Ultimate Guide to Desensitizing Dogs That Dislike Being Picked Up: A Natural Approach to Calming Dog Anxiety

Dog displaying signs of aggression such as bared teeth and tense posture when a person attempts to pick it up.

Desensitizing Dogs That Dislike Being Picked Up


For many pet parents, lifting their canine companion off the ground seems like an everyday, uneventful action. However, in some cases, this simple gesture can become a stress-inducing event, leading to growls, bared teeth, and in extreme situations, bites. Whether you’re a seasoned professional in the field of dog behavior or a pet guardian facing this perplexing and concerning issue, you may find yourself at a crossroads. It’s important to realize that a range of factors—including previous traumatic experiences, inadequate socialization, or even medical conditions—could be at play. So, what can be done to safely and effectively alter this troubling behavior?

This comprehensive guide aims to offer pet parents and professionals a structured, step-by-step approach for desensitizing dogs who have negative reactions to being lifted. Rooted in evidence-based behavioral modification techniques like desensitization and positive reinforcement, the objective of this guide is to replace your pet’s negative emotional responses with positive experiences, thereby effecting a change in behavior. While following this guide, consider supporting your pet’s journey with CALM DOGS, our all-natural anxiety-relief supplement.

The Importance of Patience, Consistency, and Repetition:

Before diving into the structured modules, it’s essential to highlight that behavior modification is more of a marathon than a sprint. Success hinges on a trifecta of patience, consistency, and repetition. Understand that this is a journey that can span weeks or even months. This isn’t a one-off event but a series of planned, repetitive actions aimed at bringing about a change in your dog’s behavior.

The timeline of this journey is often dictated by the dog itself. Every dog has its own pace of learning and adaptation; rushing this process can prove counterproductive and even detrimental. If you ever find yourself growing frustrated, remind yourself: You can only work at your dog’s pace. Pay close attention to your pet’s comfort levels, stress signals, and progress markers, adapting your approach accordingly. By adhering to these principles, you’re setting the stage for a more fruitful and less stressful experience for both you and your pet.

Module 1: Initial Assessment and Setup

Step 1: Rule Out Medical Issues

It’s crucial to start with a visit to the veterinarian to rule out any medical conditions that might be causing discomfort or pain, such as arthritis or gastrointestinal issues, which could manifest as aggression when picked up.

Schedule a comprehensive physical examination, including X-rays and blood tests, with your veterinarian. Discuss your dog’s specific issues and observe the dog’s reactions to being handled by the vet.

During the vet visit, you might say, “Doctor, I’ve noticed that Max growls and shows his teeth when I try to pick him up. Could this be medically related?”

Step 2: Secure Your Environment

Safety is paramount. Secure the environment to ensure the safety of both the dog and humans involved in the behavior modification process.

Use baby gates to section off training areas, remove any items the dog might perceive as high-value and guard, and make sure other pets are out of the area to minimize distractions.

Install a baby gate to block off the living room from the kitchen and conduct your training sessions in the living room with all toys removed.

Step 3: Assemble Your Toolkit

You’ll need some tools to train effectively. This includes a clicker for marking desired behavior and a variety of high-value rewards.

Select a clicker or choose a short, distinct sound you can make yourself. Stock up on high-value treats that your dog doesn’t usually get, like cooked chicken or cheese.

Create a ‘Training Kit’ box that contains your clicker, different kinds of treats, a favorite toy, and a leash.

Step 4: Basics of Clicker Training

A clicker marks the exact moment the dog displays a desired behavior, followed by a reward.

To condition the dog to the clicker, click it and immediately follow with a treat. Repeat this several times in a quiet environment where the dog can focus.

In a quiet room with no distractions, click the clicker and immediately offer your dog a piece of cooked chicken. Do this 15-20 times to build the association between the clicker and the reward.

Module 1 sets up the foundation for the behavior modification work that will follow. It ensures that medical issues are ruled out, that you are prepared with the right tools, and that your dog understands the basics of clicker training.

Module 2: Identifying Triggers and Establishing Thresholds

Step 5: Behavioral Assessment and Journaling

Before beginning any form of training, understanding your dog’s specific triggers and stress signals is crucial.

Keep a detailed log over a period of at least one week. Document situations where the dog shows anxiety or aggression when being approached to be picked up. Note body language, situational context, and other factors that may be contributing.

In a journal, you might write: “9/13/2023 – Max growled and bared teeth when I bent over to pick him up. He was near his food bowl, and his tail was tucked.”

Step 6: Identify the Threshold

The “threshold” is the point at which your dog starts to show signs of stress or discomfort but has not yet escalated to growling or biting.

Observe your dog closely during various attempts to approach and pick him up. Identify the exact moment when he begins to show stress signals like lip licking, yawning, or looking away.

