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Small Dog Syndrome: Why are Small Dogs More Aggressive?

Adrienne is a certified dog trainer, former veterinary assistant, and the author of "Brain Training for Dogs."


What is Small Dog Syndrome?

What's small dog syndrome? For starters, consider that small dogs are generally those weighing less than 25 pounds. Also known as Napoleon Syndrome, small dog syndrome is depicted as a malady consisting of major behavior problems seen in these little fellows.

Not About Dogs Bossing You Around

Don't be fooled by the many websites that portray this syndrome as a predisposition for teeny dogs to have big attitudes and a predisposition to boss you around on their agenda.

Owners of such dogs are often told to toughen up, become the "alpha" and implement militaristic training methods based on the outdated dominance theory where the dog must ask permission even to breath. Often, these harsh methods only make matters worse!

A Collection of Undesirable Behaviors

There doesn't seem to be an "official" definition for small dog syndrome. Most professionals refer to it as a collection of unwanted behaviors exhibited by pint-sized pooches.

Whether it's possessive behavior, refusal to being handled or house training issues, as long as the dog is under 25 pounds and acting unruly, it's all clumped under the "small dog syndrome" category.

So what is this syndrome really? What I see, is a tiny dog in a big world. I put myself in the petite's dog's paws and try to imagine how it feels to walk around this big world.

I see a big and scary world, especially when you add on top of that lack of training and socialization, because many small dog owners think for some reason it's unnecessary, along with overprotective pet parents. Add this together and soon you'll have a recipe for major behavioral problems.

In the next paragraphs, I will share what I think it feels like being a tiny dog and how it can lead to behavioral issues.

I'd venture that there is some consensus among my own group, dog trainers, that there are issues that crop up more often in small dogs.

— Jean Donaldson


11 Causes of Small Dog Syndrome

Many tiny dogs that appear aggressive are simply fearful. Understanding the world from a small dog's perspective is important.

Fear is a universal emotion. It's felt by all living creatures sharing this world. Big or small, short or tall, all animals feel fear at some point in their lives. Fear is necessary for survival. Yet, the definition of what is fearful is personal. Whether rational or irrational, fear causes the same effects and is meant to help us survive.

It's quite natural to be fearful of larger animals. When I visited for the first time a dinosaur exhibit, I was 15. I still feel ashamed that those life-like, large-scale dinosaurs, that were moving and roaring, scared the heck out of me!

Despite that fear being quite irrational, I rationalized and felt that my fear felt quite primal. Studies have shown that humans and dinosaurs may have coexisted. Well, not really humans, but the ancestors of humans.

Yet, imagine how it must have felt to be so small and vulnerable among those large animals! Whether they were vegetarian or carnivorous, their large scale sure must have been intimidating! Back to a small dog's world, let's put sizes into perspective.

1) Humans are Big

One of the first classes I trained years ago, featured a peculiar team composed by an overweight lady and her tiny shih-tzu. There was no denial over the fact that the shih-tzu was intimidated by her size.

Every time the owner moved, the dog was moving away. The dog seemed to have a very strong awareness of where the owner's feet were. Perhaps the owner must have stepped on her some time or startled her.

When we trained the sit command, the dog was always sitting at a distance. Of course, not all small dogs are so wary of their owner's size, but it's not surprising why many are.

Let's put things into perspective. A shih-tzu on average is about 7-9 inches tall. The average height of a human is 5 feet, 9.2 inches, that is about 69 inches. That's almost about 10 times taller! So if a human is about 5 feet, 9.2 inches, that is, 69 inches tall, and a Tyrannosaurus is about 23 feet, that is about 276 inches, calculate that a dinosaur is only about four times our size!

Of course, to our dogs we're hopefully not intimidating as a dinosaur as we provide them with food, love and care, but it's not surprising that they're wary of where we put our feet! And imagine how it must feel when strangers loom over them!

2) Dogs are Big Too!

Fact: dogs are far more variable in size, shape and behavior than any other living mammal! We have extremes such as tiny Chihuahuas likeMilly, Guinness World Record for smallest dog, standing at less than 4 inches tall, and then Freddy the Great Dane standing 7 feet 5.5 inches tall on his hind legs!

It's generally quite natural for a smaller-sized dog to be wary of large dogs, especially those who haven't been properly socialized, often because dog owners may be reticent to expose them to larger puppies or dogs.

Even if the small dogs aren't fearful of them, there are always chances they may be stepped on and hurt by a larger dog during vigorous play, especially in dogs who don't self-handicap well.

Depending on the small dog's resilience, the unfortunate event may have no impact, or may leave an everlasting negative impression.

Of course, there are always exceptions. I know of many teeny dogs who love playing with the bigger dogs and don't even seem to realize the difference in size. On the opposite spectrum, there are many small dogs giving distance-increasing signals (barking, growling, lunging) every time they meet a larger dog on walks.

