Scruffing a dog is a training technique still recommended by some dog owners for teaching puppies right from wrong, and controlling or restraining older dogs. However it relies on training principles which, whilst once the cornerstone of canine education, have since been debunked and replaced with more modern methods backed by behavioral science. So if a well-meaning person has recommended scruffing your dog, here’s what you need to know about where that idea came from, whether it can ever work, and how it can backfire. And, what kinder, more effective training strategies to employ instead.
Your dog’s scruff
Your dog’s scruff is a loose area of skin at the nape of his (or her) neck. It extends from roughly the base of their skull to the bottom of their shoulder blades. And it’s about as wide as the space between their shoulder blades. The original purpose of the scruff was for your dog’s mom to move them around before they are old enough to walk. For example to move them to a new nesting spot if the original one stopped feeling safe. Or to retrieve a pup who had wiggled too far away from her.
Not long after they are old enough to stand and walk independently, puppies also become too heavy to carry by the scruff. Their mom instinctively knows when this point has been reached, and stops doing it. The skin will always remain a little bit loose at the scruff compared to the rest of their body. But its only remaining function is as a handy place for your veterinarian to administer shots!
What is scruffing a dog?
Scruffing refers to taking hold of a puppy or dog’s scruff and using it to shake them. Either as a deterrent or punishment for unwanted behavior. It’s also used to describe restraining or physically controlling a dog by holding onto the scruff of their neck.
Why do people do it?
There is a persistent myth that scruffing a puppy mimics the way their mom would have taught them the limits acceptable behavior. For example, if a playful puppy got too bitey, she would shake them by the scruff to tell them ‘enough is enough’. However, this does not happen. Mother dogs only use the scruff of their puppies neck to carry them from one place to another. And only while they are too small to make the journey themselves. They do not purposely shake their puppies while holding them. What’s more, she would not attempt to maneuver a puppy by the scruff at all by the time they are large enough to go home with a new family.
Some people have also been taught that scruffing a dog shows them who’s boss, if they don’t respond to your cues or commands. This is also outdated training theory, based on the disproven idea that dogs compete with humans for social status or dominance. And thirdly, some dog owners have been taught that holding a dog by the scruff of their neck will enable them to physically restrain a dog, or ‘steer’ them if they won’t walk somewhere willingly.
Does it work?
Scruffing a dog does not work to prevent unwanted behavior, make them respect your leadership, or give you safe physical control over their movement. In fact, it can have quite the opposite effect, and cause a multitude of unintended consequences. It can even be dangerous – for both of you. Let’s examine it as a deterrent for unwanted puppy behaviors first.
Scruffing puppies for ‘bad’ behavior
A common application of scruffing runs like this: a puppy parent finds their puppy chomping the baseboards. They tell the puppy ‘no’, and when that doesn’t work they grip the puppy by the scruff, lift them away from the baseboard, and shake them a little to punish the unwanted behavior. The idea is that the puppy will associate chewing the baseboard with being scruffed, and be deterred from doing it again. And whilst it’s true that deterrents (also known as ‘aversives’ in training parlance) can change a puppies behavior, they can also have many unintended consequences, including:
1. Failure of timing
Puppies live in the moment, and they have no concept of how your treatment of them relates to something they did more than a second ago. If a puppy parent finds their puppy sitting quietly next to a freshly-chewed baseboard and scruffs them, they’re punishing the quiet sit, not the chewing.
2. Forcing the puppy to hide the behavior
Even if the same puppy parent only scruffs their puppy when they catch it in the act, this can simply drive the puppy to conceal what they’re doing. Don’t want to get caught chewing a baseboard and be scruffed? Then chew the baseboard while mom and dad aren’t looking, or wiggle behind the sofa and chew that bit.
3. Creating shyness or aggression
Imagine if every time someone reached their hand out to you, you didn’t know whether they were trying to greet you or grab you. How many times would you gamble on it being a friendly gesture? How quickly would you decide that it’s best to just avoid all outstretched hands? If experience had taught you that being grabbed hurts, would you shout at someone with an outstretched hand to back off, or slap their hand out of the way in self defence? Probably. And so will a dog with experience of being scruffed. They will learn to avoid people, and bark or snap in a reactive or aggressive way at people who come close enough to make them uneasy.
