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all articles by Lisa Lafferty unless otherwise noted.  Some previously published on K9Station (defunct) under author's previous name Lisa Giroux

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Raising and Training a Small Dog

There are a set of behaviors that often show up in small dogs.  Everybody knows it, most people think it's just a small dog thing. And, it's true.  Small dogs often act in stereotypical ways.

  • Aggressive in many ways--make aggressive threats to outsiders, bite their owners on a regular basis, very aggressive when meeting other dogs.

  • Guard their stuff, vociferously!

  • Aren't reliably housetrained

  • Bark a lot.  All the time.  At everything.  If the wind stirs a blade of grass in the yard, it's OMG STRANGER DANGER STRANGER DANGER

  • Don't listen to their owners

Now before you think I have something against small dogs, be aware that I love small dogs.  During my time playing flyball, small dogs were a valuable commodity, serving as "height dogs" for the team, and I learned during this time that small dogs absolutely ROCK.  I was surprised, though, because the small dogs I saw at flyball pretty much acted like big dogs--very differently than my experience with small pet dogs that I had encountered during my life.

So, why would all the little guys  in flyball act like "real dogs" instead of how I had seen other small guys acting my whole life?  Let me give you a big clue.  Small dogs have all the same instincts and behavior sets that big dogs do...they are not born with a tendency to do all the things in the bullet point list above.

So why do a lot of small dogs turn out to have a Napoleon complex?

There are two reasons. 

  1. People tend to hold the dogs in their arms a LOT. 

  2. People tend to have a very different emotional connection with small dogs, which causes them to have a different attitude about raising and training them.

So, the bottom line is that small dogs start out "normal" genetically--they are born with all of the same possibilities as larger dogs.  It is how they are raised and trained that causes the stereotypical "little dog" behavior.

So how does it happen?

Puppy comes home.  It's tiny and sweet and cute.  It's easy to hold, and sparks an emotional response of "it's a baby" when people hold it.  So, puppy gets held--a LOT.

The owners "show" the dog everything while the dog is being held.  The dog has absolutely no way to do a normal investigative approach to things, like a big dog would because it is literally ALWAYS in someone's arms.  A big dog puppy would be on the floor or ground, maybe on the leash, maybe not. 

Let's compare the learning experience.

A big dog puppy sees its first adult dog, a stranger dog.  The puppy uses all the body language that it learned from its mom and littermates to make the situation as calm as possible, to convey to the new dog "I'm not sure, wait a minute."  The puppy takes its time slowly approaching and getting to know the big dog, coming close, moving away, lying down, bouncing around a little maybe--but the puppy has a chance to learn, through its own actions, how to approach, gets to see how the strange dog reacts, and usually within a moment or two, the puppy has learned that strange dogs introduced by his owner are kinda fun, and usually safe.

Now let's compare and contrast how a small dog gets "introduced" to other dogs.  The owner is holding the puppy and invites the stranger dog (who is probably intensely interested already and possibly a little excited) to come close and sniff the puppy.  The puppy is prevented from using any body language to control the situation.  But despite how the puppy might be feeling (a little unsure), that new dog comes straight up and sniffs him all over. 

The same is true of how a small dog is presented to people.  Often, owners hold the little puppy all the time and then either permit people to just come up and touch and coo over the puppy, while the pup is restrained, and sometimes the owner just hands the puppy to the strange person.

Just imagine this situation:  you are at my house and I tell you that I have discovered Bigfoot, and he's my friend.  I then put you in a full nelson, restraining you with your whole body exposed as Bigfoot approaches, and Bigfoot rushes up, puts his face close to yours, sniffs you all over while touching you with his nose, hands and body.

What kind of attitude do you think you would have?  Would you be happy, feel safe, or trust me?  No.  You would be terrified, frozen, with adrenaline rushing through your body and experience a massive episode of drastic fear.  You might scream, or try to kick or struggle.

This is kind of a silly example, but it perfectly illustrates how small dogs learn to see their world.  Nearly everything they see is "shown" them while they are being held.  They have no opportunity to withdraw, take it slow, and check it out in a way that makes them comfortable.  This happens to them multiple times a day for LIFE.  So what does this teach a puppy?

Invariably, the puppy gets scared enough at one point or another to growl or bark.  The person holding the dog usually then pets and cuddles the dog, cooing "it's ok baby."  Worse still, the person holding the dog flinches back (distancing the puppy from the Scary Thing), and even worse still, the thing approaching (a person or dog, etc) flinches back when it happens. 

So the dog learns the following:

  • New things that come at me are to be dreaded.  After all, my owner forces me to let them touch me an manhandle me no matter how I am feeling.

  • When I use aggression to make things stop, my owner thinks I am right.  Look at how she looks at me--she's concerned about the thing too!  Just look at her face!  And, she pets me and praises me and tells me I'm right and that I did the right thing to act like that.

