Canine Behavior/My dog tries to bite me when I pick him up.
I have a 2 year old, 20 lbs Chihuahua Maltese Mix named Yoshi. I've had him since he was 2 months old. When he was about a year old I've noticed that every time I would try to give him a bath or take him inside the house he would start growling at me and then try to bite me. I give him a bath about every 2-3 weeks because he is out in the backyard for most of the day and my yard is mostly dirt, which he likes to lay in. I always pick him up to carry him out to the yard to give him a bath, but every time I would approach him, he would run away. Once I try to pick him u he would growl and try to bite me. It takes me about 30-40 minutes before I'm able to catch him. Within the 40 minutes I'm not constantly trying to catch him. Usually I'll try to pick him up once or twice before giving up and letting him come to me. Also, every night at around 10:00/11:00 pm I would let him out to go potty before I head to bed. I let him out for a few minutes to do his business, but sometimes he'll start barking and I don't want to disturb the neighbors so I try to call him back. Sometimes he'll just sit down and won't budge or he'll go into his dog house. I try to lure him inside with snack, which works most of the time, but when it doesn't I don't know what to do. Every time I try to pick him up he'll start to growl and if i continue to get closer to him he'll nip at me. I've tried changing my position , but every time I move to his side or behind him, he'll move so he's facing me. Usually when he reacts like this I leave him alone for a minute or so and I try again.There were a few times where I needed to give him a bath or take him inside at night and he'll try to bite me and I just let him bite me. Once I picked him up he stops all action. His bites never break skin, it's more of his teeth leaves red marks on my arms. He's not aggressive any other time except for when someone tries to pick him up, which isn't often. I want to know if there are any options beside obedience training to try to fix or lessen this reaction of his?
Thank you for your question. Before I get into the actual answer, I just wanted to comment on his breed/weight information. I'm not sure if your dog has more breeds in his mix than just chihuahua and maltese or if you mis-wrote his weight, but 20 lbs is more than twice what either of those breeds should normally weigh. I bring this up only because if he is morbidly obese that would almost certainly play into his behavior response that you're experiencing. I'm going to assume that he is 20 lbs and that he's mixed with something larger than the two breeds you mentioned, making him well weighted for his size.
So, your dog is consistently telling you in every way he knows how that he does not want to be picked up. You describe the situation as follows: you approach, he runs away. You approach again and he growls. You pick him up and he growls and bites (though not hard enough to break the skin).
First let me say that your dog is showing wonderful communication as well as bite inhibition. He tells you first by increasing distance, then when that fails he tells you vocally that he needs space, then when that doesn't work, he puts his mouth on you, but not with enough force to cause actual damage. This tells me that he does not want any conflict and he's doing his best to make his needs/desires clear without causing you real harm. That's a huge plus.
Now we just have to change the human half of that conversation so that the two of you can interact in a way that is more suitable to both.
Many small dogs do not enjoy being picked up. This can be for a variety of reasons. Some dogs feel trapped by the experience as they are no longer in control of where they are in their environment. Some dogs feel very insecure and unbalanced when their feet are off the ground - especially if the rear feet are not supported and the body is not held parallel to the ground. Some small dogs associate being picked up with unpleasant experiences such as nail trims, baths, kenneling or other things the dog doesn't enjoy. I don't know what your dog is feeling, other than he's telling us clearly that he doesn't want to be picked up. I don't know why that is, though.
So, the short answer to your actual question is: no. There is no option besides obedience training and also some counter conditioning.
The first thing you will need to do is teach your pup a few basic skills. Most importantly a Come/Recall and a Follow Me. The first is to get him to you and the second is to follow you while you lead him where you need him to go. I would encourage you to stop picking him up at all - at least for now. He is clearly not comfortable with it right now and so it's important that you rebuild his trust with you and with your contact.
The key to teaching a solid Come command is to practice, practice, practice. Make it a huge party every time he comes to you on cue. And practice a thousand times without requiring anything of him (no baths or nail trims, etc). Just praise and pet and drop a dozen teeny, tiny, tasty treats around your feet and continue to praise and pet and gently hook your finger in his collar when he does the recall. This will allow you to build up a lot of trust in your "trust saving's account." That way, when one time out of 20 you need to do something unpleasant, there's enough trust in that trust account that you can make a small withdrawal without damaging his overall trust in you or your relationship. (trust account analogy from Jean Donaldson's book The Culture Clash)
So, I would practice the Come command in every room of the house, in the yard, and with you in the house while he's in the yard (so he's coming inside) and with him in the house and you're in the yard (so he's coming outside). Make it a game to play. Make it a party when he gets there. Never punish him or scold him for coming to you or he'll hesitate to come again the next time you call him.
If he's being bathed in a tub in the yard, practice having him come to you at the tub. Start away from the tub and then work toward being closer and closer until you're next to the tub. Also, play games where you're well away from the tub but you're tossing treats or toys toward (or into) the tub so he is engaging with it during fun and without threat of a bath.
