a look into canine body language and communication.
Hold Me Please
A dog who loves to be held and pampered will often let you know by moving his body closer to you for better access and begging you to be picked up. Some dogs may be less blunt in their displays, but generally signs a dog wants to be held may include whining, barking, leaning or standing up against you, pawing at you or simply coming into your space and making eye contact. Once picked up, dogs who enjoy being held, will often stay relaxed in your arms and some may solicit petting.
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When being held, look for relaxed body language signaling your dog is enjoying the interaction such as soft eyes and relaxed mouth.
Leave Me Alone
Dogs have the uncanny ability of being very observant and they're often capable of anticipating your next move. A dog who dislikes being held often understands your intent to pick him up and moves away sometimes heading to his favorite hiding spots. Your dog is telling you that he'd rather be left alone. Other "leave me alone signs" include leaning away, cowering, yawning, lip-licking, turning the head, showing the white of the eyes, pulling the lips back or lifting a paw. More obvious signs include growling, barking, whining and snapping at your outreached hands.
Forcibly picking up a dog who doesn't want to be held may cause stress and the activation of a dog's fight or flight response. Depending on your dog's temperament, he may decide to wiggle in hopes of freeing himself or he may act defensively, which can even lead to a bite. If your dog acts aggressively, consult with a dog behavior professional.
Dog in Conflict
Some dogs may have mixed feelings about being held because they were subjected to something unpleasant once in their owner's arms, such as having their nails trimmed or being handled roughly. Through associative learning these dogs may therefore start associating being held with the negative experience and develop conflict as seen in the following scenarios:
- Dogs who want to be picked up but then become restless after a while and want down.
- Dogs who show signs of approach-avoidance conflict. They show signs of wanting to be picked up and held, but then as they're approached, they move away.
- Dogs who don't mind being held, but aren't too fond about being picked up.
If your dog used to like being held and suddenly doesn't, see your vet to rule out a medical condition such as a spinal or orthopedic problem. Even loss of eyesight or hearing can cause a dog to startle and dislike being picked up and held.
Making it Pleasant
Dogs can be taught to enjoy being held, but this often requires time and patience. The best approach is by slowly desensitizing them by splitting the action of being picked up and held into smaller components and turning each of them into a positive experience through a process known as counterconditioning:
- Learn how to properly pick up your dog.
- Split the action of picking up your dog and holding him into small, progressive steps.
- Use your clicker to mark each step and reward with high-value treats.
- Repeat several times before moving to the next step.
- Start putting all steps together until you have the finished action.
If your dog doesn't like you looming over him, instead of picking your dog up from a standing position, sit on the couch, coax him to jump on the couch next to you and pick him up from there.