Here is a little more detail about thresholds:

Understanding and Working Below Threshold:

In the context of dog behavior, the term “threshold” refers to the point at which a stimulus—such as being picked up—elicits an emotional response like fear or aggression. Understanding the varying states of your dog’s threshold is essential for effective training and behavior modification:

Below Threshold: This is the ideal state where your dog is relaxed and attentive but not showing any signs of stress, anxiety, or aggression. In this state, learning is most effective.

At Threshold: Here, your dog starts to show the earliest signs of emotional response but can still focus on you and perform basic commands. You might notice heightened alertness, a stiffer body posture, or increased sniffing.

Over Threshold: This is a state where your dog is emotionally overwhelmed. Signs of being over the threshold include growling, showing teeth, or even attempting to flee or bite. Learning is nearly impossible at this point.

Why Keeping Your Dog Below Threshold is Crucial:

Effective Learning: Dogs are most receptive to new information when they are calm and focused. Emotional overload can impede the learning process.

Preventing Negative Associations: Working above the threshold risks creating or reinforcing negative associations with the stimulus, in this case, being picked up.

Safety: A dog that is over the threshold is more likely to display aggressive behavior, posing a risk to themselves and others.

What to Do If You Cross the Threshold:

If you find your dog is consistently at or over the threshold, it’s a sign you’re progressing too quickly. This usually indicates you haven’t spent enough time desensitizing and counter-conditioning at the previous step. Take a step back, increase the distance from the triggering stimulus, or simplify the exercise. The goal is always to set your dog up for success, which often means progressing more slowly than you’d perhaps like.

By respecting your dog’s individual threshold and working diligently to keep interactions below that point, you significantly increase the chances of successful behavior modification. It’s not just about making this experience more pleasant for your dog, but also about providing a fertile ground where real, lasting learning can happen.

While trying to pick up your dog, you notice that he starts licking his lips and averts his gaze when your hands are about six inches away from him. This is your starting threshold. Some dogs need to start below threshold.

To assist in keeping your dog below threshold, CALM DOGS can offer a natural way to manage anxiety during training sessions.

Step 7: Safe Handling

Safety for both you and your dog is paramount, especially if the dog has a history of biting.

Establish a “safe handling” plan that allows you to interact with your dog without getting bitten. This could include using a muzzle, enlisting the help of another person, or using barriers like a gate.

Invest in a comfortable, basket-style muzzle for your dog. Before any training session, put the muzzle on your dog using a high-value treat as a reward for accepting the muzzle.

Step 8: Establish Training Zones

It’s important to have a specific area where the training takes place, devoid of distractions.

Choose a quiet, enclosed space. Remove any distractions such as toys or other pets. Make sure this area is neutral and doesn’t have associations with stressful activities for your dog.

Choose your living room as a training zone and close the door to keep other pets out. Make sure the TV is off and toys are put away.

With the end of Module 2, you’re well-prepared to enter the behavior modification phase. You’ve identified triggers, established thresholds, and have safety measures in place. Module 3 will dive deep into the actual desensitization process.

Module 3: Desensitization Training

Step 9: Start with Sub-threshold Exposures

Desensitization involves exposing the dog to the trigger—being picked up in this case—at a level that doesn’t elicit anxiety or aggressive response.

Beginning at the threshold you identified earlier, approach your dog but stop just before the point where stress signals were observed. Mark with a click and reward.

If your dog started showing stress when your hands were six inches away, start at seven inches. Approach with your hands at that distance, click, and offer a high-value treat.

Step 10: Gradual Increase in Exposure

The key to successful desensitization is the gradual introduction of the stressor, incrementally moving closer over time.

After several successful attempts at the sub-threshold level, reduce the distance by an inch and repeat the click and reward process. Do this over multiple sessions spanning days or weeks as necessary.

Once your dog is comfortable with your hands seven inches away, reduce the distance to six inches. Click and treat when the dog remains calm. Repeat until the dog is consistently comfortable before moving closer.

Step 11: Introduce Picking Up Motion without Contact

Before you actually touch your dog, simulate the motion of picking him up. This prepares the dog for the next level of exposure.

Slowly bend your knees and lower your hands as if you’re about to pick the dog up, but without making contact. Click and treat if the dog remains calm.

Pretend you’re going to pick up your dog by reaching toward him but stop before touching it. If he stays calm, click and treat.

Step 12: Contact without Lifting

The next step involves making contact but not yet lifting the dog.

Gently touch your dog’s sides or belly, immediately click, and then reward. This should be a brief touch at first, with gradual increases in the time of contact.

Reach down and touch your dog’s side for just a second. If he remains calm, click and offer a treat.

Step 13: Mini-lifts

Now it’s time to initiate a lifting action, but not a full lift-off from the ground.

