How to Help a Dog with Small Dog Syndrome

by | Jun 30, 2022 | General, K9 Health, Puppies | 0 comments

Have you got a sweet, cute small dog who turns into Ivan the Terrible at the first hint of fear? You’re not alone. Small dogs can often sense their vulnerability and can quickly engage in aggressive theatrics to fool larger foes. While this is a natural self-protective instinct, sadly for some dog owners, this aggression can be switched on with minimal provocation both in and outside of the home. This article helps you overcome small dog syndrome and implement a training program to help your dog reduce some of its unwanted behaviours.

What is small dog syndrome?

Small dog syndrome refers to small dogs who misbehave or dominate others with a range of negative behaviours. Small dog syndrome is not a medical term but a colloquial term for naughty small dogs with big attitudes. So if your tiny dog thinks it’s the boss and has a few unwanted behaviours you might benefit from learning how to overcome small dog syndrome.

Some behaviours typically associated with small dog syndrome include:

  • biting, nipping and snapping
  • growling at people and pets
  • jumping up on people
  • refusing to follow known commands
  • lunging at threats
  • refusing to move from your spot on the couch
  • aggression toward household guests
  • whining for food/attention
  • poor impulse control.

Related: How to Stop a Puppy from Biting in 7 Quick Steps

Why do some dogs get small dog syndrome?

Small dog syndrome can be a fear response in small dogs or it may be an attitude problem. Thankfully, it’s not genetic, which means it’s usually reversible. It may occur in dogs that haven’t been fully trained or are spoilt owing to their cute small stature. By taking the time to train your dog and establish boundaries, you can create new behavioural patterns that replace the unwanted negative behaviours. By supporting an anxious dog and helping it gain a sense of safety, fear-based behavioural issues can also be corrected.

How to overcome small dog syndrome

Learning how to help your dog overcome small dog syndrome is the first step toward a happier and healthier pup and household. Accepting that change is unlikely to be instant can also be useful. With consistent training, you can help your dog become calm, happy and relaxed (most of the time!). Here are some steps you can take to overcome small dog syndrome:

1. Don’t ignore the warning signs

Early signs of small dog syndrome can be easily laughed off or unknowingly reinforced. For example, if your tiny dog growls at a larger dog in the park you may feel tempted to scoop it up and reassure it with kindness, it is no doubt scared and vulnerable after all. Unfortunately, this kind of response reinforces the unwanted behaviour: a growl now equals cuddles and love. Would the big dog have been cuddled if it was growling? Without the vulnerability pulling on our heartstrings, it’s much more likely that it would have been reprimanded, which is the appropriate response. As soon as your small dog shows unwanted behaviours it needs to be reprimanded too. Yes, it may look funny when a 3kg dog is confusing itself with a rottweiler, but just as the rottweiler is expected to behave itself, so too is your pint-sized pup.

2. Treat your small dog the same way you would a large dog

It’s easier to turn a blind eye to bad behaviours from a small dog than a large dog as they appear less threatening. A chihuahua jumping up on you is hardly going to knock you over and a toy poodle growling for food is unlikely to frighten you. So when your dog misbehaves ask yourself how you would feel about the same behaviour from a large dog such as a boxer or a german shepherd. If you would instantly want to reprimand and stop the behaviour, then reprimand your small dog too. Calm and well-behaved dogs have become that way because there are clear rules they are expected to follow.

3. Exercise your dog daily

Sometimes difficult canine behaviours can be the result of pent-up energy that needs an outlet. Just because your dog is small doesn’t mean it wants to be a 24/7 lap dog. In fact, some small breeds such as poodles can be highly athletic and require generous exercise provisions. So if you don’t meet your dog’s exercise needs, unwanted behaviours can result.

4. Increase your dog’s social activities

Small dog syndrome is often on display when dogs interact with other larger dogs or with non-familiar people. You can gradually help your dog feel more comfortable around others by increasing their exposure and coupling exposures with rewards. Rewards help your dog re-associate dogs and people as positive. If your dog is difficult around guests, you might ask a neighbour to come by regularly. At first you could treat your dog when the neighbour comes and as the dog becomes more comfortable, your neighbour could give your dog the treats. Outside the house, it’s good to expose your dog gradually to a range of situations, from parks and walking tracks to cafes and busy streets.

5. Show your dog when a situation is safe

Your dog will pick up on your stress levels in certain situations. So if you’re nervous around larger dogs, your petit pooch is likely to pick up on that and be nervous too. While your dog may not be comfortable with big dogs in an off-leash park, it’s easy to ask dog owners in a leashed environment if their dog is friendly and gradually try introducing your dog to larger dogs. You can work up incrementally to make it easier for your dog to adjust and trust. It can also help to match the energy levels in dogs. Boisterous dogs and young puppies may prove too big a leap for an anxious, small dog.

Related: 7 Supportive Tips to Help a Puppy Afraid of Dogs

6. Reward your dog regularly

When you’re trying to modify your dog’s behaviour, it’s a good idea to carry a small bag of treats with you as opportunities to recondition your dog can arise at any time. Here are some tips for rewarding your dog:

  • Each time you see a larger dog or unfamiliar person on the street reward your dog as you walk past. This passive activity helps your dog associate things it may have found intimidating as positive.
  • Reward your dog if it is calm when you pass bicycles, scooters or prams as these can be a trigger for dogs with small dog syndrome.
  • Have a family member ring the doorbell and reward your dog just before the sound at first (that way they won’t have barked). Then try rewarding them after the sound if they refrain from barking.
  • Reward your dog every time it follows basic commands, as each of these interactions is reinforcing the expectation that your dog does as you command (not the other way around!).
  • Use pats and belly rubs alongside tasty food treats so that your dog can grow to see affection as a reward in itself.

Related: The 10 Most Important Commands to Teach Your Dog

7. Ask others to reinforce your rules

When you establish rules and boundaries for your dog, it’s important to ensure family members and guests reinforce these rules to avoid confusing your pet or undoing your good work. For example, you can ask guests not to let your dog jump on them or feed them from the table. If you have children, you may also need to teach them how to interact safely with a small dog that has aggressive tendencies. Your dog may try to assert it’s dominance over your children so this is an area to watch.

9. Enlist a certified dog trainer

If your dog isn’t responding to training, you may need a certified dog trainer to divide a tailored training plan that will suit your dog’s needs and your family’s situation. When finding the right trainer, look for trainers that:

  • value positive reinforcement over punishment (punitive training techniques have been proven ineffective)
  • provide reviews from previous clients to prove their techniques are effective
  • actively listens to you and hears your concerns
  • has a friendly disposition that will help your dog connect.

10. Discuss your behavioural concerns with a veterinarian

Sometimes a dog may suffer from severe anxiety or genetic behavioural issues that can’t be modified with training alone. You can discuss your dog’s behaviour with your vet to determine if medicinal intervention is appropriate. There are medicines available that reduce a dog’s anxiety levels, making it more receptive to training and less fearful in new situations. Your vet may also advise you on a tailored training program or recommend a suitable dog trainer.

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