Cesar Millan poses with a dog.

I want you to imagine for a moment what it would be like if humans were the domestic pets, maybe of aliens or giants who are 20 feet tall. All of our needs are taken care off — food, shelter, medicine, and so on.

So you’re going about your business, maybe having a nap after a big meal, and then one of these gigantic owners lumbers in, leans over and reaches down.

Next thing you know, they grab you around your chest and haul you up. You suddenly find yourself at the height of a two story building with your hips and legs dangling uncomfortably in the air — and it’s hard to breathe because your owner is squeezing you a bit much around the ribs. You squirm around and struggle, so they grab your feet to sort of stabilize you, only now you have to hang onto their other hand and hope you don’t fall.

While your owner gushes flowery sentiments in baby talk, you can only think of two things. You really don’t like being held like this, but you really don’t want to plummet to your death. Either option is unpleasant and scary.

This doesn’t sound like a whole lot of fun, does it? And if you happen to be a very short person, the relative height can seem like it’s even more — four or five stories.

And yet — what’s the first reaction of a lot of people, especially when they see small dogs? They want to scoop them up and hold them because they’re cute. It’s a really hard temptation to resist and I totally understand it. Humans are biologically programmed to respond in a nurturing fashion to cute things. How do we nurture our own babies? Holding them to our chests to feed them, holding them over our shoulders to burp them, or holding them in our arms to comfort them.

For humans, being picked up like this, at least when you’re an infant or small child, is totally normal. It seems to be a common habit of primates. Apes and chimps do it, too.

But dogs are not primates. They don’t have thumbs and their forelegs don’t bend the right way for them to pick another dog up. A mother dog nurses her pups by lying on her side and letting them climb all over her. When she does pick one of the pups up, it’s with her mouth, and she does it by grabbing the scruff of the dog’s neck, which has the effect of immediately calming it down.

If you pick up a puppy by the scruff of the neck properly, it immediately goes completely limp and relaxed. Mother dogs know exactly how to do it. I don’t recommend you picking up a puppy by the scruff unless you’ve been taught how to do it and know exactly what you’re doing, by the way.

The point is that we always have to remember that dogs are different than people, no matter how much we consider them to be a part of our lives and families. Their psychology is different, so they don’t think or look at the world like we do. And their physiology and biology are different, so things that are quite natural for us to do are awkward for dogs and vice versa. If you don’t think so, try running fast for any distance on all fours, with your hands and feet flat on the ground. That’s what it’s like for a dog when we try to get it to do human things.

When a mother dog picks up her pup, she’s giving it a limit and discipline. Maybe the puppy has wandered too far from the den, or is getting too excited and needs a time out. When we pick up a dog, it’s to give affection — but we’ve already signaled to the dog that it’s doing something wrong. It isn’t going to associate being held with affection. All it will see is discipline given with very confusing signals.

There’s nothing wrong with considering our dogs to be a member of the family. We just have to also remember to let them be dogs and respect them by not forcing them to do human things.

Stay calm, and leave the dog on the floor!

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