A Small Dog Blog
Kassi Boyd MA Fear Free® Certified Trainer
As a Fear Free Certified® Trainer, who centers positive reinforcement in her methods, I find it funny that I am about to start this blog with a complaint about something I do not like (as opposed to celebrating something I do like). Please bear with me; allow me this complaint, and then I promise to round out this blog by focusing on some positives!
My complaint begins with a story about an outing I had with Olive. We met Erica and a client at dog-friendly store to do some training. Olive always has a fabulous time training at this store; it has become a place where she gets to see some of her favorite people (Erica and her husband, Sam, for example), do fun training activities that always result in lots of treats, and explore interesting sights and smells. The store staff are so kind and often make comments about Olive’s supreme cuteness (no wonder I love taking her there!).
During this visit, a staff member approached us and asked if they could pet Olive. When she’s in public, Olive often does not want to interact with strangers; instead, she is focused on training and gaining access to reinforcement (treats!). I responded with “thank you for asking, she does not want to be pet right now, but she would love to sniff you as you stand there!”. The staff member happily agreed, and Olive waddled over for a quick sniff before returning to me for a treat. Then the staff member proceeded to sit on the ground near Olive. So, Olive went over for a sniff. This time, the person reached out toward her, and Olive swiftly moved away from their hand. Harmless, right? But this is the crux of my complaint. Even though I had already indicated that Olive would not want to be touched, the person tried anyway. All too often, small dogs’ preferences, needs, and fears are ignored and overlooked simply because they are SMALL.If I had a large breed dog, and I said to someone that the dog did not want to be touched, you bet your bottom dollar that person would keep their distance. But because my dog is small and fluffy, with long, floppy ears, and small teeth, her preferences did not matter much to that person. This is just one example of the ways that small dogs, and their needs, are ignored; one example of the ways that human desires are prioritized over a small dog’s comfort.
Have you ever heard the phrase ‘small dog syndrome’? It is a stereotype that positions small dogs as inherently yappy and snappy (read: fearful). I do not believe in this stereotype. What I do believe is that humans are more likely to cross the boundaries of their small dogs, and ignore their subtle stress signals, which leads to small dogs having to shout to be heard.
Interestingly, the unique behavioral characteristics of small dogs are documented in the literature. For example, small dogs score high in aggression toward strangers and familiar people (McGreevy et al., 2013; Tonoike et al., 2015). They also score high in aggression toward unfamiliar dogs and territorial aggression (behaviors like barking and growling as people and dogs pass by their homes) (McGreevey et al., 2013). This research would certainly suggest that small dogs may in fact have ‘small dog syndrome’. However, researchers have suggested that some challenging behaviors in small dogs (things like ‘disobedience’, aggression, and anxiety) are influenced, to a degree, by the guardian’s behavior and interactions with their dog (Arhant et al., 2010). My goal here is not to play the blame game, but rather to muster some awareness for the idea that dog guardians do play a role in supporting their dog to feel safe, confident, and happy (regardless of their dog’s size).
Just because small dog distress is easier to ignore does not mean that the distress is small or any less real. Can you imagine being scared and having the person you trust ignore you? Can you imagine being fast asleep and someone coming to move you from your comfy resting position? Can you imagine finding hugs uncomfortable but being forced to be embraced by strangers? Can you imagine setting a clear boundary with a friend and having them repeatedly ignore that boundary? These kinds of things happen to small dogs all the time.
I think people often forget that almost everything in a small dog’s world is bigger than them! This simple reminder may be all some folks need to gain a bit more patience, empathy, and understanding of their small dog’s needs. Small dogs deserve all the things that every dog deserves! They deserve to feel heard, to be given space when needed, to have their fears taken seriously, to learn important life skills, and to be given opportunities to be a dog. This brings me to the positive and celebratory portion of this blog.
I have engaged with several clients who have small dogs and work hard to understand them, their body language, their boundaries, their preferences, and their needs. I love this, and all these things should be celebrated.
Shout out to all the people with small dogs who are:
Helping them feel safe and confident in this very big world
Comforting them when they are scared and not discounting fear as ‘small dog syndrome’
Reading their body language and respecting their boundaries
Using long leashes to encourage freedom of movement
Asking their dog for permission before picking them up
Waiting for their dog to indicate that they would like to be pet, before they pet them
Giving them outlets to perform doggy behaviors
And advocating for them every single day!
I am seeing more and more of this in my work as a trainer, and daily life as a fellow small dog guardian. I am hopeful that things only continue to get better and better for small dogs everywhere. If you want to learn more about canine body language, so you can better understand your small (or large!) dog, feel free to visit this link. Your dog will thank you!
Arhant, C., Troxler, J., Bubna-Littitz, H., Bartels, A., & Futschik, A. (2010.). Behaviour of smaller and larger dogs: Effects of training methods, inconsistency of owner behaviour and level of engagement in activities with the dog. Animal Behaviour Science, 123(3–4), 131–142
McGreevy, P. D., Georgevsky, D., Carrasco, J., Valenzuela, M., Duffy, D. L., & Serpell, J. A. (2013). Dog behavior co-varies with height, bodyweight and skull shape. PLoS ONE, 8(12), 1-7.
Tonoike, A., Nagasawa, M., Mogi, K., Kikusui, T., Serpell, J. A., & Ohtsuki, H. (2015.). Comparison of owner-reported behavioral characteristics among genetically clustered breeds of dog (Canis familiaris). Scientific Reports, 5, 1-11.