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Scruffing a Dog: Understanding the Do’s and Don’ts - PawSafe
Dog Training

Scruffing a Dog: Understanding the Do’s and Don’ts

Photo of Tamsin De La Harpe

Written by Tamsin De La Harpe

scruffing a dog

Scruffing a dog refers to the practice of grasping the loose skin at the back of a dog’s neck, known as the scruff. It’s a technique often used by a mother dog to carry her puppies, but as dog owners, we might contemplate using this method in various situations. It might look like an easy way to handle or control a dog, but is it really safe or appropriate for us to do so?

Understanding the implications grabbing a dog by the scruff of their neck is crucial. While it may seem like a natural and harmless method of control, the appropriateness of scruffing can vary widely. Some dogs may react negatively to scruffing, and it can potentially lead to fear, aggression, or injury.

It’s important to remember that while mama dogs grab their pups by the scruff, we don’t have the instincts or adaptations to do it ourselves. Even among cats, where the practice is fairly common among owners, compelling studies have shown that cats respond negatively to this. So, how much worse is it for dogs? Join us as we explore the truth about grabbing your canine this way.

Scruffing, the act of gripping the loose skin at the back of the neck, is something momma dogs do to pups. But in our human hands, is it okay to scruff our dogs? To answer that, you need to check out the following:

  • Safety: We want to prioritize safety. For young puppies, this can be a natural way to guide them, but never lift them off the ground. With adult dogs, the motion should be avoided as it can cause pain or aggression.
  • Training: We’re aiming for positive reinforcement in training. Back neck lifting might seem like a quick fix, especially for fast-moving behaviors like dogs biting you, but it doesn’t build trust. Our dogs thrive on trust and respect, so it’s better to use treats or praise for good behavior.
  • Communication: We must consider what we’re communicating. While a mother dog might scruff to discipline her pups, our dogs might not understand this from us. Confusion can lead to fear or anxiety, which we don’t want.
  • Dog’s Personality and Temperament: some dogs may be more tolerant of the act, while others may find it stressful or frightening.

Here are alternativ-e-archives we can use:

  • Positive reinforcement: Reward good behavior with treats, affection, or playtime to stress good practices until they stick.
  • Redirection: Instead of lifting dogs this way, redirect unwanted behavior by giving a command and then rewarding them with a toy or starting a different activity.
  • Professional advice: If we struggle with our dog’s behavior, consulting a professional dog trainer or a behaviorist is a wise choice.

It’s clear that while it can be done safely and appropriately in some situations with puppies, there are more effective and compassionate ways to train and interact with our canines.

Understanding Scruffing: What Does It Mean to Scruff Your Dog?

This practice harkens back to canine mothers who carry their young by the scruff to move them to a safe location. The scruff is an area with loosely hanging skin, which allows for this type of handling without causing harm to puppies. 

However, this is not the correct way for humans to carry puppies as it provides no support to their bodies and can cause permanent physical damage. You can see more in our article on how to pick up dogs correctly.

In domestic situations, some people may use neck skin gripping as a means of discipline or control, but it’s a controversial topic among dog owners and experts alike. Some people engage in this practice to assert dominance over their dogs. 

However, the dominance theory has long been disproven. Even previous advocators for the theory, like Dr. L. David Mech, assert that the concept of dominance and “alpha male” is incorrect. He corrects that wolves simply breed their way to the top and become the leader, as opposed to a competition and show of power. 

You should, therefore, never grab your dog by the back-neck to show them who’s pack leader. It’s not helpful or effective. Moreover, it’s simply not a safe way to try to handle or control a dog. In the case of puppies, it can cause permanent damage to their ligaments, muscles, tendons and other delicate growing body parts.

In Which Situation Is Okay To Scruff Your Dog?

There are a few extremely rare situations in which a canine professional may choose scruffing as a way to handle dog. 

I want to be clear that in 15 years of working dogs, including dogs with behavioral issues, I have almost never had any reason to grab a dog by the scruff. It’s just not effective or helpful, and can be even be dangerous. The only time I have done this was when there was immediate danger, as the dogs was either about to bite a person or animal, or were in danger themselves.

