Karen B. London
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Small People Suffer Like Small Dogs
No wonder some feel like biting

“So many small dogs bite when people try to pet them or pick them up. Is it any wonder?” This was my reply to a friend who posted on her Facebook page that she is not a small dog and told the world, “Please don’t pet me.” My friend is 4 foot 11, and not surprisingly, has therefore dealt with this kind of offensive treatment before.

People react differently to little individuals of a species than to large ones. Part of this may be a tendency to equate smaller with younger, and part may be a general disrespect for small versus big.  

Many small dogs truly suffer as a result of these attitudes and behavior. Unwelcome and unsolicited petting is harder to discourage when directed at a smaller dog. There’s something about their diminutive size that makes many people, including kids, want to touch them and feel as though they can do so, whether the dog likes it or not. For dogs who love petting by friends and strangers alike, this is not a problem, but not all dogs appreciate this degree of familiarity.

And while large dogs are picked up only occasionally (if ever) to lift them into a car, onto a grooming or examination table, or in the event of an injury, small dogs may face this indignity multiple times daily.

I remember one client with a papillon who was growling and biting everyone in the house, but only when he was picked up. One of the first questions I asked them was how many times a day they picked him up, and the answer once they added up everyone’s contribution was around 40 times a day. They picked him up when he was playing, eating, sleeping, walking, stretching and every other time. While many dogs would never bite even when treated like this, I was full of sympathy for this dog. His biting behavior was unacceptable and had to stop, but much of the change had to come from the people. Following my suggestions, they massively reduced the number of times he was picked up, and they conditioned him to associate being picked up with receiving his favorite tasty treats. The dog no longer bites even when he is picked up, whether it’s by members of the family who rarely do it, or by visitors who automatically respond to this little dog’s charms by reaching for him.

Do you have a small dog who people pick up or pet despite your dog’s desire that this not happen? Are you a small person who SO knows what these dogs are going through?


Karen B. London, PhD, is a Bark columnist and a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist specializing in the evaluation and treatment of serious behavior problems in the domestic dog.


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Submitted by Carolyn | June 24 2011 |

I try not to pick up my small dog very often either. When necessary, I hold outstretched arms out and then turn palms up -- she knows that as her sign to ready herself to be picked up. Now that she's older and can't take stairs as easily, I've named it "boost." As in "do you need a boost?" She's completely good with it. I think part of being successful with picking up a small dog is to let him/her know in advance your intent -- it must be awful to be beamed up by aliens without warning! :)

Submitted by Frances | June 24 2011 |

I have small dogs - and having realised early on how much they disliked being swooped upon and swept off the ground, I taught my papillon a hand signal to indicate when I was about to pick her up. She now positions herself to make it easier, and gives a little jump. Poppy, my toy poodle, is more likely to take a flying leap into your arms ... but she really dislikes people looming over her. I have lost track of the number of times I have asked people to pet her under her chin, not on top of her head!

Submitted by Jane | May 23 2014 |

Great comment about the head! I had a huge 45kg Labrador x Bullmastiff who had the best temperament possible but hated being touched around his head. I could see by his face he was just squirming inside although he would tolerate it. My horse also hated it and would just jerk his head away, which can be dangerous as a horse's head is mostly bone and it's like concrete if it accidentally hits you. I pat dogs around the haunches, which often gets a wag, and on the back, belly and chest. A neck scratch is usually appreciated. Only occasionally would I very gently stroke a head, if the dog really was blissed-out by being caressed.

Submitted by Laura | June 27 2011 |

This is SO true! I have 2 Jack Russell Terriers and 1 small mixed breed. Two of them enjoy being petted, picked up, etc most of the time (though not always or by everyone!) the third really dislikes and fears being picked up. Thankfully he doesn't bite but does back up, spin around and hide. I have an "up" command he's learned is the forewarning he IS going to be picked up...has helped a lot.

Submitted by Allie | June 27 2011 |

My little Border Terrier cross is only held when she leaps into my arms for it. She tells me in her way when she is going to do this or I will ask her, by bending my knees slightly, if she wants to be held. Sometimes she does, sometimes she's busy. :) It's all about respecting each other - wish people would take more time to understand what their pets tell them!
I don't have to worry about others trying to pick her up...she tells them rather clearly she's not having THAT! :)

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