3) Poorly Socialized and Trained

Often, dogs of smaller sizes are a choice for people who live in apartments, the elderly and the couch potatoes. There's nothing wrong in getting these dogs if you have a small home or aren't too physically active, but small dogs still have needs.

They still need socialization though, especially when they're young. Some of them need more exercise than others.

Lack of walks and poor early socialization and training, may lead to small dogs who are poorly socialized, and thus are more likely to be fearful and defensive. Good research on the breed's needs and proper upbringing is important.

Training is also often overlooked by owners of small dogs. These dogs are often allowed to get away with behaviors that are unacceptable in larger dogs. It's our role as owners, and our responsibility to teach our dogs behaviors that are appropriate by rewarding them as they unfold. Use positive reinforcement!

Lack of guidance, consistency and training is what often leads to behaviors (jumping, whining, barking for attention) small dog owners find troublesome.

4) Subjected to Overprotective Parents

Many times, well-meaning pet parents, unknowingly overprotect their small dogs, not allowing them to experience the world. If a friendly large dog approaches, they are fast to swoop their small dog up, denying them again of important socialization. Let your small dog use his paws to explore the world and learn to live in it!

5) Attractive as Magnets

"I had to fit my Maltese in one those "please give me space" vests," one of my clients told me one day. Her Maltese was very hand shy and had a history of snapping at well-meaning people who found her face irresistible.

Truth is, small dogs are attractive, they lure people like magnets. Why is that? Well, many of them were selectively bred to be lap dogs for the aristocrats.

What many small, lap dogs had in common is that they were bred to retain puppy-like traits (neoteny) that made them look like human babies. You'll notice many of the toy breeds have folded ears, short legs, short muzzles, big eyes and large heads.

Many pet owners perceive these dogs as surrogate babies and people are drawn to want to pet them, cuddle them and love them. So it's tough to be a small dog and keep people away as everybody seems to want to cuddle with them.

Large dogs are often more intimidating and are less likely to draw attention and people around them. It's therefore tougher for people to take reactive behaviors in small dogs seriously and more decisive measures may be needed to send them away.

This creates problems with small dogs as they're allowed to rehearse aggressive behaviors over and over just because people cannot stay away from them.

6) Aggression is More Accepted

This brings us to the next issue small dogs face. Because they're smaller, owners are less likely to seek professional help because they believe they're less likely to cause harm than say a larger dog.

This means that you're likely to see small dogs with ongoing behavior problems that may sadly never be addressed. While it's true that a Chihuahua's bite will never equal the bite of a Dogo Argentino, a bite can still cause significant damage and infections.

Not to mention that a small dog who wants to bite, is often a very stressed dog. We often think about neglect as a dog who is deprived from water, food or veterinary care, but what about the dog's emotional well-being? Small dogs deserve professional, force-free behavior modification so to help them learn how to better cope with their fears.

7) Subjected to Mishandling

Because of their small size, smaller sized dogs are more likely to be hurt or mishandled. Toy breeds should not be in a household with very young children! These dogs are very frail and it takes very little for this dogs to be hurt by a child who has a wobbly gait and falls over one or carries the dog and drops him on the floor.

Rambunctious child play can easily hurt one of these delicate pooches. Dachshunds have very vulnerable backs and a small child may cause harm to them by mishandling them. But children may not be the only issue, all it takes for an adult to pick up a small dog the wrong way, with little notice and causing pain, that the small dog may resent being picked up and may start growling/snapping/biting the next time you try to get him.

8) Traumatized by Grooming

Several of the smaller breeds have coats that are prone to matting and require regular grooming. For sensitive dogs, grooming may have an impact, especially if the groomer is harsh or painful mats need to be removed.

This may lead to dogs who get hand shy, shake at their grooming appointments and dread having their feet, ears and tail handled. In some cases, the dogs may even dislike having strangers approach them and touch them.

Sensitivity to touch soon establishes. These dogs resent being touched and may growl, snap and bite. When the dog is immobilized for grooming sessions, he may learn that growling doesn't work to make the grooming session stop, and may feel compelled to go to plan B which is biting.

Soon a behavior pattern establishes. Of course, this may happen to any dog and there may be wonderful groomers out there who take steps to make the sessions less painful, but because several small breeds require grooming, sensitivity to touch is something to keep into consideration.

9) Accidents are Often Ignored

Try to ignore the Lake Michigan pee puddle produced by a great dane, it's just impossible! With small dogs though, it's very easy to miss a little trickle of pee and dog owners may even be more forgiving.

Not to mention, smaller dogs can easily sneak behind a chair or couch to do the deed and it may go unnoticed fr days or weeks.This may lead to the pandemic of small dog house training problems that many dog owners report.

10) Likely to Guard Laps

As mentioned, many of the smaller dog breeds were selectively bred to make wonderful lap warmers for many aristocratic ladies in the past. Still as of today, many dog owners love to keep their small dogs on their laps.

Since smaller dogs are more likely to be kept on laps than larger dogs (try to picture a great dane sitting on a lap!) it's not surprising if some of them may get feisty and overprotective of their owner's laps.

