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Dog Gone Problems: Our dog growls and bares her teeth when we pick her up

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Dog for 12/4/19

David Codr's parents' dog, Schnapps. 

Dog Gone Problems is a weekly advice column by David Codr, a dog behaviorist in Omaha. David answers dog behavior questions sent in by our readers. You can reach him at

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Dog Gone Problems,

Our 14-month-old miniature Schnauzer, Callie, will sometimes growl, snarl and show teeth when we pick her up or move her when she doesn't want to be picked up. She hasn't bitten anyone yet, but we don't want it to get that far. We worry that someone who doesn't know she does that will not be prepared or pick her up in a way that she really doesn't like and will bite them. What can we do to prevent this action of the dog? Any help would be appreciated!



Hi Steve,

People often misinterpret a growl, baring of teeth or snarling as aggressive behavior. In fact, it's almost the opposite. The dog is communicating that she disagrees with something.

I mention this because many of my clients have scolded, punished or reprimanded their dog for those behaviors. The dog learns that the humans don’t like the warnings, which causes many dogs to stop warning and go straight to the next step — a bite.

Now, we obviously prefer our dogs don’t show their teeth or growl at us, but it's important we listen when they communicate with us. Sometime dogs growl due to pain or discomfort. Take note of where your hands are when you start to pick her up. Your dog may have a bruise or an injury in that area. If I had a broken arm and you tried to help me up by grabbing it, I'd certainly be growling at you in my own way. If you're uncertain, take your dog to the vet to have those spots looked at.

Provided you aren’t grabbing your dog in a way or place that causes her pain or discomfort, here is what I would do to solve this issue.

First, get some really high-value treats. I prefer chicken or beef liver for my dogs. Give your dog a treat and then reach your arms 15 percent of the way towards your dog as if you were going to pick it up. Pull your arms back (all the way to your sides) without making contact. Give another treat and repeat.

Each time you do this, reach a tiny bit farther (maybe one to two extra inches per attempt). However, if your dog offers a snarl, growl or teeth baring, back up and reach more shallow. The idea is to break the activity into small steps and help your dog feel good and positive about your movement.

Once you get to the point where you can touch your dog, it's time to switch things up. Make sure you can reach your arms out towards your dog all the way so you are making contact with your hands five times in a row (without picking her up) before this next step.

Reach for your dog, making contact with your hands and then your hands off and give your dog the treat. By swapping the order, we are making reaching for your dog a signal that she's about to get a tasty treat.

Repeat the same gradual process, picking the dog up in steps. The first few steps should be lifting her up slightly, but not all 4 paws off the ground. Go slow and make sure there is no lip curl, teeth baring or growls the entire time. If you get any of those, you pushed too far too fast. Back up a step and practice until there is no negative response.

If you want, you can start assigning a command word like “ride,” “snuggles,” “carry,” etc. Say this word after giving the treat and only once you are picking the dog up all the way.

Keep your practice sessions short and frequent. Maybe 10 treats per practice session that lasts less than one minute. Do this five or more times a day. Afterwords, going for a walk, playing with the dog or giving some scratches or belly rubs is a good strategy, too.

One last tip: If your dog consistently bares her teeth or growls when you reach for one part of her body, try another spot. This would likely be the case if there is an injury or other issue with that part of her body.

If you go slow — and there are no health issues — you should be able to help your dog actually like being picked up within a week or so if you practice as detailed above.

Good luck and remember — everything you do trains your dog. Only sometimes you mean it.


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