Small dog syndrome

small dog syndrome

Little dogs make wonderful companions, so why do some people still think of them as yappy ankle biters? 

“Small dog syndrome” is a term that was coined for little canines who seem to like to throw their weight around. But are small dogs really yappier and snappier than large dogs — or is it just a myth? After all, many are calm, relaxed and laidback throughout their lives. But among those that aren’t, their behavior has as much to do with how humans interact with them, as it does with any need to make up for their diminutive size.

1. Change your perspective and approach

A good place to start is to try viewing things the way a small dog does, and by changing the way you relate to him. As family members, all dogs deserve our respect, but some people tend to treat small canines like babies, regardless of their age, and may be less apt to give them the personal space they would give a larger dog. Often, for example, our first impulse when interacting with a small dog is to pick him up and cuddle him – and not all animals are comfortable with that.

“What would the world look like if you were only as tall as a person’s ankles?” says certified animal behavior consultant, Darlene Arden. “Everybody would loom over you. Kids squeal and swoop down to hug a small dog, and an adult’s hands would look huge.”

Because of their diminutive size, some small dogs may feel threatened by people coming towards them, picking them up or bending down to hug them. They may also feel threatened by larger dogs. Barking or biting in these situations could simply be a reaction of fear or self defense. It could be a dog’s version of “Please don’t hurt me” or “A good defense starts with= a good offense”.

For a small dog that is still young, playing with a puppy of a larger breed lets him learn manners. As the puppy grows, the smaller dog will realize size doesn’t matter – this is the way we behave.

When meeting a small dog, try to treat him the way you would a larger one. “Allow him to approach instead of rushing at him, to ask before petting, to take time to let him sniff you and then rub under his chin rather than bouncing his head with your hand,” Darlene recommends. Instead of bending over him, get down to his level.

2. Is he getting enough exercise? 

Another potential cause of “small dog syndrome” can be lack of exercise. Many people assume small dogs don’t need much exercise, so they may not have the proper opportunities to expend their energy. Pent-up energy can lead to behavioural issues, including the stereotypical small dog behaviors. Exercise, both physical and mental, can help –regularly walk or run your dog, or get him moving with fun sports like agility and hiking.

3. How not to respond to unwanted behaviours

How you respond when or if your small dog displays an unwanted behaviour is also key, and could potentially lead to further feistiness. When a small dog goes after a cat, growls at an overly affectionate child, or behaves inappropriately with other dogs, how his person reacts will set the tone of the experience. He might be picked up, chided in a babyish voice, or encouraged by praise for “standing up for himself” – all forms of attention which, whether he enjoys them or not, will only prompt him to engage in these behaviours again.

“Dogs do what they think we want them to do,” says Eileen Proctor, an animal lifestyle expert. “It can be traced back to breed characteristics, learned/rewarded behaviour, or lack of socialization and awareness. Determine what is acceptable behaviour for your small dog around humans and other animals. Set boundaries.”

Training, socialization and awareness

  • “Training is more than important. It’s vital,” adds Eileen. Dogs of any size don’t like uncertainty. Rules give them security. With a small dog, training should begin as soon as you bring him home, regardless of his age. “Fear is learned,” says Eileen. “Role models and past experience show a dog how to react in a new situation. It’s harder to break a habit than it is to create one.”
  • Socializing the dog under controlled circumstances can help thwart “small dog syndrome”. Introduce him to new situations, people and others animals. However, the dog park is not the place to do this. “Try a doggie daycare instead,” says Eileen. “Dogs are usually separated by size, energy level and/or temperament. They’ve all been prescreened. Don’t be the canine version of a ‘helicopter mom’ and hover around to watch him. Introduce him to the people, tell him to have a good time and leave. Just like kids, dogs don’t behave the same way when their folks are watching.”
  • It’s also important to maintain awareness and respond appropriately when you and your small dog are out and about and/or interacting with others. “Part of your job is to scope out the area for possible problems,” says Darlene. “Don’t walk your dog while texting or listening to music. Enjoy your time with him.” If you see an unknown dog whose owner is not paying attention, cross the street. Don’t pick your small dog up. The larger dog may see it as playing keep-away. When that happens, it’s easy for you or your dog to get hurt. If a big dog doesn’t understand a little dog is not prey, it’s a problem. A big dog only has to shake a little guy once for the fight to be over – permanently. Don’t put your dog in a potentially dangerous situation.”

Whether your little buddy behaves inappropriately out of fear, aggression, sheer bossiness or basic attitude, it’s something you need to address. You can remedy the problem with training and socialization, and by appropriately rewarding good behaviours the same way you would for a larger dog – with treats or praise. With time and patience, your dog will be able to shrug off his “small dog syndrome” stigma!

Do’s and don’ts

Don’t let your dog be a bully just because he’s the size of a puppy. Set some rules and follow through. Redirect his attention, teach good manners, and promptly remove him from uncomfortable situations.

  • Don’t pick him up and carry him except when necessary. He needs exercise too, based on his age and ability, and too much coddling and cuddling can contribute to “small dog syndrome”.
  • Do crouch down to greet a small dog. You’ll appear smaller and more accessible.
  • Don’t let strangers pick him up. It might make him feel threatened and if he struggles and gets dropped by mistake, he could get hurt.
  • Do be your small dog’s protector – without being over-protective. Don’t leave him to fend for himself; keep an eye on him when he’s around other dogs or people. If he shows signs of potential aggression, end the encounter. The same applies if he is showing signs of anxiety. Is he licking his lips, shifting from one foot to another, not making eye contact with another dog? Those are calming signals designed to let the other dog know he’s no threat. Tell him “good boy” and withdraw.
  • Do use a 4’ to 6’ lead when on walks. A longer lead allows him to get out of range, which means that a sudden problem like an unleashed dog running toward you could spell trouble.
  • Do give him a safe haven at home, especially when you have guests and your house is noisy or crowded. Being stepped on is a serious thing.
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Sandra Murphy is a freelance writer who also works as a pet sitter.