Small Dog Syndrome

Small Dog Syndrome

One of the most important things we aim to instil in our clients is an understanding of how human behaviour can interfere with our dogs’ learning, and one of the most common things we see is small breeds being picked up and carried around. There are a few main issues with this behaviour:

  • If dogs are seeing the world from a height, they’re not having true interactions with others. It can be for this reason that little dogs can be very reactive where other dogs are concerned; because they’ve always met other dogs from the safety of their owner’s arms. Whisking a dog away also suppresses the flight or fight instinct. Dogs are not given the opportunity to fight their own battles.
  • Dogs, whatever their size, can fend for themselves on all four paws, and must learn how to do so in order to develop into stable, balanced, sociable animals.
  • Picking a dog up elevates its height

It is the last point that’s perhaps one of the most important and is one that can be responsible for causing a whole wealth of problems. When communicating with each other, dogs perform many behaviours in order to gain height, for the benefit of asserting their authority, and generally appearing bigger than other dogs. Dogs will cock their leg to mark higher up a tree or a post than the previous dog that marked there and they may even lift both back legs to wee in order to elevate the mark even more. A dog that wants to assert its authority over another and demonstrate its high status will cock its leg in front of others and hold its tail up high and possibly curled over. Other behaviours include jumping onto the sofa and the bed and even jumping up at people. Whilst a dog may initially curl up on the sofa to seek comfort, allowing this behaviour may cause the dog to assume that it’s allowed to put itself in a position of height, which may, in turn, elevate its perceived status of itself. The dog is allowed to have what he wants when he wants it. Similarly, by picking a dog up, we are adding that height artificially. A dog who sees the world from a superficially high vantage point is a dog that may also start to perceive itself to have an elevated status. This can then go on to cause problems with how a dog responds to other dogs. The term ‘Small Dog Syndrome’ suggests that the dog believes its far bigger than it actually is, therefore is willing to take on those around it.

Not only does picking dogs up elevate their status, but it can also deny them opportunities to grow in courage and independence. Dogs learn quickly and well through association. However they behave, we as their owners have two options. We like the behaviour, therefore we reinforce it, perhaps by giving the dog a treat, or we disapprove of the behaviour, in which case we might choose to verbally reprimand. One of the most common mistakes we see being made, and this applies to all breeds and sizes of dog, is how their owners react to negative situations.  A hesitant, anxious or nervous dog is so often met with strokes and hugs and encouragement from the owner. This is a very human, and therefore a very natural response to seeing our pets upset. But this is where the line becomes blurred. Although we run the risk of reinforcing fear by comforting a frightened five-year-old child, they do have the capacity to understand comfort and encouragement from a parent, but a dog does not. To a dog, hugs and strokes are seen as a reward, and therefore a reinforcement of behaviour.

To a dog, hugs and strokes are seen as a reward, and therefore a reinforcement of behaviour. To a dog, it hides behind a chair and gets a fuss for it, so this must be something its owner approves of, and thus the behaviour is more likely to happen again. Pandering to a dog’s fear may actually only exacerbate a lack of confidence, thus making the dog more reliant on their owner and less independent as a result.

What people tend to forget, is that a small dog is loaded with just as many drives and instincts than a much bigger breed. When we start to behave like this, we start to try and humanise our pets. We love our dogs, but they’re not human babies. A Yorkshire terrier may be small and cute, but it and all other small breeds are loaded with just as many instincts and drives like a German Shepherd or a Great Dane, (and I’d like to see anyone attempt to pick up the latter)!

The bottom line is, little dogs do not need to be picked up and carried around. They do not need to see the world from the safety of their owner’s arms, they need to see the world from the ground, just as bigger breeds do. A dog with coping mechanisms that is allowed to handle its interactions with the interference from its owner will be a happier, more stable dog