Little dogs often get a bad rap. People who dislike small dogs say that are yappy, hyper-excitable, nippy (reactive), untrained, and often spoiled (whatever that means) . Indeed, it appears that even the Wicked Witch of the West had it in for the wee ones.
So, are any of these beliefs true? Are little dogs truly as bratty as some would have us believe? And, if indeed small dogs are found to exhibit more than their share of bad behaviors, are these inherent traits that come along with the miniaturized body type or does the owner shoulder some of the responsibility for junior’s transgressions?
Once again, we turn to science for some answers.
Background: When surveyed, owners of small and toy breed dogs have indeed been found to rate their dogs as more excitable, disobedient, impulsive, and in some cases, more likely to bite, when compared with owners of large dogs (1-4). Factors that may contribute to the reported differences between small and large dogs could originate with the dog, with the owner, or via idiosyncracies of the relationship between the two. In 2010, a group of researchers at the Austrian University of Veterinary Medicine decided to study these factors (5).
The Study: This was a large study. The authors surveyed almost 1300 dog owners in urban and suburban areas who were living with one or more companion dogs. The questionnaire collected information about owner and dog demographics, history of ownership, daily activities, dog care/training practices, and owner perceptions of their dog’s behavior and response to commands. For this study, dogs were classified as “small” if they were reported to weigh less than 20 kg (~44 lb) and large if they weighed 20 kg or more. Following collection of the completed surveys, the researchers used a statistical technique called Principle Component Analysis (PCA) to identify correlated groups of questions that suggest common underlying factors or themes. Three dog trait factors were identified: Obedience, Aggression/excitability, and Anxiety/fearfulness. Two primary owner factors that were found were Consistency and Training Methods, and the most important owner/dog relationship factor was Shared Activities.
Results: When the small and large groups of dogs were compared, several statistically significant differences were found:
- The dogs: Small dogs were reported by their owners to be significantly less obedient and significantly more excitable, anxious/fearful, and aggressive than were large dogs. These results confirm those reported by other researchers.
- The cause? However, contrary to many popular stereotypes about little dogs, it appears that the owners (not the dogs) were an important influencing factor in the expression of these undesirable behaviors……Dorothy, Take Note.
The Owners: The owners of the small dogs were found to be less likely to train their dogs, less likely to play with their dogs, and were also less consistent in their interactions with their dogs.
- Correlation: Moreover, significant positive correlations were found between frequency of play and interaction, owner consistency, and better obedience in the small dogs. While not evidence of causation, these correlations do suggest that it is the owners who have more to do with the reputation of little dogs than the dogs themselves.
- Training methods: This was the first study to compare the types of training methods used by owners of small and large dogs. No glaring differences were found, but small dog owners were found to use punishment (+P) less frequently than large dog owners. However, one should NOT use this result as evidence that “small dogs need to be punished more frequently”, because the study also found that the frequent use of punishment during training was strongly correlated with an increase in aggressive behavior and excitability in both small and large dogs. Interestingly, greater reliance upon punishment during training was also associated with greater anxiety/fear in the small dogs, but not in the large dogs.
- Study strengths: Two definite strengths of this study were the number of dog owners that were interviewed and the detailed information that was collected. The large number of questions in the survey allowed the use of a statistical method (PCA) that identifies emerging concepts and that can enhance the reliability of results.
- Study limitations: Limitations are those observed for all volunteer survey studies. A self-selection bias is expected to occur, since people who are more interested in dog-related topics and therefore probably more committed to their dogs are more likely to respond. Second, results reflect owner perceptions rather than objectively measured behavior. Although owner bias must be considered, it is also true that owners know their dog best and that a researcher would be able to obtain only a short snap-shot of each dog’s behavior and habits. Direct observation by researchers would also indisputably reduce the number of owner/dog pairs that could be included in a study of this type – consider the logistics of attempting to interview and observe almost 1300 owner/dog pairs!
- Small and large dog categories: A final note regards the size categories that were used in this study. Dividing the dogs into two groups of less than 40 lbs (small dogs) and greater than 40 lbs (large dogs), may have missed some of the idiosyncratic dog and owner characteristics that are commonly reported in toy breed dogs, those of the 10 lbs or less variety. I would have found it interesting if results for toy breed dogs, those that conveniently fit on laps and who are often carried rather than walked, had been reported and compared with larger dogs.
Take Away for Dog Folks:
- For trainers and behaviorists: This study confirms what many of you already suspect – that small dogs are not inherently little jerks, but rather it is their owners’ inclination to tolerate undesirable behaviors and disinclination to spend time training and exercising their dogs that have lead to Toto’s nefarious reputation (Bad Dorothy). Keep on fighting the good fight – promoting fair, consistent, +R-based training to owners of all dogs, including the wee ones.
- For owners of the little guys: As with certain other aspects of life, size does not matter. Little dogs, just like their big-boned cousins, require regular training and consistency and they thrive on daily exercise and play. And as this research shows, your dog is less likely to become fearful, anxious, or show aggression when trained using methods that emphasize positive reinforcement than when trained using methods that emphasize punishment. Get out regularly with your Toto to train, walk and play with him. Oh, and avoid the witch. Rumor has it that she doesn’t like little dogs.
- Bennett PC, Rohlf VI, Owner-companion dog interactions: Relationship between demographic variables, potentially problematic behaviours, training engagement and shared activities. Appl Anim Behav Sci 2007; 102:65-84.
- Guy NC, Luescher US, Dohoo SE, et al. A case series of biting dogs: characteristics of the dogs, their behaviour, and their victims. Appl Anim Behav Sci 2001;74:43-57.
- Kobelt AJ, Hemsworth PH, Barnett JL, ColemanCG. A survey of dog ownership in suburban Australia—conditions and behaviour problems. Appl Anim Behav Sci 2003; 82:137-148.
- Vas J, Topal J, Pech E, Miklosi A. measuring attention deficit and activity in dogs: A new application and validation of a human ADHD questionnaire. Appl Anim Behav Sci 2007; 103:105-117.
- Arhant C, Bubna-Littitz H, Bartels A, Futschik A, Troxler J. Behaviour of small and larger dogs; Effects of training methods, inconsistency of owner behavior and level of engagement in activities with the dog. Appl Anim Behav Sci 2010; 123:131-142.
24 thoughts on “And Your Little Dog Too……”
The only small dogs our family has experience with are havanese and they do not fit the typical stereotype of the yappy, nippy small dog. Rather, they are the complete opposite! While I am certain that training plays a large role in that negative behavior, I think that they are also tendencies that are just inherent in the breed. I can tell you that I have been around a lot of other small dog breeds that yapped and yapped, even biting my heels! I think it is both nature and nurture, but good training would certainly go a long way in correcting this behavior. I tend to think that it is an issue of the lil guys being treated like the baby of the family and pawparents just not having the know-how and determination to correct it.
Wow, this is amazing… I have a “foster failure”, that was in a shelter for almost 3 months before I got her. She’s 19lbs now and has always been reactive to other dogs… I have another dog who is the epitome of a canine “social butterfly”, 20lbs, who gets along with everyone.
They’re Jack Russell/Chiuahua crosses.
She has an amazing bond with my boy dog (pretty much from day 1) and they play, wrestle and share toys with each other. She “allows” him in her space and he is the only dog she will play with.
When she first came to me I could tell she was very fearful of other dogs, she would snap/yap/snarl if they paid any kind of attention to her. Over the past 2 years I have owned her this behavior has diminished to the point of only making noise if a dog impolitely got in her face (understandable). I can tell she is curious about other dogs, especially small dogs and she will initiate play then run away in fear. I taught her that she is safe with me (and my husband), and if she gets scared she will come and sit behind me or next to me (or my husband) and the other dog will get the message and leave her alone…this has evolved “organically”… Intuitively I wanted her to have a “safe place” when we went to venues like the dog beach or off leash hikes, which my other dog thrives on. I see her improving over the months and I”m so stoked I found this article as it reinforces what we have been working on… I don’t ever expect Mazy to be a social butterfly on par with Augie, but I want her to be comfortable and confident that she has a safe place if she feels at all threatened or frightened by another dog.
