I recently received this question from one of my blog readers and thought I'd share the answer as a blog entry.
Reader: "My pup growls in what I believe to be irritation when I pick her up (to ensure she learns to settle down) during play sessions. As soon as I turn her to face me she is happy as a clam, licking my face, but I'm concerned about her growling, and how I might change this habit of hers."
Austin Dog Trainer: It sounds like you're trying to do the right thing with your puppy by interrupting her during play sessions. I generally recommend interrupting play every two minutes or so to make sure puppies don't become over-aroused.
Without knowing how old she is and seeing the behavior, it's really tough (and probably unsafe) for me to give specific training advice on line or tell you how serious this is. If left unaddressed, it could certainly lead to problems, though.
Here is what I can recommend:
1) Buy, beg, borrow, or steal the book The Culture Clash by Jean Donaldson. This is one of the best resources for raising a puppy and the earlier you get it and read it, the better. It should be required reading for any new puppy owner.
2) Begin to call your puppy over to you to interrupt play rather than picking her up. From your description, it sounds as if you're coming from either above or behind her to pick her up - this is likely threatening and frightening to her, hence the growl (if you want to learn more about our body language and your dog's body language, pick up The Other End of the Leash, by Dr. Patricia McConnell - this one should be required reading too!). My guess is that she would be responding more out of fear than irritation, but you'll need a professional trainer on site with you to really assess things.
For safety sake in the meantime, stop picking her up like that. Instead, try to move to where she is facing you or can see you, kneel down and clap your hands for her in a happy way - make her want to come check in with you. This will help keep you safe and stop her from practicing the behavior (practice makes perfect!) while you follow step 3, below.
3) Get her into a trainer! Again, I can't know how serious her growling may be unless I know more and see her. Dogs use growling as a way to communicate that something is not ok but you certainly don't want this to escalate into something more serious. You need to find a trainer who uses positive methods, is experienced working with puppies, and can assess the seriousness of this and teach you how to do handling exercises (teaching her that handling by humans is normal, and even good) and leadership exercises (benevolently, NOT alpha rolls or forceful methods) to help get you past this. A good place to start your search for a trainer is through the IAABC website or the APDT website.
Cara, Austin Dog Trainer