If possible, his meals should take place in and around the tub. Be sure to play tub games at random times, and not just at meal time, or he'll learn that the tub is safe at dinner, but not at 3pm. Dog's are very good at discriminating and so we need to generalize that the tub is always safe. Just like we need to help him generalize that coming to you when you call him is safe and like winning the lottery every time he does it.
I would also teach him a Follow command so that he will walk with you, without needing to be leashed or picked up.
Then, I would work on counter conditioning him (changing his emotional response from one of concern to one of joy) when you pet him and pick him up. This is different from obedience training. In obedience training we lure him to do a behavior and then reward him with love, affection and treats/toys for performing. But in counter conditioning, we're not training anything. We're not luring any behaviors. We are simply making associations. We want him to associate your touch and picking him up with the most amazing thing he's ever eaten. So, the first step is to figure out what his very favorite (dog safe) human food is. Most dogs love cheese or boiled chicken or hotdog... Let him tell you which is his favorite. Then, he will only ever get that again when you are physically touching him (and specifically as you work on it, when you are picking him up).
The key to counter conditioning is that your action (reaching for him, touching him, gripping him in prep to pick him up, picking him up, holding him, carrying him....) must reliably predict the arrival of that awesome food. In other words, your action MUST COME FIRST, before the food appears. If the food is out already, or if you reach out with food in one hand and touch him simultaneously with the other, then we risk "poisoning" the food. By that I mean that the food is going to come to predict the scary thing, rather than the scary thing predicting the arrival of his favorite food.
Ideally, you will be able to find a local force-free/fear-free training who can help you lay the foundation for teaching the basic obedience as well as walk you through the baby-steps to the counter conditioning (tailored to your specific needs, based on observing you and your dog). But, if you can't find a local trainer to work with, there are a number of books and videos available that can help you get started.
As mentioned above, The Culture Clash: A Revolutionary New Way to Understanding the Relationship Between Humans and Domestic Dogs
, by Jean Donaldson is a great book that helps explain the dynamics between humans and dogs and how we can improve those relationships.
For teaching basic obedience, you might look at a couple of books such as:
Dr. Ian Dunbar's After You Get Your Puppy
There are chapters on teaching the dog to come when called as well as teaching you how to work with your dog to be comfortable with handling. Yes, it's meant for starting with puppies, but the process is the same no matter the age of the dog.
Another great resource for a dog who is showing fear or concern over an interaction is Dr. Patricia McConnell's book, The Cautious Canine - How to Help Dogs Conquer Their Fears
This book walks through a single scenario, but the process (the steps) is the same no matter the thing the dog is worried about, you just need to modify to the specific thing that worries your dog. In the book, I believe the dog is scared of the garden hose. In your case, it's being handled. So you will have to take the advice on how to break down the experience into nuggets that your dog is able to be comfortable with and build on that, but the guidance in the book will be very valuable in helping you do that and learning when/how to progress to the next stage as your dog shows he is getting more comfortable.
You may also find some videos to be helpful.
Kikopup has a great many videos specifically teaching recalls (Come), as well as many other videos on different issues.
The above link is to several videos for the recall.
Below is a link to her page of all her videos - you may find many of them useful in helping you get started.
So, the issues you're currently having with your dog are definitely things that can be fixed. You can improve your relationship with him so that he comes when you call and so that he becomes more comfortable with being picked up (though I encourage you to only pick him up when it's actually necessary and not just as a convenience to carry him around). But, you will need to put in some time to work with him. Luckily, most dogs love training and it becomes a great way to bond with your dog when you do the training in a force-free approach, making it all a game. I often use meal time since they're going to be eating anyway - they might as well earn those kibbles. But I also build training into game and play time. I will interrupt games of Tug to practice Sit, Wait, Focus on me, etc. And I will interrupt games of wrestle or chase to ask for different skills. This makes it all part of the fun and increases the bond and the trust between dog and person.
My boys practicing Tug/Settle (impulse control behaviors in the middle of a game)
By practicing recalls literally hundreds of times, and always making it a party when the dog arrives you to you, you can achieve excellent recalls, even in the face of distractions
Also - you mentioned your dog sometimes barks when out in the yard. My boys do that as well. I've not taken the time to teach them a specific "quiet" command, though you certainly could. But in my home, I just call the boys back inside (their recall) because I know they'll stop barking once they're back inside. They are so solid on their recall that I can be inside, hear them bark and just yell from where ever I am in the house "Chewie, Come!" (or "Hagrid, Come!") and they'll come trotting back inside. But this is because I practice recalls with them almost more than any other skill, and I always shower them with love and affection (and often with treats, though not every time now that they know it so well). And so they've learned that it pays really well to come back to me whenever I call them. It is possible. I promise. It just takes practice.
I hope this proves helpful. Please feel free to followup if you need me to clarify anything or simply to let me know how it's going.
Jody, CPDT-KA, APDT
Worcester, MA Behavior Specialist
Masters Candidate - Animals and Public Policy
Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine