Understanding Small Dog Syndrome

The world can be a big, scary place for small dogs.
The world can be a big, scary place for small dogs. | Source

What's Small Dog Syndrome?

What's small dog syndrome? For starters, consider that small dogs are generally those weighing less than 25 pounds. Small dogs syndrome is therefore depicted as a malady consisting of major behavior problems seen in these little fellows. Don't be fooled though by the many websites that portray small dog syndrome as a predisposition for small dogs to have big attitudes and a predisposition to boss you around on their agenda. Owners of such dogs are often told to toughen up, become the alpha and implement militaristic training methods where the dog must ask permission even to breath. Often, these harsh methods only make matters worse!

There doesn't seem to be an "official" definition for small dog syndrome. Most professionals refer to it as a collection of unwanted behaviors exhibited by pint-sized pooches. Whether it's possessive behavior, refusal to being handled or house training issues, as long as the dog is under 25 pounds and acting unruly, it's all clumped under the small dog syndrome category.

So what is small dog syndrome really? What I see, is a small dog in a big world. I put myself in the small dog's paws and try to imagine how it feels to walk around the big world. I see a big, scary world-- especially when you add on top of that lack of training and socialization (because many small dog owners think for some reason it's unnecessary) along with over protective pet parents and soon you'll have a recipe for behavioral problems. In the next paragraphs, I will share what I think it feels like being a small dog and how it can lead to behavioral issues.

Understanding the World From a Small Dog's Perspective

Fear is a universal emotion. It's felt by all living creatures sharing this world. Big or small, short or tall, all animals feel fear at some point in their lives. Fear is necessary for survival. Yet, the definition of what is fearful is personal. Whether rational or irrational, fear causes the same effects and is meant to help us survive.

It's quite natural to be fearful of larger animals. When I visited for the first time a dinosaur exhibit, I was 15. I still feel ashamed that those life-like, large-scale dinosaurs, that were moving and roaring, scared the heck out of me! Despite that fear being quite irrational, I rationalized and felt that my fear felt quite primal. Studies have shown that humans and dinosaurs may have co-existed. Well, not really humans, but the ancestors of humans. Yet, imagine how it must have felt to be so small and vulnerable among those large animals! Whether they were vegetarian or carnivorous, their large scale sure must have been intimidating! Back to a small dog's world, let's put sizes into perspective.

Humans are Big!

One of the first classes I trained years ago, featured a peculiar team composed by an overweight lady and her tiny shih-tzu. There was no denial over the fact that the shih-tzu was intimidated by her size. Every time the owner moved, the dog was moving away. The dog seemed to have a very strong awareness of where the owner's feet were. Perhaps the owner must have stepped on her some time. When we trained the sit command, the dog was always sitting at a distance. Of course, not all small dogs are so wary of their owner's size, but it's not surprising why many are.

Let's put things into perspective. A shih-tzu on average is about 7-9 inches tall. The average height of a human is 5 feet, 9.2 inches, that is about 69 inches. That's almost about 10 times taller! So if a human is about 5 feet, 9.2 inches, that is, 69 inches tall, and a Tyrannosaurus is about 23 feet, that is about 276 inches, calculate that a dinosaur is only about four times our size! Of course, to our dogs we're hopefully not intimidating as a dinosaur as we provide them with food, love and care, but it's not surprising that they're wary of where we put our feet! And imagine how it must feel when strangers loom over them!

Dogs are Big!

Fact: dogs are far more variable in size, shape and behavior than any other living mammal! We have extremes such as tiny Chihuahuas like Boo Boo, Guinness World Record for smallest dog, standing at only 4 inches tall and weighing 2 pounds, and then tallest dog, Giant George standing at an impressive 39 inches and weighing 245 pounds! It's generally quite natural for a small dog to be wary of large dogs (especially those who haven't been properly socialized), and even if the small dogs aren't fearful of them, there are always chances they may be stepped on and hurt by a larger dog during vigorous play, especially in dogs who don't self-handicap well. Depending on the small dog's resilience, the unfortunate event may have no impact, or may leave an everlasting negative impression. Of course, there are always exceptions. I know of many small dogs who love playing with the bigger dogs and don't even seem to realize the difference in size. On the opposite spectrum, there are many small dogs giving distance-increasing signals (barking, growling, lunging) every time they meet a larger dog on walks.