Once again, because these dogs are small, dog owners may fail to seek attention for this problem, which will put roots and become more and more difficult to overcome.

11) A Matter of Genes

Did you know? A study conducted in 2016 has found a correlation between size and aggressive behavior. According to the study, in particular, the IGF1 and HMGA2 loci variants for small body size were found to be associated with separation anxiety, touch-sensitivity, owner directed aggression and dog rivalry.


Helping Dogs With Small Dog Syndrome

So how is small dog syndrome handled? Big dogs aren't the only to be erroneously portrayed as dominant, but so are many itsy-bitsy tiny dogs. If I could get a dime from every person who says that these dogs need to know their place in the "pack" and the owners must up their alpha leader role, I may fill up my oversized piggy bank in no time.

Well guess what? Dogs that come to me for behavior modification involving aggressive displays are mostly treated by me by using desensitization and counterconditioning rather than upping my "alpha status".

The results are often remarkable. Fact is, small dogs are often simply fearful dogs who act the way they do because of negative experiences. And that entails negative experiences from the dog's perspective not ours!

So does small dog syndrome exist? Yes, it definitely does, even though the same issues can be found in larger dogs, but it's for the most part not from dogs who want to rule the roost, but rather from dogs who are acting out of fear and that sometimes have owners who allow them to rehearse unwanted behaviors over and over.

Yes, I can hear dog owners telling me "but my small dog wants to be the boss; indeed, she wants the couch all for herself!" In my experience, guarding the couch is often stemmed from insecurity, mistrust, negative experiences and an overwhelming need to seek comfort.

Indeed, most cases get better with force-free behavior modification. It's ultimately our job as owners to acknowledge a small dog's need to feel more comfortable, implement confidence building exercises and provide them with much needed socialization and training.


10 Tips for Helping Dogs With Small Dog Syndrome

  1. Get your dog from a reputable dog breeder who breeds for health and stable temperament and invests time in raising well-adjusted puppies.
  2. Socialize your small dog from an early age, starting from the critical window of socialization that starts at 3 weeks and closes around 12 weeks.
  3. Enroll your puppy in puppy classes.
  4. Train your small dog as you would train a larger dog.
  5. Take your small dog regularly on walks. Don't assume a yard will suffix for exercise. Your dog needs to exercise outside and mental stimulation. A walk is good to keep up his socialization.
  6. Monitor your small dog around the home and make sure to have an unobstructed view. Escort your dog promptly to his potty area should you notice any pre-potty signs.
  7. Avoid hard potty training methods which will only cause your small dog to hide to pee and poop.
  8. Avoid harsh training and behavior modification techniques that will only cause more fear and aggression.
  9. Address fear issues through force-free behavior modification using desensitization and counterconditioning with the help of a professional.
  10. Tackle any lap guarding or couch guarding behaviors from their onset using anti-resource guarding protocols with the help of a professional. A great read is Jean Donaldson's book "Mine."

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

© 2014 Adrienne Farricelli


Adrienne Farricelli (author) on April 12, 2014:

Very true SueCarls, thanks for sharing your words of wisdom.

SueCarls on April 12, 2014:

Small Dog syndrome is mainly caused by owners treating the dog as a small dog, instead of a dog. Attitude is way more important to dogs than their size. No one picks up their Lab when he is barking at other dogs or afraid of whatever. This just tells small dog that they are higher up than others. Or that they should be fearful when owner picks them up & away from any "trouble". Some people think its ok to ignore a small puddle of pee, but would never do that with a big dog. More big dogs enter obedience classes but all dogs benefit from them in so many ways. No dog wants to guess at what we want your dog deserves guidance & instructions from You! Not just spoiling & carrying around.

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on February 26, 2014:

Same here, my Rotts are sometimes intimidated by the small dogs who bark and lunge towards them and will speed up their pace. We have a neighbor with 5 chihuahuas who sometimes escape from the yard, and they try to nip my Rotts legs as they walk! Scary!

Elizabeth Parker from Las Vegas, NV on February 26, 2014:

I had to laugh as I recall one day in training, there were four rotweillers-all friendly. A little Chihuahua walked up to them and barked his version of a ferocious bark, causing all 4 rotties to jump back in fear. I wish I would've gotten it on video. Never thought 4 big dogs would be afraid of a 5 pound pup!

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on February 25, 2014:

Sounds like you did an awesome job raising your small dogs. If your yorkiepoo would sit for hours being groomed it's a sign he's enjoying it and that's thanks to you that have put the effort in making it pleasant. Also, playing well with larger dogs is a sign your dogs were socialized, well and had positive experiences, which is wonderful!

galine from Chicago on February 24, 2014:

I had several small dogs and they would only play with big dogs, they ignored dogs their size. My one yorkiepoo would sit for hours when I had to cut he's hair - I was very slow because I would use scissors - I do not think my two had small dog syndrome in any way. Your article was interesting to read and I agree some people need to put their dog though training if they do not know how to handle their dog.

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