So far it seems to be working and this article taught me that we are on the right path with Mazy!
My two dogs go almost everywhere with us…we recently got back from a 1500 mile road trip with them and had a fantastic time staying in dog friendly B&B’s and motels…your dogs put out what you put into them, good or bad, little or big. We don’t let our dogs act like little yappy dogs, they behave and are so friendly people constantly remark on how they “don’t act like little dogs”… LOL! We feel good manners are good manners, whether a dog is 75lbs or 20lbs, there shouldn’t be a double standard in what is acceptable behavior in a dog. (but I realize small dogs are different, lol)l.
Thank your for this blog post!!! Gave me a lot of food for thought to help me continue to work with Mazy and her fear of other dogs. 🙂
I have been a Professional Trainer/ Behaviorist for over 40 years and in my experience the research study was right on! I found the article posted on Linked-in and followed the link here. I’m very glad I did.
I have trained many little dogs (under 15 lbs.) for their owners. I have also trained many large dogs (50 lbs. +) for owners that had little dogs too. My theory is that we (yes, including me) humans have a definite double standard of behavior for our dogs according to size. Behavior that was acceptable for the under 15 lb. crowd would NEVER have been tolerated from the over 50 lb. dogs. As I read the article case after case came to mind of this phenomenon.
They would just pick the little dog up before they opened the door so he wouldn’t run out. Of course if he did he certainly wouldn’t come back til he’d had his run of the neighborhood with the whole family chasing him. The bigger dog has to come when called and know not to run out the door in the first place. I offered many people package deals on both dogs for a very small extra fee. Very few owners accepted the offer preferring instead to “just deal with the little one”.
It’s very frustrating for all concerned to try to housebreak a lab puppy that is pooping fire logs when the little tootsie roll pooper goes wherever he pleases! A teaspoon of urine can be overlooked on the carpet but half a gallon is an issue!
I have always owned at least one little guy along with raising German Shepherd Dogs. The little dogs were the “crumb catchers” allowed in the kitchen when I was cooking. No Shepherd ever failed to leave the kitchen when the first pan hit the stove. They didn’t come back til the meal was over but the little guy was lurking under the table cleaning up after the kids. Little dog was allowed on the furniture and in the bed … forbidden territory for Shepherds.
Sorry little guys … if you’ve gotten a bad rep it’s we humans that set the double standard.
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Having ended up with the smallest dog I’ve lived with to date (13lbs), I could become a small dog convert. They fit nicely in the bed, don’t eat as much, and take the prize for cuteness in tricks classes.
Thanks for the comment, Debbie! Have heard from a few “wee ones” lovers!
Great article and I’ve also reposted it. I see quite a few “bratty” little dogs in my massage practice (and many sweet, well-behaved ones), and always thought the problem is the people.
Hi Janice – Thanks for your comment. Agreed – I definitely did not intend this article to malign small dogs and thought the research regarding potential underlying causes was interesting. Thanks for reposting!
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I have a small dog–the first ever in my life. I was already a senior when I got Puppy. She is pretty well behaved. in fact, I have farm friends who say she is the only dog (or sometimes only small dog) they “like”. So my vote is that least one runt Coton is reasonably well-behaved in this corner of the world. (and not because I’m a good trainer, she is my learning curve, but I know she is happy to please me when she understands my desires)
Hi Maxx – Thanks for your comment. Puppy sounds like she is a real gem and we will definitely count her as one of the well-mannered (and clearly beloved) wee ones! I imagine that she feels she has hit the jackpot with you as well. Thanks for writing and for following! Linda
Reblogged this on peakmemory and commented:
“This study confirms what many of you already suspect – that small dogs are not inherently little jerks, but rather it is their owners’ inclination to tolerate undesirable behaviors”
My little dog can be seen at:
Thanks for the reblog! (Oh, and your wee one sure is cute! 🙂 Thanks for sharing! Linda
ha, thanx, Buzz, for writing, what I was about to comment 🙂
Good information to pass along. Working in a shelter I often hear how people don’t want a chihuahua because they are yappy and nippy; it’s nice to have some science to offer them in the hopes they will see small dogs in a new light. I have a chihuahua myself and notice that even I tolerate behaviors in him that I probably would be more inclined to work with if he was bigger. Thank you for the reminder. Really happy I have joined your group (blog).
