Small dog syndrome: what it is and what to do about it

30584721 1DDE 49DF A19F F6DCF6957EB4Nippy, yappy, disobedient, divas and drama queens – just some of the adjectives people use when referring to small dogs. But are these traits genetically related to their diminutive size or is it a bad rap with nurture more to blame?

I recently ran a poll in my stories, asking people if they identified as big-dog lovers, small-dog lovers or just dog lovers.I was a little surprised to see an only a couple of votes for the little guys and it got me thinking a lot more about the plight of the small dog.

Most of what we refer to as small dog syndrome is essentially fear-based reactivity; but the growling Chihuahua gets dismissed as ridiculous or funny whereas the growling Rottweiler tends to get taken a bit more seriously. But that Chihuahua is no less miserable, and quite possibly more so.

Based on my own observations, these are just a few of the reasons small dogs may end up with problem behaviours:

  • Lack of early socialization due to concerns over safety
  • Lack of training because they are more easy to manage
  • Failing to address problems early because you can always “just pick them up”
  • Finding fearful/aggressive behaviour in small dogs as funny as compared to large dogs
  • Disregarding a small dog’s boundaries because they are cute (such as picking them up constantly)
  • Treating them like accessories

That makes them more likely victims of circumstance than of genetics but a study performed at the Austrian University of Veterinary Medicine in in 2010 confirms this. Information was collected from over 1200 dog owners with the criteria for “small” being <20 kgs. Results showed that small dogs were in fact more prone to being excitable, disobedient, anxious, fearful and aggressive BUT that owners were an important influencing factor in their behaviour.

Owners of small dogs were found to be less likely to train, walk or play with their dogs. They were also more likely to be inconsistent in their approach. And as we would expect based on other studies, use of punishment was linked to higher incidence of aggression and excitability in ALL dogs but that relationship was even stronger with small dogs.

As someone who has lived with both big and small dogs, there are real differences in how we relate to them as well as different safety considerations but they are all big dogs in their own minds and should be treated as such. Some just happen to come in small packages.

So let’s break the stigma surrounding small dogs and give them the big lives they so richly deserve with proper respect, training, socialization and enrichment.