These are the extremely rare conditions under which I may choose to grab a dog by the scruff:

  • There is an immediate danger and the dog needs to be removed from the situation immediately (things like approaching a snake, fighting bigger dogs, or about  to bite a child).
  • The dog is highly likely to bite me if I lift it up normally (the dog has known aggression issue that makes them unsafe to handle normally).
  • The dog has no collar, lead, or harness that I can grab instead and I have no other equipment available on hand to intervene in time. In other words, there is no equipment available and it is a time sensitive emergency situation.
  • The dog is small enough that I can grab the scruff to prevent them turning their head to bite me. They are also small enough for me to physically lift. (This won’t work on bigger dogs).
  • The dog is small enough that I can use my other hand to support their body to prevent their weight hanging by the skin of the neck alone.

I must reiterate; in 15 or more years, I have done this perhaps twice in an emergency. In each case it was adult, smaller breed dog, that needed to be removed from a situation quickly and was a bite risk. By grabbing the scruff, I am simply keeping my own hands out of reach to avoid a bite. I also make sure to provide support with other hand. As soon as the dog is in a safe area, I put them down.

This is not something I recommend that you do unless you have significant experience. I also cannot stress enough that there is no reason to carry puppies this way. However, we will cover when scruffing may be necessary further below.

Dog Behavior And Psychology

When we look at dogs’ behavior and psychology, Grabbing the back of a dog’s neck can be quite a complex subject. Dogs primarily communicate through body language, and being scruffed can have various impacts on their mental state. 

Puppies generally go limp when carried by the scruff by their mother, indicating a natural submissive or passive response. However, translating this behavior to adult dogs can lead to confusion, fear, or aggression, like growling at you, as the physiological response of adult dogs can be drastically different. Being scruffed is not a normal part of social interactions between dogs and should be approached with caution.

Can You Pick A Dog Up By The Scruff?

When we talk about handling our dogs, it’s crucial to get our approach just right. So, let’s set the record straight.

Size & Age Matters:

  • Puppies: We can lift young puppies by the scruff briefly with proper support from the other hand. It’s a natural way mother dogs move them, but there’s a catch.
  • Adults: As dogs grow, this method becomes inappropriate. They’re too heavy and lack the loose skin of their puppyhood.

Why It’s Risky: 

The scruff of a dog is not a handle. As dogs grow, this loose skin doesn’t support their weight. We run the risk of:

  • Hurting their neck or back; and
  • Causing unnecessary fear or stress.

Proper Lifting Techniques:

  • For small breeds & puppies, support both the chest and the hindquarters.
  • For larger dogs, lift under the chest and from behind the back legs, distributing the weight evenly.

This is a great illustration of the two techniques:

We encourage gentle handling to ensure our pooches feel secure and loved. If in any doubt, it’s always best to consult a vet or a professional dog trainer. They can provide insights tailored to our dog’s size, breed, and temperament.

When Scruffing Might Be Necessary

Scruffing can be a contentious topic, but there are specific instances where we might find it necessary. We’ll focus on the contexts of veterinary procedures and emergency situations.

Veterinary Procedures

In the clinic, we sometimes need to restrain a dog for their safety and ours. This method can be used:

  • For short procedures: Injecting vaccines or drawing blood may require brief immobilization.
  • When other restraints aren’t available: In a pinch, this can be a quick way to control a dog, but only if done correctly to avoid injury.

Emergency Situations

There might be moments when immediate control over a dog is critical. We use this technique in such times:

  • When a dog is in danger: If a dog is about to run into traffic or a hazardous situation, a firm grip could save their life. 

Note that there are typically better ways to restrain a dog during these dangerous situations, like grabbing their torso. But if grabbing the back of their neck will save a dog’s life, then go for it!

  • To break up fights: If dogs are fighting, scruffing one can be a strategy to separate them safely without getting bitten.

Is Scruffing A Dog Abuse?

Using excessive force, causing physical harm, or using scruffing as the primary means of discipline can be harmful and may indeed be considered a form of abuse. Dogs respond better to positive reinforcement and reward-based training rather than punitive methods.

While it might not always be intentional abuse, scruffing can cause physical harm and emotional distress if used incorrectly or on the wrong-sized dog. It’s vital to remember that there are more humane and effective ways to manage or train our dogs. Let’s use those methods and keep their tails wagging happily. You can check out our article on how to discipline a dog for more effective strategies.