Hi Cathy – Thanks for your note and thoughts about the little guys! Glad to have you following! Linda
Ok, I’ll risk getting clobbered once again (not from you – was from another blogger). My experience with small dogs in my practice (behavior modification consultant) is that
1) there is a lot of BAD advice being given to small dog owners concerning how they should let their dogs get on with larger, more forward dogs. “Let them work it out themselves”. “He has to learn to defend himself”
2) yes, owners do tend to baby their small dogs, but in the wrong manner at the wrong time. This has however little to do with their reactiveness with other dogs.
3) because of Nr 1, and that dogs do what works, small dogs have learned, that being a jerk around other dogs and sometimes people, gets them what they want – that the scary dog/person leaves them alone. After all, who in there right mind, dog or human, would want to interact with a ballistic dog, no matter how small.
Without exception to date the following has cut down this reactive behavior in all client small dogs up to 100% (meaning interactions with large dogs even became possible), but even in worst cases, to almost nil when the owner recognized what the dog was communicating:
1) teach “retreat is always an option” and reinforce a default movement of the dog such that the owner is between the dog and the object of fear. This means, when a dog (trigger) approaches frontally, the small dog moves behind the owner if she is fearful. This is trained with a recall to hand-target behind the owner + jackpot. Then a trigger, way “under threshold”, is added (helper dog or stuffed dog). As soon as the client dog notices the other dog, she goes behind the owner. At first cued, then without cue.
2) Once this is trained, then comes the next step: Identify the trigger. Taken from a German method, the owner asks “Where is the ?” this can be “dog”, “man”, “truck” – whatever the trigger is. Especially good for dogs with multiple triggers. Later the reaction to this cue may be different, depending if the trigger leads to fear responses or frustration responses. Once the “Where is the…” is said, this is the cue for the dog to look for and at the trigger and decide what she wants to do. She may just look awhile and then look at the owner again. At this look-to-owner, the dog in reinforced, no matter where the dog was. If the dog was a few feet in front or away, an intermediary reinforcer (bridge) is used to keep it all upbeat. The dog may even decide to go towards the trigger to investigate. The owner at this point is the brake, not the motor, only there to slow the dog down if one feels the dog is going to fast, maybe risking getting in over her head. A prompt “Finished?” may be used to ask the dog if she wants to come back. Still reinforcer, still with intermediary reinforcer, but with less food.
What we see, is in successive sessions, the small dog, through control of her environment and the safety behavior of being able to retreat if necessary,
1) builds positive experiences with other dogs or triggers (respondent exposure counterconditioning)
2) learns new positively reinforced behaviors (retreat or even engage) in a differential reinforcement of alternative behaviors methods, which supplant the the old unwanted behaviors, making them unnecessary. Engage or disengage
3) increases the communication between owner and dog as to the emotional state of the dog through the re-positioning when a trigger presents itself in real life.
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Hi Buzz, Sure, training and behavior modification work well (on small and large dogs). Thanks for sharing! Linda
LOL – when I started doing behavior modification, I as a 6’3″ guy with a beard, was thinking of dealing with the roaring Rotties and other “real” dogs. But the ration of small dogs to medium or large has been about 8:1 for the little ones. Any dog bite is serious and can lead to a death sentence. And it is true, that such bite incidents are more dangerous for human when involving large dogs that with small dogs. But a death sentence for the dog is a death sentence for the dog.
