We’re big dog people. We’ve always had larger breeds like Collies and Belgian Shepherds. Having bigger dogs comes with a hefty responsibility. When a big dog has bad manners, it’s really obvious to everyone in the room. When our Rizzo jumps to greet a guest, he throws all of his 65 pounds into it. He’s just looking for a kiss and a cuddle but that’s a lot of dog to throw at someone. So we try to do our best to teach our dogs the manners they need.
Managing larger dogs requires teaching several behaviours just to manage their movement. For example, it would be easy for our big dogs to barge past us and out the door when we leave the house. So we have to carefully train a “Wait” or “Stay” command. We also teach directional cues to move them from one place to another. We teach them cues to get up onto and off of things like couches and benches. We teach them to sit quietly by our sides when we need to keep them out of someone else’s way. We have even taught them to back up if we should ever need them to do that.
In many ways, I am envious of small dog owners who can just bend down and scoop up their dog. It would make management so much easier. Instead, while they are young, we have to watch our dogs like a hawk. That tiny “oops” when our puppy eliminates on the carpet will one day become a much bigger mess. Those cute little puppy love nibbles will one day become a bite with enough force to crush a tennis ball. And heaven forbid that puppy learns to jump up in our lap! That might not be so easy to deal with when they reach 60 pounds or more. Most of these things are not really a problem for small dog owners even when their dogs are full grown.
The Cuteness Factor
I don’t think there can be much debate regarding the cuteness of small dogs. Most of the lists of the “Cutest Dog Breeds” I looked at list mostly small dogs in the top 10 of their lists. On one list, small dogs were listed at cutest from first to seventh, with larger breeds only finding their way to positions eight, nine, and ten. This shouldn’t really come as any surprise. These small breeds were selective bred to be adorable.
Lap dogs have been with us for centuries. British history records the breeding of small companion dogs, ancestors to today’s Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, dating back as far as the 1500’s. Other breeds like the Papillion date back even earlier and the origin of the Pug goes back as far the 4th century. Today, dog fanciers have around 100 small breeds of various shapes and styles to choose from.
Because they are small enough to carry and often adorable, small dogs frequently get a kind of special treatment that just isn’t practical with larger dogs. They have a special capacity to bring a smile and lighten the heart. And it is these very qualities that can also let them get away with pretty much anything they want! Watch any of the TV dog training shows that show problem dogs. Chances are you will see one of the small breeds involved in some pretty unruly behaviour.
This is not to say that all small dogs are badly behaved. Far from it. I have had the pleasure to have known many wonderful small breed dogs. But the deception here is that small dogs don’t appear to require as much of our attention as a larger breed might. And yet the perception of these smaller breeds is quite the opposite. A study from 2010 concludes that “.. smaller dogs are seen as less obedient, more aggressive and excitable… and more anxious and fearful.” Could the relative ease of management of small breeds lead to a lack of training by owners? Noted author and behaviourist Patricia McConnell seems to think so. In a March 2012 blog post, McConnell confesses that while she has done some great training with her small dog, “here’s what I haven’t done: taught her to sit, down and stay. REALLY? If you’re surprised, (shocked?) you’re not as surprised as I am.” She says if this were a larger breed, she would have started that kind of training much sooner.
The fact is that much of what we attribute to small breed dogs may have less to do with their genetics and more to do with their upbringing. If owners really do tend to be a little more relaxed in their training with small dogs, that might account for several issues. Smaller dogs might have more difficulty getting their owners attention and that might contribute to demand barking and jumping up. Once they get attention, owners may just reflexively pick up the dog while not addressing the underlying issue.
And there is another aspect to this that cannot be overlooked. Small dogs have small mouths with very small teeth. Canadian Norm McDonald once joked that it might take a Dachshund several days to tear your throat out if you passed out on the floor and it decided to nibble away. A search on the Internet of dog breeds that pose the greatest risk as biters will often list breeds such as Malamutes, Akitas, German Shepherds, and Rottweilers among the most dangerous. That is because most such studies focus heavily on the amount of damage these breeds can do. Small breeds are just as likely to bite as larger breeds and for many of the same reasons but, because it is unlikely that they will inflict much damage, these bites frequently go unreported.
As conscientious owners of small dogs well know, there is nothing different about their dog’s brain. Small dogs are every bit as intelligent and eager to learn as larger breeds. The time I have spent competing in dog agility has given me the chance to see some spectacular performances by Miniature Pinschers, Chihuahuas, Jack Russell Terriers, Miniature Schnauzers, and many other small breeds. They are intelligent, well trained, and incredibly responsive to their owners. It is a stark contrast to the frazzled woman on the TV who is claiming that her Bichon Frise is “taking over her household” and is at her wits end trying to control her dog. Clearly these small breeds can be fantastic workers, what’s going on here?
It is the Tyranny of Small Dogs. Tyranny not because the dogs themselves are doing anything wrong. Quite the opposite; small dogs seem to have a tremendous capacity to lull us humans into thinking that we don’t have to work with them like we would a larger breed. Somehow we expect them to be “great little dogs” just because they are small and cute and we get to cuddle them. And that could be working against them if we are not giving them the training and structure they need.
This lack of structure and training is not just confined to the smaller dog breeds but there does seem to be a much greater chance of it happening. I know from personal experience that indiscretions by my big black dogs are not as easily overlooked or forgiven as those of, say, a Shih Tzu or Dachshund. When a Pomeranian barks at you, it’s cute. When a big black Belgian Shepherd barks at you, it’s menacing. Society just seems more tolerant of bad manners if the dog is smaller.
I feel badly for these small breeds. They are dogs just like Border Collies and German Shepherds and Rottweilers. They are easily trainable, make wonderful companions, and can excel at any dog sport or activity that their owners choose to train them for. We just have to keep from falling into that trap of “going easy” on the small dog. Sure they are cute and cuddly. But they are intelligent and eager to learn as well. As any good small dog owner can tell you, it’s well worth the effort you put into working with a small breed. The brains, and indeed their hearts, are much bigger than their size would lead you to believe!
Until next time, have fun with your dog!
The first Canine Nation ebooks are now available -
“Dogs: As They Are” & “Teaching Dogs: Effective Learning”
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