“Augh. Is this a Chihuahua?”
Small dogs. Some love them, and some want to love them, if it wasn’t for the yapping and aggression and biting.
I used to be one of those people. I grew up with big dogs and thought of small dogs as particularly noisy rats and couldn’t understand why they acted so differently than larger dogs. Were they compensating for their size? Why did they act so horribly?
As the now proud owner of a small dog, I can tell you that small dogs are just about the same as large dogs in how they act. What’s different is how people treat them.
The short answer to why small dogs act so terribly sometimes is that they are allowed to get away with it.
So, how does this apply to small dogs?
The funny thing about this is that this applies to ALL dogs. ALL dogs have behaviors we don’t like – jumping, barking, etc. But there is a big difference between a four pound Chihuahua jumping on you and an 120 lb Rottweiler.
To prevent small dog syndrome – that unfortunate tendency for small dogs to act like annoying, aggressive little a-holes – simply treat them like you would a large dog.
This is difficult, because they are “oh-so-cute.” But every time you are about to let them get away with something, just swap their breed with a gigantic dog breed in your head:
Would I let a 100 lb Lab jump on everyone they meet?
Would I let a Rottweiler bite people all the time?
Would I let a Doberman bark at everything and everyone?
Would I let a Newfie jump on the bed and the couch without asking?
You get the picture. These dogs, because of their size, could do a lot of damage to people if they were allowed to continue these behaviors.
How Do You Avoid Reinforcing these Behaviors?
To understand more about this, first we should look a bit into dog psychology. If you remember nothing else from this article, remember this: dogs will continue to do things we reward them for doing.
Going back to the Rottweiler example, what would you do if your Rottweiler jumped on you? You would tell them “no”, and, if they know it, “off.” Then put their paws back on the floor if they aren’t getting the message.
What often happens with small dogs here is that people unintentionally reinforce these behaviors. Here are some examples:
Your small dog jumps on you. You respond by petting them or talking to them in soothing tones.
What the Dog Hears:
“I jumped on them and then I got pets! I like pets! I will jump on them more to get more pets! MORE PETS!”
What You Should Do:
Tell them, firmly: “no,” then “off.”
If they jump on your friends/people you meet, ask them to do the same. If your dog is good and doesn’t jump, give them lots of pets and tell them, “Good boy/girl!”
Your small dog is barking constantly at a dog. You worry that they are scared, and pick them up/hold them/comfort them.
What the Dog Hears:
“I barked at that dog and I got picked up! I like getting picked up! I will bark more next time and maybe I’ll get a kiss too!”
What You Should Do:
Tell them, firmly, “no.” If they know it, you can tell them “quiet.”
If you are having no luck with this, your dog might be too excited to listen to you at the moment. In this case, remove them from the situation if possible (walk the other way) and try again with something easier (try telling them “no” when the other dog is farther away, for example).
The next time you are in the same situation and they don’t bark, tell them “Good girl/boy!” and give them a pet or treat.
And so on and so forth. Seeing a pattern here?
Any time you reward your dog by petting, holding, kissing, or talking to them in a gentle voice, you are rewarding the behavior they were just doing, be it barking, biting, being scared, or jumping on the couch.
This is called positive reinforcement—something positive happens when they do a certain thing, so they do it more to get the positive thing to happen again.
The easiest place to start eliminating these bad habits is to simply stop rewarding them.
After you consistently do that, you can start with negative reinforcement. This is not some horrible, mean thing to do to your dog. Most of the time, it’s simply telling your dog, firmly, “no.”
As they are doing the bad behavior (jumping, barking excessively, etc.), tell them “no.”
Depending on the situation and how well your dog listens to you, you may need to be more firm with them (when you say “no”, growl it, (like you would scold a very bad child), or remove yourselves from the situation entirely and start with something a bit easier.
Just remember to be consistent in your reinforcement—every time the behavior happens, correct it.
When the dog does the correct thing, give them pets and treats!
There are many great books written by professional dog trainers out there that are worth checking out if you want to learn more.
If you are still struggling, reach out to a professional trainer for help. They can show both you and your dog what to do when certain situations come up, so the next time someone meets your small dog, they will say, “Wow! That dog is so well-behaved!”