Poorly Socialized and Trained

Often, small dogs are a choice for people who live in apartments, the elderly and the couch potatoes. There's nothing wrong in getting these dogs if you have a small home or aren't too physically active, but small dogs still have needs. They still need socialization, especially when they're young. Some of them need more exercise than others. Lack of walks and poor early socialization and training, may lead to small dogs who are poorly socialized, and thus are more likely to be fearful and defensive. Good research on the breed's needs and proper upbringing is important.

Training is also often overlooked by owners of small dogs. Their pampered pooches are often allowed to get away with behaviors that are unacceptable in larger dogs. It's our role as owners, and our responsibility to teach our dogs behaviors that are appropriate by rewarding them as they unfold. Use positive reinforcement! Lack of guidance, consistency and training is what often leads to behaviors (jumping, whining, barking for attention) small dog owners find troublesome.

Subjected to Overprotective Parents

Many times, well-meaning pet parents, unknowingly overprotect their small dogs, not allowing them to experience the world. If a friendly large dog approaches, they are fast to swoop their small dog up, denying them again of important socialization. Let your small dog use his paws to explore the world and learn to live in it!

Attractive as Magnets

"I had to fit my Maltese in one those "please give me space" vests" one of my clients told me one day. Her Maltese was very hand shy and had a history of snapping at well-meaning people who found her face irresistible. Truth is, small dogs are attractive, they lure people like magnets. Why is that? Well, many of them were selectively bred to be lap dogs for the aristocrats. What many small, lap dogs had in common is that they were bred to retain puppy-like traits (neoteny) that made them look like human babies. You'll notice many of the toy breeds have folded ears, short legs, short muzzles, big eyes and large heads. Many pet owners perceive these dogs as surrogate babies and people are drawn to want to pet them, cuddle them and love them. So it's tough to be a small dog and keep people away. Large dogs are often more intimidating and are less likely to draw attention and people around them. It's therefore tougher for people to take reactive behaviors in small dogs seriously and more decisive measures may be needed to send them away. This creates problems with small dogs as they're allowed to rehearse aggressive behaviors over and over just because people cannot stay away from them.

Aggression is Accepted

This brings us to the next issue small dogs face. Because they're smaller, owners are less likely to seek professional help because thy believe they're less likely to cause harm than say a larger dog. This means that you're likely to see small dogs with ongoing behavior problems that may sadly never be addressed. While it's true that a Chihuahua's bite will never equal the bite of a Dogo Argentino, a bite can still cause significant damage and infections. Not to mention that a small dog who wants to bite, is often a very stressed dog. We often think about neglect as a dog who is deprived from water, food or veterinary care, but what about the dog's emotional well-being? Small dogs deserve professional, force-free behavior modification so to help them learn how to better cope with their fears.

Subjected to Mishandling

Because of their small size, small dogs are more likely to be hurt or mishandled. Toy breeds should not be in a household with very young children! These dogs are very frail and it takes very little for this dogs to be hurt by a child who has a wobbly gait and falls over one or carries the dog and drops him on the floor. Rambunctious child play can easily hurt one of these delicate pooches. Dachshunds have very vulnerable backs and a small child may cause harm to them by mishandling them. But children may not be the only issue, all it takes for an adult to pick up a small dog the wrong way, with little notice and causing pain, that the small dog may resent being picked up and may start growling/snapping/biting the next time you try to get him.