4. Undoing other areas of training
Lots of successful training relies on your dog associating you with pleasant experiences. A dog who has learned that you might sometimes hurt them is inevitably going to be less motivated to come near you. Which can affect things like recall training. If a pup chasing livestock is having 100% fun, why would they swap that for coming back to you, when hanging out with you is only fun 90% of the time, and sometimes hurts?
Holding a dog by the scruff to assert your dominance
Another mistaken belief is that if a dog is not obeying you, it’s because they don’t respect you as their pack leader, and scruffing them is a way to establish your status. This is known as dominance theory, and it has long since been discredited. You dog is well aware that you hold all the power in your relationship. They know they rely on you for food, water, and access to the outdoors. When they don’t follow your instructions it’s because they either don’t understand what you want from them, or you haven’t made the correct response rewarding enough. Scruffing them for failure will only damage your bond and make them frightened of you.
Using the scruff to restrain or steer a dog
Finally, grabbing a dog by the scruff is a dangerous way of trying to physically control their movement. Mom dogs may readjust their grip on puppy’s scruff several times before setting off with them. Take a look at the video at the top of this page for examples. Seizing your dog by the back of the neck in the heat of a moment carries a huge risk of harming them. Furthermore some dogs’ scruffs are so loose that they still have enough range of movement to twist and bite you while you’re holding their scruff.
Does it hurt?
When a mom dog carries a puppy by their scruff, she understands how to do it safely, and when the time has come that she can’t do it safely any longer. Her puppies equally understand to go limp in her grip – if they wriggle they risk being left behind! So the whole operation is painless and comfortable for everyone. Likewise, veterinarians are taught how to safely grasp a dog’s scruff in order to use it as a vaccination site.
However, scruffing a puppy, or restraining a puppy or dog by their scruff does hurt them in most cases. Quite simply, the whole premise for it working is that it is unpleasant. Otherwise it wouldn’t work as a deterrent.
The dangers of scruffing a dog
A summary of the consequences of scruffing including:
- Punishing the wrong behavior.
- Forcing a puppy to hide unwanted behavior.
- Damaging your bond so they don’t want to hang out with you.
- Increased risk of shyness and aggression.
- Hurting their skin, and causing bruising.
- Damaging the delicate tissues in their neck, including their windpipe.
- Injuring their spine.
- Increased resistance to appropriate handling of their scruff, for example during grooming or at the vet.
- Potential injury to you if they twist and bite.
What to do instead
Instead of scruffing a dog, use force free, positive reinforcement training techniques, and safe handling methods. Not only are these safer, they are proven to be quicker and more effective at teaching desirable behaviors. And you’ll feel better about using them too.
- As far as possible, prevent puppies from finding opportunities to do things they shouldn’t. The easiest way is to create a completely puppy safe zone somewhere in your home, and supervise them very closely whenever they’re outside of it.
- Distract puppies from unwanted behaviors by engaging them in a more desirable behavior instead. For example, offer them a chew toy whenever you catch them eyeing those baseboards.
- Reward the behaviors you want to see more of, so your dog is more likely to repeat them. This includes ‘neutral’ behaviors like sitting or resting quietly.
- If your puppy gets over excited and starts biting you, remove yourself from the puppy zone for up to a minute at a time.
- Teach your puppy to feel comfortable wearing a harness, and grab that if you have a sudden and urgent need to restrain them.
Scruffing a dog – summary
Scruffing a dog is a type of physical punishment for unwanted behavior. It carries a high risk of hurting your dog, and it is not even the most effective way of changing the way they behave. It’s quicker and more effective to reinforce alternative, desirable behaviour instead. So take a look at our training guides for practical advice about how to do that, in a wide range of different scenarios.
The Labrador Site Founder
Pippa Mattinson is the best selling author of The Happy Puppy Handbook, the Labrador Handbook, Choosing The Perfect Puppy, and Total Recall.
She is also the founder of the Gundog Trust and the Dogsnet Online Training Program
Pippa’s online training courses were launched in 2019 and you can find the latest course dates on the Dogsnet website