  • Since little acts of aggression work, over and over, to get the things to stop coming at me, I will start using aggression over and over and from greater distances--and guess what!  That works too!

  • The puppy's instinctual and learned body language fades, because he's not getting to practice using it.  So even when he's approaching things on his own, he chooses an offensive aggressive technique, because his non-offensive techniques haven't worked for him at all in the past and he's had great success with noise and aggression.

So now we've got a dog that has basically been well-trained that aggression, bluff charging, snarky barking, are the things to do.

Now let's talk about some of the other stuff that happens in our original list.

Guards their stuff, vociferously--When they display hints of resource guarding (food aggression, toy aggression, bed aggression, "that's my person" aggression), people think it's funny.  Often a small dog owner will set the dog up to guard stuff, just to laugh about it with friends.  Over and over the dog learns that guarding its stuff works.

Aren't Reliably Housetrained--People often use pee pads for small dogs, and do not take housetraining as seriously as people with big dogs.  A small dog pee accident is the size of a silver dollar.  A poop accident is the size of one and a half Tootsie rolls.  These are a far cry from a Border Collie accident--pee the size of a paper plate or bigger, big ole poops that are REALLY smelly and gross to pick up.  The pee pads, whether for a small dog or a big dog, usually are used by the dog...but the side effect of using them is that the dog learns to pee on things laid on the floor.  By the time the dog is 6-8 months they have extended this understanding to include mats lying on the floor, a piece of paper, or a coat or purse that someone has left down.  Small male dogs begin marking everything they feel like marking (lifting their leg) and aren't often seen doing so--usually the owner discovers the marking spots long after the dog has done it.  So the dog learns that it can basically pee and poop whenever and wherever it feels the urge.

Barks a Lot--Some small dogs tend to be genetically barky--dogs like Pomeranians, Maltese, terrier breeds, etc.  But this is true of many larger breeds that do not end up as barky as their smaller counterparts.  Small dogs are often free-fed.  It's boring to be free-fed.  Also when a dog is free-fed it blunts their desire to chew and dissect which are important pieces of mental stimulation for a dog.  They aren't often taught a lot of obedience or taken anywhere to have mental stimulation, spending most of their time freewheeling around their house or backyard--and they are bored spitless.  So they start obsessing about activity, anything to relieve the boredom, and they start watching at windows, being really reactive to new activity like visitors, and they look for any reason to get excited.  Combine this with an owner that isn't actively caring whether or not the dog barks, or worse yet, makes a big fuss when the dog barks, and you have a dog that has slowly but surely learned that getting over-excited and turning himself inside out barking is WAY MORE FUN that just being calm.

Don't Listen to Their Owners--Small dog owners can easily control their dog by simply picking him up.  Plus they emotionally react to him as if he's a baby.  Nowhere in this conundrum is there a good reason for the owner to set up good boundaries and rules, despite the fact that if the dog was behaving like this and was also a large dog, the owners would see the need to take action for training.  By the time the dog is 7-8 months old, it has developed a set of routines and habits through its own choices.  He has no experience of following direction, and has often learned that trying to push through and around his owner works really well.  This means the dog ignores the owner when the owner is trying to direct him, nearly every time.

How do I prevent all of this?

The single thing that is different about small dog raising and big dog raising is that small dogs do need to be protected from big rowdy dogs overwhelming them.  This can be easily done through judicious use of leash and control of the OTHER DOG.

Other than that, here's the simple answer.

Pretend your dog is a Bull Mastiff, and raise and train your small dog with his feet on the floor.  Avoid picking him up unless you are at home and cuddling--train him to navigate his world on his own two feet.

Socialize him freely with dogs that will not bowl him over constantly and that will allow him to act like the dog he is in these encounters.

Train him all the obedience behaviors you would teach a big dog.

Feed him twice a day and make him sit/stay/wait to be released to food.

Give him excellent chew items like stuffed Kongs, butcher bones, and the like.

Teach him a great recall so you can free run him.

Teach him to retrieve so you can have a fun and stimulating game to play.

In other words, pretend he's a Bull Mastiff, raise him exactly the same way, and he will be a "real dog" with none of the "small dog" traits.  Pretty simple, huh?

If you have a small dog that shows a lot of the traits I listed above already, fortunately there's a quick fix.  Start treating him like a big dog.  For a period of two to four weeks, keep him on leash in the house and get the housetraining and leadership issues under control. Stop holding him all the time.  Stop using "scoop and hold" to cut off problem behaviors, and train him like you would a big dog if the big dog were doing all that stuff.

Four on the Floor Gets You More when it comes to small dogs.

Plus, how would you like it if you were the pet of a giant and were constantly physically manhandled and grabbed?  Nope.  Nobody would like it. 

He may be little, but he's a dog.  Let him be one!




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Lisa & Kerry Lafferty  /  ozarklisa@gmail.com  /    Mountain Home, Arkansas