Small dogs are unevenly represented on bite statistic reports, which many attribute to the “small dog syndrome”. Small dog syndrome is hypothesized to be interplay of genetic factors, owner handling and lack of training creating an overall reactive and uncontrollable animal. Multi-national studies have found evidence of this, particularly in the Jack Russell Terrier, Cocker Spaniel and Dachshund. The Chihuahua breed has risen to the top in the category of aggression to all targets: family, other dogs in the home and strange dogs. They have unfortunately become one of the top surrendered breeds to Humane Societies in the US, as owners discover that they cannot manage the behaviors.
Small dog syndrome is characterized by a number of exogenous and endogenous factors that interact to determine how the behavior chain will play out. Genetics and temperament are important and intractable elements in behavior, but other internal and external factors can be manipulated. We can interrupt the learning loops that encourage and effectively train the behavior , reducing the rewarding effect. Any behavior that successfully delivers a desired outcome has a greater potential to be repeated – dogs of all sizes do what works for them. When the small dog reacts aggressively and the person or animal retreats, they are rewarded for engaging in the behavior. Owners may not initially feel as threatened by a bite coming from a 10-pound dog; something that would be quickly recognized as dangerous in a German Shepherd may be tolerated far longer in a small dog.
There are many unanswered questions regarding the small dog syndrome phenomenon, including why they are so quick to escalate in their aggression. A potential factor that may significantly contribute to the maintenance and severity of the behaviors in question is owner-training methods. There is evidence that small breeds are prone to demonstrate heightened reactivity and aggressive responses when physical punishment methods are employed, which may be a result of being more vulnerable to the physical manipulation of the owner.
Dominance training encourages owner behaviors that are counterproductive to creating a calm dog, and owner induced aggression is often the result. In a recent survey study, it was found that 31% of owners utilized the alpha role, and that a quarter of these interactions resulted in an aggressive response. Since the small dog is easier to physically master, the alpha role is frequently employed and the incidence of aggression to familiar people escalated when these methods were used.
What can be done to avoid small dog syndrome in your pet?
Respect and treat them as a dog! Many actions that an owner would not/could not continue with a large breed past puppyhood, are maintained with small dogs. Small dogs are often subjected to excessive and unwanted handling, with no respect to how the dog may feel at the time. Behaviours such as:
- Scooping the small dog up from behind, with no warning that they are being lifted, can contribute to a lack of confidence and heightened reactivity on the approach of a person.
- Holding the small dog in your arms while forcing them into the belly up position for petting can make them feel quite vulnerable and may elicit an unwanted reaction.
- Allowing the dog to be petted by others while trapped in the owner’s arms. This prevents them from showing fear or defensive body language, or to remove themselves from the unwanted attention. Their remaining line of defense is to their teeth.
Find suitable socialization opportunities. This includes safe interaction with different size dogs and novel people under 16 weeks of age. Owners often do not get their small breed dog out early, fearing that it is too fragile. The fact that they continue to look like a young puppy can lead an owner to feel that they don’t need to start training in earnest until they are much older. Early exposure will build a better understanding of what is acceptable in their world and make a significant difference in the adult behaviour. This is especially true for breeds that have been shown to possess a heightened inclination to generalized reactivity. We want to build their confidence, so that they feel safe and not on the defensive!
Daily exercise outside is critical! Although they may not need as much space as a larger breed, it is still crucial to let them learn how to behave in the world. Exercise also increases the brain’s ability to deal with stress, which is so important for any breed that is prone to the shy end of the boldness spectrum.
Train them as you would a larger breed. While a small dog misbehaving may not seem as challenging as a Golden Retriever, it can and often does escalate to more forward behaviours as they learn that they can control the actions of those around them. The more they practice behaviours such as lap or food guarding, the more entrenched it can become, until we arrive at the small dog with an outsized attitude of entitlement! A simple matter of house guidelines for any sized dog, so that they build manners and respect is important. Set meal times, require basic manners before walks, invite them onto the furniture and practice asking them to get off on command. Just because they are little does not mean they don’t have a high level of intelligence that needs to be directed!
Care around Children! Small dogs are at particular risk being handled inappropriately by small children, which can escalate their perception that they need to be on guard around them. Parents need to instruct children to allow the pup to come to them, ideally while seated on the floor, precluding the need to pick up the puppy. This will help to build improve the sense of safety for the pup, reducing anxiety and defensive displays.
Small dogs can accomplish anything and everything a large breed dog can do, but we do need to be respectful of their greater vulnerability due to size. Look at things from their (very low) point of view!