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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!

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