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"Inadvertently, owners often reward the very behaviours we dislike!"

Small dog syndrome

Small dog syndrome is the name given to a collection of behaviour displayed by small dogs, behaviours that have the effect of overcoming any deficits caused by being small in stature. Typical behaviours displayed include:

  • Excitable behaviour
  • Jumping up on owners, other people or dogs
  • Growling at people or other dogs
  • Lunging or snapping at perceived threats
  • Avoidance or fear of larger dogs, typically hiding behind or trying to be picked up by owner
  • Reluctance to move off sofas and beds
  • Failure to obey commands

This does not mean that every small dog will display these behaviours, or that each of these behaviours is indicative of small dog syndrome. Collectively, however, these behaviours make life with small dogs difficult for owners and for other people and animals around them but there are ways of improving their behaviour.

Changing dog behaviour generally involves changing owner behaviour too and, in fact, this syndrome may have more to do with the owner’s behaviour than their dogs! Understanding dog behaviour, and how humans affect it, is the first step in improving small dog syndrome.

How humans affect dog behaviour

There is no doubt that many small dogs get away with behaviours that owners of large dogs would not allow. Jumping up on us, for instance. A large dog would be more likely to knock us over but a small dog can often be encouraged by owners. Inadvertently, owners often reward the very behaviours we dislike. If your small dog runs to you and begs to be picked up when they encounter a large dog and you oblige, you have reinforced this behaviour and your dog will continue to react this way each time they encounter a large dog.

Small dog owners are less likely to train their dog than owners of larger dogs. Trained dogs are more likely to obey commands, therefore this may be the reason that smaller dogs appear so disobedient. It is because they have never been trained. Improving Small Dog Syndrome Unwanted behaviours in small dogs, such as excitability and poor obedience, are considered to be directly related to owner behaviour. The following suggestions may improve their behaviour:

  • If you are concerned with any of your dog’s behaviour then we suggest speaking with a qualified animal behaviourist
  • Be more consistent in interactions. Set the rules and boundaries and ensure all family members stick to them.
  • Engage regularly in play sessions with your dog and allow your dog to play with others in an appropriate manner, especially those of their own size.
  • If they dislike larger dogs, introduce them to ones that you know are friendly and gentle. You will need to slowly introduce your dog to other dogs and don't let them freely interact, as this may result in rough play or aggressive behaviour. Introduce them in a neutral location like the local dog park, walk them past one another at a distance and slowly get closer, ask your dog to sit every so often, this reinforces your dogs good behaviour and keep you in control of the situation.
  • Do some training with your dog including attending obedience classes. Ask for commands to be obeyed, for example a ‘sit’ before feeding them. The best way to train your dog and maintain their focus during these sessions is to reward with treats and praise.

About Dr Joanne Righetti

Dr Joanne RighettiDr Joanne Righetti is an animal behaviourist, educating the public and professionals in all aspects of the human–animal relationship. Her background is in zoology, with a PhD in animal behaviour and a counselling diploma – qualifications which enable her to work with all sorts of animals – including the human variety! Joanne likes to help pet owners understand their pet's behaviour and solve any pet behaviour problems. She also consults to a variety of organisations including non-profit organisations, commercial companies and councils and is involved in a variety of media including regular spots on radio. Joanne is an honorary associate of the Faculty of Veterinary Sciences, University of Sydney. Find out more about Joanne at www.petproblemsolved.com.au

Last updated: 24 April 2015 at 05:22 PM
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