If your pampered pooch turns into a grumpy Cujo the moment you try to pick him up, you know something is wrong. Evaluating why this behavior happens is a good start, but you need to get immediate help before the problem gets out of hand. Growling may soon lead to biting, and then you'll have even a bigger problem on your hands, teeth marks included.
Before assuming your dog is growling because of a behavioral problem, start with a thorough veterinarian visit and mention the issues. Some dogs will growl when in pain and some will even try to snap. Your dog may be sore from a recent vaccination or have muscle pain, stomach pain or some sort of back or disc problem. If your dog has long hair, you may want to check for any mats in the area or signs of local irritation.
It takes a special technique to pick up your dog, and you want to do it in the kindest way possible. If you handle your dog roughly, you may hurt him, which obviously will make him less and less eager to be picked up. Instead of picking him up from the front legs, try to gently place one hand under the rib cage with the other supporting the rear legs. This way you are putting less strain on the back and not hurting the legs.
Your dog may be growling simply to voice his opinion about being picked up at an inappropriate time. If you tend to pick up your dog when it's time to leave the dog park or when you want to stop rough play, you are communicating to your dog that great things end the moment he is picked up. Your dog may also resent being picked up if you do so and then immediately subject him to procedures he may not be too fond of such as trimming his nails or giving him a bath.
Whether your dog is growling because of pain, being mishandled or being picked up at the inappropriate time, the message is clear: He is communicating that he does not like it. After ruling out underlying medical problems, it's best to consult a professional to work on the problem. The key to treatment is to turn being picked up into something pleasant so that your dog looks forward to it instead of dreading it. This is often accomplished through desensitization and counterconditioning.
Desensitization in this case means making the act of picking him up less threatening. Instead of picking your dog up at once, you would gradually and systemically start working on slightly touching his chest, supporting the rear legs, then lifting him slightly up in baby steps until you can lift him off the ground. At the same time, you would work on counterconditioning, that is, changing his emotions about being touched by accompanying every touch with a high-value treat.
Once your dog's emotional response to being picked up starts changing, you must protect its new value and do your best to keep it positive. As cuddly as he is, don't pick your dog up dozens of times a day. If you need to pick him up to leave the dog park, try calling him instead and play a great game with lots of treats. If you need to bathe him or trim his nails, try working on making these procedures more pleasant. Make great things happen when he is picked up such as feed him treats while in your arms and scratch him on his favorite spot. Make all the great things end once you put him down. Granted, with time, he most likely will want to be picked up more and more.
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