Traumatized by Grooming

Several small dogs have coats that are prone to matting and require regular grooming. For sensitive dogs, grooming may have an impact, especially if the groomer is harsh or painful mats need to be removed. This may lead to small dogs who get hand shy, shake at their grooming appointments and dread having their feet, ears and tail handled. In some cases, the dogs may even dislike having strangers approach them and touch them. Sensitivity to touch soon establishes. These dogs resent being touched and may growl, snap and bite. When the dog is immobilized for grooming sessions, he may learn that growling doesn't work to make the grooming session stop, and may feel compelled to go to plan B which is biting. Soon a behavior pattern establishes. Of course, this may happen to any dog and there may be wonderful groomers out there who take steps to make the sessions less painful, but because several small breeds require grooming, it's something to keep into consideration.

Dealing with Small Dog Syndrome

So how is small dog syndrome handled? Big dogs aren't the only to be portrayed as dominant, but so are many itsy-bitsy tiny dogs. If I could get a dime from every person who says that these dogs need to know their place in the "pack" and the owners must up their alpha leader role, I may fill up my over-sized piggy bank in no time. Well guess what? Dogs that come to me for behavior modification involving aggressive displays are mostly treated by me by using desensitization and counterconditioning rather than upping my "alpha status".The results are often remarkable. Fact is, small dogs are often simply fearful dogs who act the way they do because of negative experiences. And that is negative experiences from the dog's perspective not ours!

So does small dog syndrome exist? Yes, it definitively does, even though the same issues can be found in larger dogs, but it's for the most part not from dogs who want to rule the roost, but rather from dogs who are acting out of fear and that sometimes have owners who allow them to rehearse unwanted behaviors over and over. Yes, I can hear dog owners telling me "but my small dog wants to be the boss; indeed, she wants the couch all for herself!" In my experience, guarding the couch is often stemmed from insecurity, mistrust, negative experiences and an overwhelming need to seek comfort. Indeed, most cases get better with force-free behavior modification. It's ultimately our job as owners to acknowledge a small dog's need to feel more comfortable, implement confidence building exercises and provide them with much needed socialization and training.

Alexadry© all rights reserved do not copy

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Comments 6 comments

galine profile image

galine 2 years ago from Chicago

I had several small dogs and they would only play with big dogs, they ignored dogs their size. My one yorkiepoo would sit for hours when I had to cut he's hair - I was very slow because I would use scissors - I do not think my two had small dog syndrome in any way. Your article was interesting to read and I agree some people need to put their dog though training if they do not know how to handle their dog.


alexadry profile image

alexadry 2 years ago from USA Author

Sounds like you did an awesome job raising your small dogs. If your yorkiepoo would sit for hours being groomed it's a sign he's enjoying it and that's thanks to you that have put the effort in making it pleasant. Also, playing well with larger dogs is a sign your dogs were socialized, well and had positive experiences, which is wonderful!


epbooks profile image

epbooks 2 years ago from Las Vegas, NV

I had to laugh as I recall one day in training, there were four rotweillers-all friendly. A little Chihuahua walked up to them and barked his version of a ferocious bark, causing all 4 rotties to jump back in fear. I wish I would've gotten it on video. Never thought 4 big dogs would be afraid of a 5 pound pup!


alexadry profile image

alexadry 2 years ago from USA Author

Same here, my Rotts are sometimes intimidated by the small dogs who bark and lunge towards them and will speed up their pace. We have a neighbor with 5 chihuahuas who sometimes escape from the yard, and they try to nip my Rotts legs as they walk! Scary!


SueCarls profile image

SueCarls 2 years ago

Small Dog syndrome is mainly caused by owners treating the dog as a small dog, instead of a dog. Attitude is way more important to dogs than their size. No one picks up their Lab when he is barking at other dogs or afraid of whatever. This just tells small dog that they are higher up than others. Or that they should be fearful when owner picks them up & away from any "trouble". Some people think its ok to ignore a small puddle of pee, but would never do that with a big dog. More big dogs enter obedience classes but all dogs benefit from them in so many ways. No dog wants to guess at what we want your dog deserves guidance & instructions from You! Not just spoiling & carrying around.


alexadry profile image

alexadry 2 years ago from USA Author

Very true SueCarls, thanks for sharing your words of wisdom.

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