Controversial topic - Picking up small dogs

Updated: Nov 17, 2018

Trip and his best buddy Jason - Trip used to get into his mouth when they were playing!

I see it discussed in groups on Facebook all the time, on internet forums, and have even been a "victim" of it myself as an owner of 2 incredibly tiny dogs.. the well-intentioned individual telling you that if you pick your small dog/puppy up when off lead dogs run up to it, you will be doing nothing but "creating problems" for the future, as the dog "needs to socialise".

These individuals are usually the owner of an off lead dog that is not appropriately trained and has no recall. They shout, "My dog is friendly!" at you from a distance and then become mortally offended if you pick your dog up out of the way. When they catch up with you, and their dog, their lecture on dog training and behaviour will begin! It is easy to feel angry and defensive when someone starts telling you what you are doing with your dog is wrong, but quite often these people are struggling. They are aware their dog hasn't got a good recall, they are aware their dog can be a bit much, but they don't know how to fix it. The lecture towards you can often be due to redirected guilt and/or embarassment.

Little Trip in the woods with friends of all shapes and sizes!

They are actually correct in saying that socialisation is very important, but there is a common misconception that socialisation is simply about a dog experiencing as many things as possible, when this is not the case. To have a well socialised dog, they need as many positive experiences as possible. Even with the best of intentions, it is not likely that you will be able to ensure that everything your dog experiences in life is good, but if the vast majority of their experiences have been positive, then the odd bad experience is unlikely to cause too much of a dent in their confidence. Check out this fantastic article on socialisation from Karen Pryor -

Let's look at an example of where this happened to me:

I was walking my dogs with no one to be seen, when I suddenly noticed a very large Labrador running at top speed towards us from quite a distance. He didn't seem to be making any effort to slow down for a calm greeting, so I picked up Dizzy (my 1.5kg fully grown Pomeranian x Maltese) and Trip (my 2.5kg fully grown Pomeranian x Maltese) until I could assess the situation. This dog proceeded to try all it could to initiate a response from my dogs - barking, trying to initiate "wrestling" style play, putting his paw over their backs, body barging into them and there were a fair few warning growls from my gang (especially as 3 of the large dogs are now into old age), which then escalated into a couple of air snaps - all were ignored by this dog. I kept moving in the direction the dog came from, not only to reunite him with his owner, but to keep my dogs moving to minimise the trouble this over-excited dog was getting himself into with my gang. I'm not a confrontational person and, even though I am a dog trainer, I never inflict my advice upon people who have not asked for it, so we found his owner and I assumed they would just apologise, temporarily pop their dog back on the lead until we were out of sight and that would be the end of it. But no. Due to me still having Trip and Dizzy in my arms (having correctly realised it was not safe to put them down), I received a lecture about how their dog is "friendly" and how much damage I am doing by picking them up. That I need to let them socialise. That this is how little dogs become "snappy" and "nasty". I didn't argue. Neither dogs nor people can learn when under stress, and this person was confrontational and stressed.

My little dogs have no fear or aggression towards bigger dogs - thanks to me ensuring they have good experiences.

Had Trip and Dizzy been left on the floor during this encounter, they could easily have been completely bowled over, hurt, injured or even ended up with bones broken, purely due to the size difference, energy and lack of appropriate social skills. How would that contribute to them being social, confident dogs? It wouldn't. It could have done the complete opposite and made my friendly, confident little dogs become fearful and reactive.

If an owner hasn't trained their dog enough to call their dog away from you so they can check it's ok for your dogs to meet, then there's a possibility that the dog hasn't got the impulse control skills required to not jump up at you to get to your dog. A dog rudely jumping up and sniffing is not likely to cause any injury to your dog in your arms, however you must be aware that there could be a risk of injury to you - either superficially, due to the size of the dog jumping up, or through redirected frustration. Personally I'm happy to take that risk to protect my dogs, but risk needs to be considered.

Many people have a very skewed view on what a "well socialised" dog (with other dogs) actually looks like. They may think their dog is well socialised because it wants to play with all other dogs and never has aggressive intentions, when actually, it may have poor social skills - over exhuberant, inappropriate greetings and an inability to read the body language and signals of other dogs and adjust its behaviour accordingly. These dogs could accidentally cause injury to other dogs due to this.

Trip with some new pals at All About Dogs - he does love a Leonberger!

There is some more truth in what these people are saying. If a dog owner picked their little dog up in a hysterical panic every time another dog came to say hello, distressed and shouting or screaming, their dog could make the association that other dogs = scary things happen, so could become defensive and reactive towards other dogs approaching. If you have a small dog who finds being picked up to be very aversive, then being picked up every time a dog comes over could also build the association that dogs appearing = something bad happens.

I am in no way saying that the owners of small dogs and small puppies should pick their dog up every time another dog comes to visit. What I am saying is, if you pick your dog up (if they are ok with it) in a neutral or happy manner when an unknown dog approaches in a way that you aren't comfortable with, no harm will be done, and it could prevent your tiny dog from being injured (costly vet bills) or from having a bad experience that will take a lot of work to overcome. It gives you a bit of time to assess the situation without putting your dog in harm's way. You may realise the dog actually seems fine, have a bit of a chat with the owner, and carefully lower your dog down to interact on the floor. Generally though, I don't trust complete strangers to be responsible for socialising my dogs. I would rather mix them with dogs that I know are safe that belong to friends or family, or in a controlled environment such as a training class under the watchful eyes of an expert (and then become "walking buddies" outside of class! I met most of my walking buddies this way!).

99% of the time, I don't feel the need to pick my little dogs up. The vast majority of dogs we meet on walks are absolutely fine, everyone has a good sniff of each other and we just carry on on our way. I don't care if the other dog we meet is a Great Dane or a Spaniel, it's not the size or breed of the dog that would make me feel compelled to pick my little dogs up, it's their behaviour.

In my career, I have helped many "rude" dogs with poor social skills, working with their dedicated owners and carefully using my own dogs as stooge dogs in the process, but when I am just out enjoying a walk with my gang, I do not consent to my dogs being "used" as punching bags to help a strange dog "learn". (I really don't mind if a dog makes a bit of a rude approach, but then adjusts its behaviour based on the response from my dogs - it's when we are just harassed that I feel annoyed.)

Dogs are dogs, but very small dogs are more fragile and we need to be more careful with them.

PS - When you love your dog, it can feel quite hurtful if someone seems afraid of them, so don't give them a hard time if you end up on the receiving end of the lecture, and try to be civil and friendly!

Keep doing what is best for your dog!

Trip and Trixie Chihuahua with their Australian Shepherd, Border Collie, Smooth Collie and Shetland Sheepdog friends.


Sutterton, Lincolnshire |© Lucy Heath Dog Training