I have no problems with a small dog giving a bark or two during an engage/disengage sequence, especially if confronted with an over-enthusiastic Lab or a bully. Any dog has a right to get as insistent as necessary to protect herself.
But I maintain, that the great majority of small, b ratty dogs are not bratty. I hold that they are scared to death and are being jerks because they have to control an uncontrollable situation. So they proactively just scare away anything that might be a threat.
When working with these dogs, it’s not just a simple matter of “training”. For if it were, then a “sit”, “down”, “stay” would stop this behavior. It might, but are the underlying emotions being addressed? If they are not, the dog will reach a point of explosion where we then get “I don’t know why, it came with no warning.” We have successfully trained away the warnings.
Reactivity is reactivity and I don’t see these dogs as misbehaving. They’re trying to tell/show us something, but we’re not really listening/watching/communicating.
So while “training” certainly cannot hurt, especially if done positively, will increase the communication and connection between dog and human, it will not change learned reactions to conditioned triggers (CS). If after positive training, this reactivity persists, we must look at fear or frustration. And then deal with it.
OR, before starting a fixed training regime, we can have this reactive behavior looked at by a specialist and combine the two: behavior modification that is done positively and has the similar elements of “training” integrated.
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Thank you Buzz! As a small dog rescue operator for over 39 years, you have summarized my beliefs well. I need a trainer to refer clients to and I have just moved to the Freehold NJ area. If you know anyone who shares your views about
whoops..small dogs! It was this sentence in particular that resonated with me..this and the fact that we have trained away their warnings.
I work with dogs under 10 lbs and would never call myself a trainer..but I rehabilitate dogs that have been deemed “bratty” and have a high success rate placing dogs safely. Any humane trainers who know their stuff with small dogs in the Freehold/Monmouth County NJ area..send them on! Joanne Mullen firstname.lastname@example.org
Buzz, my ratio’s reversed from yours, as I deal more with unadoptable dogs and people are more likely to tolerate bad behavior in smaller dogs. Beyond that, you gave an excellent summary of the problem and solution. Very nicely done, especially your point about the owner applying the brake when needed, and doing so in a conditioned and controlled fashion, instead of just yelling at the dog.
Thanks for posting this on FB Buzz – and as one of the few owners of a small dog, which is (I think not only from my point of view) well- trained, I must agree to many of the findings of the article above. We see it daily in our basic training classes, where the Chihuahuas are the worst – due to the “non-training” attitude of the owners.
Fortunately, if a small dog is with a responsible owner, it is allowed to learn and behave appropiately – and also to learn to let the owner handle tricky encounters.
With my old Jack Russell I also often got the advice “let them work it out” – and I do no longer remember the sums spent – but it was never the German Shepherd or the Dalmatian that had to be taken to the vet afterwards. It was ALWAYS my dog 😦
So, with my miniature Pinscher now, I simply only take “my” advice – if the other does does not “feel” good for me, I do not push my dog into “let them work it out”. One of the first things, the minpin learned was, that if other dogs appear on the horizon, there is always something more attractive with me. My idea was that she had to learn, that not every dog we meet, must be greeted and played with.
It works pretty well, after more than 2.5 years of training, she usually first looks at the dog, then at me and if I “give leave” she goes to say hi, and if I don’t she stays with me and lets me handle the situation.
(Actually we had a little “teenage-decline” during the last 8 weeks, with her running barking to every dog should could – fortunately back to normal, due to management and consistent training from my side)
Small dogs may be trained as well as big dogs, however… I train canine freestyle and competitive obedience with her, and some of the elements, which require focus and precision are MUCH MUCH harder to convey to small, active dogs, than to more relaxed, a little larger ones. Heeling is a scary activity for small dogs, and simply having all four paws on the ground at the same time for longer than one second may also be a challenge. Still – I am very happy for this learning experience and would not change to larger dogs
Great read! Lots of good info.
Thanks Ms. Midwestern!