The American Society of Animal Behavior is getting increasingly concerned about the idea of making a dog submit to you to excuse punitive actions against these innocent animals.

How to Scruff Properly In the Extremely Unlikely Scenario

To scruff a dog correctly, we need to ensure that we’re gentle and the dog feels safe throughout the process. This procedure is mostly relevant for when you want to administer injections around the neck area. If it’s during an emergency like the above scenarios, you probably won’t have time for preparation and approach.

Preparation And Approach

First, it’s crucial to make sure the dog is calm. We can’t stress enough how important this is. If they’re not relaxed, this training technique could cause anxiety or even aggression. Here’s what we do:

  • Soothe the Dog: Speak in a soft, reassuring tone to help settle them.
  • Check for Health Issues: Quickly inspect the neck area to ensure there are no injuries or reasons scruffing might cause pain.
  • Proper Positioning: Position ourselves beside or behind the dog, never from the front, as that can be threatening to them.

The Scruffing Technique

Scruffing must be done with care. Here’s our step-by-step approach:

  1. Locate the Scruff: Feel for the loose skin at the back of the neck, that’s the scruff.
  2. Grasp Gently: Using a firm but gentle grip, we hold the scruff without squeezing tightly.
  3. Lift Slightly: If necessary, lift the scruff just enough to guide the dog’s movements without lifting their front paws off the ground.
  4. Support the Dog: Always ensure to support the dog’s rear and body if we’re trying to lift them. Never suspend a dog by the scruff alone.

Remember, this method is not suitable for every dog or situation. Consider the dog’s size, temperament, and the necessity of the approach. When done incorrectly, it can cause harm or distress, so we always err on the side of caution.

Risks of Scruffing

When we scruff a dog, we might think we’re getting a handle on them, but this can lead to unintended consequences that may harm our pet both physically and emotionally.

Physical Dangers

  • Skin Injury: We might accidentally pinch the skin too hard, leading to bruising or cuts.
  • Muscle Strain: Dogs of varying sizes can experience muscle strain if the technique isn’t done correctly, depending on their weight and size.
  • Pain and Discomfort: This can cause pain and discomfort for the dog, especially if done harshly

For Smaller Dogs:

  • Neck or Spine Damage: These little guys could get neck or spinal injuries if we aren’t extra careful.

For Larger Dogs:

  • Ineffectiveness and Potential Aggression: It’s often ineffective due to their size and might provoke an aggressive reaction.

Psychological Effects

  • Stress: Just like us, getting grabbed unexpectedly can cause stress for a dog.
  • Trust Issues: If we scruff our dog often, they might start to lose trust in us.

List of Potential Signs of Stress:

  • Ears back;
  • Tail tucked;
  • Avoiding eye contact; and
  • Yawning or lip-licking.

We must handle our dogs with understanding and patience to avoid these risks.

Can Physically Reprimanding A Dog, Like Scruffing Or Alpha Rolling, Affect Its Behavior Long-Term?

When we consider physical reprimands like scruffing or alpha rolling, it’s important to understand their impact on a dog’s behavior over time. These methods stem from dominance theory, a concept that’s widely contested by modern animal behaviorists.

Alpha rolling is forcibly turning a dog onto its back to submit. Both tactics can potentially lead to long-term behavioral issues being fear, distrust, and aggression. Again, remember that positive reinforcement is often more effective and fosters a trusting relationship. 

Our focus should be on creating a supportive environment that encourages our pups to learn and thrive without fear or aggression. By redirecting behaviors rather than punishing them, we’re more likely to see a happy, well-adjusted dog in the long run.

Alternatives to Scruffing

We know being grabbed by the neck can be stressful for dogs, so we’re keen on alternativ-e-archive methods that ensure both safety and comfort. Let’s explore some training techniques and gadgets to help us handle our dogs without scruffing.

1. Positive Reinforcement

We always start with reward-based training. This approach uses treats or praise to encourage our dog to behave as desired. When our dog follows a command or behaves well during handling, they get a treat, making them more likely to repeat the behavior.

2. Clicker Training

Method: We use a small handheld device that makes a clicking sound to mark the desired behavior the instant it occurs.

