The following is intended as a guide for first-time owners of Bearded Dragons (Pogona Vitticeps) and outlines the do's and don'ts of safe herp handling. It is based upon the author’s own personal experience with Beardeds, Rankins and Uromastyx.
“In the Beginning”
First, a little background. The Bearded Dragon is enjoying tremendous popularity here in the United States and throughout the world, earning a reputation of being one of the best lizard pets. Almost all animals sold are captive-bred, either in the United States or Germany. They have an excellent disposition, tons of character and a complex 'language' of head movements and arm waving (in the order of 70 distinct documented gestures) that makes them fascinating to watch. Dragons are very social animals that thrive on human interaction and will benefit most from being situated in a room where people congregate, such as a lounge.
Many books and care sheets will comment that Bearded Dragons are so tame that, in their native Australia, it is possible to pick up a wild Dragon without fear of being bitten. For the most part this is true, however, it is the approach and attitude of the handler that greatly determines the outcome of the encounter.
Like most captive-bred domesticated animals, the Dragon retains its most important feral instincts of hunting and survival. They are aware of their place in the food chain and are naturally cautious of humans and other large creatures, which may be seen as predators. The key to taming a Bearded Dragon is to remove its fear of you as a predator. This can only be accomplished through perseverance and trust.
Remember : When you first purchase your Dragon and bring it home, don't be tempted to try and pick it up or pet it for the first week. Moving to a new enclosure can be very stressful to the animal and any form of handling will only increase this stress.
“Don’t You Come Near Me”
Understanding the defensive ‘language’ of Dragons not only reduces the risk of stressing the animal. It will help you to avoid being bitten. A BD will never bite out of malice; only as a last resort when feeling threatened, but they have a serrated, saw-like jaw that can inflict some serious damage (particularly to young children). When threatened, a Dragon will exhibit some, or all, of the following :
An open (gaping) mouth
Puffing up its ‘beard’
A widening/flattening of the body
An audible ‘hiss’
A curving or arching of the back
A whipping of the tail
It is important to note that gaping is not just associated with defensive posture. Dragons will gape when basking to adjust their body temperatures. This is also known as thermoregulating. Gaping may also signify poor health (such as respiratory infection or parasite infestation) if exhibited in a cool area and without the presence of threat. Consult with your local herp vet if you observe this behavior in your animal.
“Softly, Softly, Catchee Beardie”
Juvenile Bearded Dragons are very curious and inquisitive. They are also incredibly fast and agile. They'll wriggle free, jump to the ground and find their way to the most inaccessible recesses of your home before you have a chance to move. For this reason, you will probably want to begin the taming and handling process in the Dragon's enclosure. Hand feeding is one of the best ways to achieve this, though it is not for the squeamish. Before putting loose crickets or mealworms into the enclosure take one and hold it between your thumb and first finger. Slowly lower your hand into the cage, about 6 to 8 inches from the Dragon. If it backs away, remove your hand (slowly), wait a few seconds and try again. Once you have the animal's attention, gently move your hand from side to side. Dragons hunt mostly by sight, so moving the insect will stimulate their interest in the food, rather than your fingers or hand, and encourage them to approach. Do not be tempted to move your hand closer to the animal, let it come to you. Be patient. Allow the Dragon a few minutes to see the food. If it doesn’t show any interest, or displays any of the defensive postures listed above, slowly remove your hand. Give the animal its food without any further handling attempts.
“Patience is a Virtue”
Don’t be discouraged if your Dragon doesn’t take food from you on the first attempt (or the second, or the third …) patience brings its own rewards. Keep trying the hand feeding and try to acclimatize the animal by letting it see your hand in its enclosure for a few minutes each day, even if you are not offering food. Keep your hand level with, or below, the Dragon’s body at a distance of 6 to 8 inches. Remember not to make any sudden movements and watch for any defensive gestures. If the animal wants to jump at your hand and bite it have a piece of leafy green vegetable, such as Collard or Mustard Green, at the ready. When the Dragon jumps, its mouth will be open and you can quickly substitute the veggies for your fingers.
“The Pick-up Artist”
Finally, the ‘coup de grace’. Picking up your Dragon. Assuming he/she has grown accustomed to your hand and touch (i.e. there are no further attempts to bite or run away), the rest is pretty straightforward as long as you follow the rules :
Don’t try and pick up a Bearded Dragon by lowering your hands from above. Dragons have a “Third Eye” (a series of sensory nerves) positioned on top of their heads – about mid-skull. The purpose of this “eye” is to warn the animal of attack from above. In the wild, birds are a natural predatory threat to Dragons. Lowering your hands towards the animal from above may be misinterpreted as a predatory attack and result in panic/stress to the Dragon causing it to bite.
Position your hand, palm upturned, below the Dragon’s bodyline and ‘scoop’ it up. Be sure to completely support its belly and limbs. If the animal flails its limbs or tail it is telling you that it doesn’t feel safe, so adjust your hand (use 2 hands if necessary) until he/she is comfortable.
As I said earlier, Bearded Dragons (particularly juveniles) are very fast, very agile and quite fragile. When picking up your Dragon, try to establish a hold that prevents it wriggling away from you but does not hurt the lizard. Avoid handling over hard surfaces, such as wood or concrete flooring, as a fall could result in serious spinal injuries and even death in juveniles.
Bearded Dragons are naturally inquisitive and like to explore. Create a controlled environment in which they can roam with your supervision.
If the Dragon breaks free and runs away try not to make sudden moves in an attempt to capture it as this will only scare it more and make it run further and faster. They have a habit of running under furniture (such as couches) or following the baseboards along walls. Sooner or later they will find a corner and that’s the best time to (slowly) approach them. Use the ‘scoop’ method to secure them and return him/her to their enclosure. They’ve probably had enough excitement for one day.
That’s about it really, except to reiterate that taming and handling will only be achieved with patience, practice, trial and error. It is born out of trust and trust is never given freely, it has to be earned.
Related Links :
Kathryn Tosney has an excellent site covering many aspects of Bearded Dragon ownership. Her article on Dragon handling can be found at: Click here!