What is the scruff of a dog?
A dog’s scruff is an area of loose skin on the back of their neck.
Mom dogs may use the scruff to move their puppies. Dogs might also try to bite the scruff of another dog’s neck during fighting or play fighting.
There are very few situations when a person should ever grab a dog by the scruff though.
What Is The Scruff Of A Dog?
The scruff is an area of loose skin behind a dog’s neck.
It covers the area from roughly the base of their skull, to the center point between their shoulder blades.
And it’s about as wide as the distance between their shoulder blades.
The skin at the scruff of a dog’s neck is loose enough that it can be gently stretched away from their body a little.
How much the scruff can be lifted varies from dog to dog according to their size, weight, and individual genetics.
A thich, plush coat can also make it harder to feel where their scruff is.
What Is The Scruff Of A Dog For?
The natural use of the scruff is for mom dogs to pick their puppies up and move them around.
While they’re young enough for this to happen, they’re also light enough that being picked up by their scruff doesn’t hurt them.
In fact, having a safe and efficient way to scoop them up is a good way to ensure their survival while they’re too small to run away from danger.
What Is The Scruff Of A Dog For On Adult Dogs?
Once puppies learn to walk, and then run, they start to outgrow the natural function of the scruff.
But some people would argue that the scruff serves a function in adult dogs too.
Some mastiff breeds and pit bull type dogs have lots of loose skin that extends around their scruff, throat and jowls.
It’s thought that early breeders of these dogs pursued breeding lines with loose skin all around their neck because if another animal bit the loose skin, they would be more able to twist out of that grip, and deliver a counter bite.
This was considered a useful ability for livestock guarding dogs to fight off predators, and pit bulls fighting each other.
Interestingly, one of the most famously loose-skinned and wrinkly dogs, the Shar Pei, started out as a fighting dog, and would have had some exaggerated loose skin around their neck and scruff.
But most of their wrinkles today are actually the result of people actively pursuing dogs with extreme forms of the hereditary skin disease mucinosis, and purely because they like how it looks.
Probably the best known use of the scruff of the neck in adult dogs is as the site for administering puppy shots.
Puppies are routinely vaccinated against distemper, hepatitis, parainfluenza, parvovirus and rabies.
The vaccines are non-infectious, which means they only prompt an immune response if they are delivered subcutaneously – that is, under the skin.
The scruff is a good spot for getting shots beneath the skin because it’s easy to get to, and by lifting it gently the vet has a large area to insert the needle into without risk of penetrating other tissues.
Control and correction
Finally, the most controversial use some people argue for the scruff of a dogs neck is as a means of controlling and disciplining them.
Since it’s so controversial, let’s look at it in close detail.
Grabbing A Dog By The Scruff
Some people, including people who sincerely regard themselves as dog lovers, and trainers who seem completely credible, sometimes argue that grabbing a dog by the scruff is an acceptable way to get control over them, or correct bad behavior.
We disagree, and here’s why:
Grabbing a dog by the scruff to control them
Some dog owners believe that it’s acceptable to grab a dog by the scruff of the neck if it is necessary in the circumstances. Either to prevent them hurting themselves, another animal, or a person.
However, grabbing a dog by the scruff can damage the delicate tissues in their neck, and even cause them serious injury.
It’s far better to put a harness on your dog while you’re out, so you can grab that instead. This simple strategy means it will never be “necessary” to grab them by the scruff.
You can read more about our favorite harnesses right here.
Grabbing a dog by the scruff to discipline them
Next, some owners and trainers advocate for grabbing a dog by the scruff to put them off repeating unwanted behaviors.
Sometimes they even recommend shaking a dog by the scruff, or using the scruff to pin them down, to “show them who’s boss”.
Again, there’s the risk of seriously hurting them by doing this.
Also, the idea that dogs need to know who’s boss, or submit to us being their “pack leader”, is an out of date training theory which has been thoroughly debunked.
You can read more about that here, and trainers who still teach otherwise have some catching up to do!
Finally, it’s been shown time and time again that using punishment in dog training is very ineffective.
Punishing dogs for doing the wrong thing doesn’t teach them anything about what the right thing was.
It’s also painful, humiliating, and damages their emotional bond with you.
Using positive reinforcement training instead is a much happier, and more effective, way of teaching good behavior.
Is It Ok To Grab A Dog By The Scruff?
By the time your puppy comes home with you, they are already too heavy to lift by the scruff of their neck.
Doing so could damage the delicate joints and tissues in their neck, and even cause serious injury.
Furthermore, we’ve seen that grabbing a dog by the scruff of the neck isn’t an effective way of controlling your dog, or teaching them about the right way to behave.
So unless you’re a vet, there’s no reason why you should ever need to grab your dog by their scruff.
The Safe Way To Lift A Dog
When you need to lift your puppy or dog, it’s important to make sure that their entire weight is supported.
Use one arm to support them under their butt, and the other one to support their ribs.
While they’re little you might be able to do this by resting their entire body along one of your forearms, with your fingers pointing towards their chin, and their back legs tucked between the crook of your elbow and your body.
If they outgrow this, you might need to use both arms and pin them gently against your chest for maximum control.
If your dog gets too big for you to lift safely and comfortably, you can buy ramps to help with tasks like getting in and out of the car.
Never try to force a dog to move by lifting or dragging them by their scruff.
References & Further Reading
AAHA Canine Vaccination Guidelines. Journal of the American Animal Hospital Association. 2011.
Hedges. Unravelling dominance in dogs. The Veterinary Nurse. 2017.
Ziv. The effects of using aversive training methods in dogs—A review. Journal of Veterinary Behavior. 2017.