Bend down and gently lift your dog just a tiny bit off the ground—perhaps an inch or so. Immediately put him down, click, and reward.

With your hands under your dog’s belly, lift just enough that his paws are an inch off the ground. Place him back down, click, and treat if he stays calm.

Module 3 is a crucial turning point in behavior modification, involving strategic desensitization tactics and careful observation. At this point, your dog should begin to associate being picked up with positive experiences rather than stressful ones.

Module 4: Advanced Techniques and Long-term Strategies

Step 14: Full Lifting

Once your dog is comfortable with mini-lifts, it’s time to attempt a full lift off the ground.

Lift your dog completely off the ground for just a moment, set him back down, click, and treat. Keep the first few lifts short and low to the ground to reduce stress.

Lift your dog about two inches off the ground. As soon as all four paws are off the ground, gently place him back down, click, and reward.

Step 15: Increase Duration and Height

Gradually extend the time your dog is lifted and how high off the ground you go.

Start by lifting your dog for two seconds and then extend to four, six, eight, and so on. Also, vary the height gradually. Click and treat each time.

Lift your dog off the ground to knee height and hold for two seconds, then lower him back. Click and treat if he stays calm. Gradually progress to waist height.

Step 16: Generalization

For the newly learned behavior to be robust, it needs to be generalized across different situations, environments, and people.

Practice picking up your dog in different rooms, when he’s in different emotional states, and also have different people try picking him up under your supervision.

After practicing in the living room for a week, try lifting your dog in the kitchen. Also, invite a friend or family member to practice the lifting under your guidance, using the same click-and-treat method.

Step 17: Maintenance Training

Behavioral changes can regress, so it’s crucial to continue practicing even after your goal is reached

Regularly revisit earlier steps and conditions to reinforce the positive behavior. Make it a part of your routine.

Every week, spend five minutes practicing lifts in different rooms and varying your approach to keep the behavior well-reinforced.

Step 18: Ongoing Behavioral Monitoring

Keep an eye on your dog’s behavior over time to ensure there is no backsliding.

Continue maintaining a log or journal to note any instances where your dog shows discomfort or stress when being picked up.

Make a weekly log entry like: “9/28/2023 – Practiced lifts in the living room and kitchen. Max remained calm throughout. No signs of stress observed.”

Completing Module 4 should ideally culminate in a dog who is comfortable being picked up by you and others, in a variety of settings. The principles in this guide are rooted in science-based behavioral conditioning and should serve as a comprehensive roadmap to alleviate your dog’s anxiety around being lifted.

Consideration for Severe Cases: Veterinary Behavioral Consultation and Medication:

Before we conclude, it’s imperative to address that not all cases can be resolved solely through training and behavior modification. Dogs exhibiting severe anxiety or aggression may need additional medical intervention to assist in the behavior modification process. If you find your dog is consistently “over the threshold”—that is, unable to enter a calm state where learning can occur—consult a veterinary behaviorist or a qualified veterinarian.

In such severe cases, anti-anxiety medication might be prescribed to help your dog reach a calmer state, enabling them to better engage with the desensitization and training process. This isn’t a “quick fix” but rather another tool in a comprehensive treatment plan. The objective is to bring the dog to a state where they can benefit from behavioral techniques, setting them on a path to long-term well-being. While severe cases often require a veterinary consult, many pet guardians start their path to relief with CALM DOGS, which has been shown to alleviate moderate anxiety symptoms, while more severe cases may require behavior medicine for dog anxiety. You should always consult with a licensed veterinarian about any medication or supplement before giving it to your dog.


Embarking on the journey to modify an ingrained behavior such as aggression or anxiety when being lifted is neither quick nor linear. It requires persistence, attention to detail, and a keen understanding of your dog’s individual comfort zones and triggers. Anticipate hurdles and setbacks, but view them as part of the process rather than deterrents.

If you have followed this guide meticulously, you will have moved towards creating an environment where your pet can be lifted without experiencing anxiety or displaying aggressive behavior. You will have fostered a series of positive associations that aim to bring comfort and peace to both you and your four-legged family member. It’s critical to remember that enduring change is built on consistent reinforcement, so regard your successes as foundational steps in an ongoing, evolving relationship with your pet.

Should the situation ever become overwhelming, don’t hesitate to seek specialized help. Dog behavior is complex, and certified professionals can offer personalized guidance tailored to your pet’s unique situation.

In the grand scheme of things, this isn’t just about solving a problem; it’s about enriching your shared quality of life. By adopting a well-thought-out, scientifically grounded approach, you’re doing more than correcting a behavior—you’re opening the door to a more harmonious coexistence. As you navigate the complexities of desensitizing a dog who dislikes being picked up, remember that a holistic approach that includes natural aids like CALM DOGS can often yield the best results.

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