Application: When our dog sits calmly for grooming, we click and follow with a treat.

3. Handling Gadgets

Opt for harnesses because they distribute pressure evenly across the neck. These prevent dogs from escaping into dangerous situations. Additionally, handling mats prevent dogs from falling, which would necessitate emergency neck grabbing.

Harness Type: 

  • Front-clip Harness: Helps redirect our dog’s attention and discourages pulling.
  • Headcollar (Gentle Leader): Offers control over our dog’s direction, making it easier to guide them.

4. Professional Training

Consult with a professional dog trainer or behaviorist who uses positive reinforcement techniques. They can assess your dog’s behavior and provide tailored guidance and training plans.

5. Desensitization and Counterconditioning

Gradually expose your dog to stimuli that trigger undesirable behavior in a controlled and positive way. Pair the stimuli with positive experiences to change the dog’s emotional response. Use timeouts (30 seconds to 2 minutes max) if the dog still reacts to the stimuli.

Remember, building a positive and trusting relationship with your dog is essential for effective training. Seek professional help if necessary.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

In this section, we’ll cover essential queries to help you handle your dog with care during different situations that may require physical control.

How can I safely handle my dog during grooming or vet visits?

We recommend using a harness and a blanket to provide support and comfort to your dog. This helps prevent any discomfort while ensuring that you maintain control during grooming or vet examinations.

What’s the proper way to lift a puppy when necessary?

To lift a puppy, we always use both hands; one beneath the chest and the other supporting their hind legs. This method avoids unnecessary pressure on the puppy’s body and makes them feel secure.

Are there humane alternativ-e-archives to scruffing for controlling a dog’s movement?

We advise using positive reinforcement training methods and proper leashing techniques instead of scruffing. These alternativ-e-archives can effectively manage your dog’s movement without causing them stress or harm.

Why do dogs react negatively when grabbed by the scruff?

Dogs may react negatively because being grabbed by the scruff can be painful and is similar to a dominance action, which can trigger fear or aggression in a dog.

How should you react if your dog yelps or shows discomfort when touched near the neck?

If your dog shows discomfort, we immediately stop touching them and observe their behavior. Consulting a veterinarian is imperative to rule out any injuries or health issues causing the sensitivity.

Final Thoughts

We’ve covered the important aspects of scruffing a dog, and it’s vital to remember that this technique is often controversial. It should always be our last resort, used only when necessary and in the most gentle manner possible.

We emphasize empathy and understanding as key pillars in handling our dogs. By prioritizing these values, we foster a more trusting and positive relationship between us and our dogs. It’s crucial that we keep up to date with best practices in animal care, as knowledge and expert recommendations can evolve.

References

  • Moody, C.M., Mason, G.J., Dewey, C.E. and Niel, L., 2020. Getting a grip: cats respond negatively to scruffing and clips. Veterinary Record, 186(12), pp.385-385.
  • Why ‘alpha wolf’ is misleading: International Wolf Center (2020) International Wolf Center | Teaching the World about Wolves.
  • Home (no date) Dave Mech. Available at: https://davemech.org/wolf-news-and-information/ (Accessed: 3 December 2023).
  • (No date). Available at: https://avsab.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/Dominance_Position_Statement_download-10-3-14.pdf (Accessed: 3 December 2023).

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Tamsin De La Harpe

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Tamsin de la Harpe has nearly two decades of experience with dogs in rescue, training, and behavior modification with fearful and aggressive dogs. She has worked closely with veterinarians and various kennels, building up extensive medical knowledge and an understanding of canine health and physiology. She also spent two years in the animal sciences as a canine nutrition researcher, focusing on longevity and holistic healthcare for our four-legged companions. Tamsin currently keeps a busy homestead with an assortment of rescue dogs and three Bullmastiffs.

Tamsin de la Harpe has nearly two decades of experience with dogs in rescue, training, and behavior modification with fearful and aggressive dogs. She has worked closely with veterinarians and various kennels, building up extensive medical knowledge and an understanding of canine health and physiology. She also spent two years in the animal sciences as a canine nutrition researcher, focusing on longevity and holistic healthcare for our four-legged companions. Tamsin currently keeps a busy homestead with an assortment of rescue dogs and three Bullmastiffs.