Small breed dogs can be “left out” of a lot of training conversations we see both in-person and on social media, despite a large number of people choosing a tiny companion for their home over a larger sized dog. When it comes to small breed dogs who struggle with fear, overstimulated behavior, or reactivity, there can be a lot of judgment directed at the owner when they use tactics like picking their dog up to manage their behavior or safety. You may hear statements saying that this is “encouraging” or “rewarding” your small dog for their behavior, or that you are “taking the easy way out” from training them. Not only are these statements unhelpful and unfair, but they’re not true! Here are some reasons as to why picking your small dog up to manage their behavior can be really beneficial:
Should You Do It?
We are all for picking up small dogs as a means to manage their behavior if it helps them, their behavior, or their safety. With many reactive or generally uncomfortable/nervous smalls, thoughtfully picking them up as part of a management strategy can be very effective, and for many dogs, can give them a sense of security that they need or can get them closer to you so feeding (continuous feeding, marking and feeding, etc) can be easier to do. Generally, it’s best not to simply stop at picking your dog up, but instead help them out by asking them to eat or staying actively involved in comforting your dog or giving them positive tactile/verbal feedback if food isn’t available at the time. Management involves preventing the rehearsal of undesired behavior, so we also want to make sure that while the dog is being carried, we are also asking them to do something else besides react or become overly stressed about the trigger(s) in their presence. If your small dog is not taking treats or not responding to your feedback, this is information that the situation you are in is too difficult for their current skill level, and they need to be removed from the situation to decompress and calm down before trying again at an easier level. This could look like adding distance on a walk and carrying your dog away from triggers, carrying your dog behind a visual barrier so they cannot see a trigger, or walking into another room of the house while carrying your dog, for some examples.
Most of any small reactive or nervous dog clients we work with are advised to carry their dogs through sticky situations. In situations where a small dog may "ask" to be picked up by putting paws up on your legs or otherwise indicating they want to get closer to you, it is okay and recommended that you 100% honor that request and take pride in the fact that your dog feels comfortable enough with you to tell you when they need additional help! Some people may feel that this is overly “coddling” their dog, but this is not the case. It’s simply a dog communicating and asking for additional help in a situation they are not yet comfortable with! In the grand scheme of things, your dog asking for help is a far better behavior than trying to take matters into their own hands and aggressing at, or reacting to a trigger to try and defend themselves. In many cases, as your dog learns over time that you are there to help them if they need it, this will actually increase their confidence, rather than decrease it!
When Is This Not A Good Management Strategy?
Now, there are also times that picking small dogs up is not recommended to manage their behavior, but it isn’t for the same reasons you see some people complain about on social media in regards to it being coddling or enabling “bad” behavior. Those times generally include when any of these conditions apply (aside from obvious emergencies when you need to do what you need to do)-
The dog has pain-related issues or handling sensitivities- if the dog is lashing out or otherwise showing clear signs of discomfort around being picked up, I won’t recommend it and we will find a different strategy. Especially if we’re picking up a dog that is approaching or reaching their stress/reaction threshold, adding to it with something the dog already finds very physically uncomfortable isn’t really going to help.
The dog finds the restraint of being held overstimulating or worsens their reaction- I’ve had a few clients who had littles who went even further over the top when being held as a management strategy and generally had issues with restraint or barriers. Being held can activate feelings of barrier frustration for some dogs in similar ways that a leash, gate, or fence can. This can definitely be built as a skill if a handler is willing to work on it outside the contexts of when they really need the management strategy for sure, but that really depends on how deep the handler wants to go into training individual skills.
Being held is a means of behavior suppression- I’ve also seen some dogs who go dead quiet and still when picked up, and their people thought this meant the dog was feeling comfortable and safe. But, if you look at the dog’s overall behavior and body language, they’re actually more shut down than anything because they find being held really aversive and go almost into some form of a state of learned helplessness. Sometimes people think just because the dog went quiet, that means they are feeling better, but really the opposite has happened in that case. So, to determine how your dog feels about being carried requires some prior knowledge of your specific dog’s personality and communication signals to know how they’re really feeling about the management strategy.
But, what about times outside of a management strategy that you want to carry your dog? They’re so portable, and sometimes we want to cuddle them, or quickly move them from one spot to another, and may just reach for scooping them up into the air to achieve this. Is this always the best idea?
Generally, it’s best to limit the amount of times you pick your dog up in your day to day routine (unless your dog is “asking” specifically) just to ensure we are giving our small dogs as much agency as possible. This helps with keeping your relationship intact, and also helps prevent your small dog from developing any sensitivities to being picked up or carried when needed. It’s also important to note, that if a large amount of the time that you’re reaching to pick your small do up is to do something they find aversive or uncomfortable (removing from their favorite resting spot, carrying to get a bath, etc), your dog may start to develop a negative association with being reached for entirely, and this is how we create a small dog who feels “grumpy” about being picked up or moved and may lash out when hands reach for them.
Try to “invite” your small dog to get up and come interact with you, instead of you going to scoop them up in the air. This works best when you get down on their level instead of bringing them to yours: sit or kneel down on the floor, sit down on the couch with them, etc instead of standing and stooping over them from above. Pat your legs invitingly, talk to them gently, and ask them if they want to interact with you instead of getting in their face, and respect the answer they give! If they come over for petting, great! If they turn their head away or generally don’t get up after asking for a short moment, accept the “no” and give yourself a pat on the back for allowing your small dog to communicate with you appropriately about their wants and desires at that moment.
If you need to move your dog, say from a spot on the bed or couch, you can try teaching them a reliable “hand target” behavior to ask them to come and touch their nose to your hand for a food reward as a means of moving them in a “hands off” manner. Not sure how to teach this behavior? Check this video out! Although the dog in this tutorial is not a small breed, the training process works exactly the same for dogs big and small :)