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Can we talk for just a few minutes about the littles? For those of you into children’s literature, I’m not talking about a diminutive sized mouse named Stuart. I’m talking about dogs who, due to decades upon decades of selective breeding by us human folk, come in small to sometimes tiny packages. I’m thinking of breeds such as Shih Tzus, Chihuahuas, Pugs, Malteses, Dachshunds, and Yorkies among many other breeds, as well as any combination thereof. Usually, these pups weigh in under 20 pounds although many are significantly smaller than that.
The Reason for This Post
Lately, I’ve been providing an abundance of behavior consultations to families with smaller-sized dogs exhibiting bigger-sized behavior concerns. These dogs’ owners contacted Pet Harmony for help with concerns about their small dogs who were snarling, growling, snapping, and in some cases, biting family members or guests in situations where the dog was most likely feeling uncomfortable but the family didn’t realize it. There was never any doubt in my mind about whether these families love their dogs but there had been a breakdown in the relationship due to the dog making behavioral choices that were upsetting and sometimes frightening to the owners.
The owners were confused as to why their beloved pets were growling or snapping at them or delivering bites when they were just trying to show their dog love, affection, or pampering and care. The unwanted behaviors were oftentimes occurring when the owners were hugging or kissing their dog, or when they were trying to pick up their dog to embrace them or carry them around or move them from one place to another. I’m not judging the owners for wanting to do this with their dogs. I mean, who could look at the face of a Shih Tzu or a French Bulldog and not want to give them love and affection when their faces are so very smoochable? I understand these feelings all too well as I am the proud pet parent of a small floof myself. But kissing and hugging and touching and embracing are all decidedly human ways of expressing affection and although some dogs can learn to enjoy it, many are simply tolerating it at best. It is this lack of understanding communication styles between two completely different species that can cause problems to come bubbling to the surface and take owners by surprise.
It All Started When…
Much of the time, an owner will report that the snarling, snapping, growling, or biting behavior started out of nowhere. They will tell me that their dog “FiFi” always enjoyed or never had a problem with:
- Being carried around or moved from place to place
- Being hugged or kissed
- Being physically restrained
- Being touched, petted, or groomed
- Being dressed in totes adorbs outfits
- Being placed in someone’s lap
The Out of the Blue
And suddenly, out of nowhere, tiny “FiFi” started to bite mom, dad, the kids, or visitors to the home. Truthfully though, the behavior most likely didn’t come from out of the blue at all. The more likely explanation is that “FiFi” had been desperately trying to communicate her discomfort with all of the things listed above and the owners didn’t understand her way of saying it. And because they didn’t understand yet, she escalated to biting, which is a behavior that gets the attention of almost all humans, even when delivered by a dog with a smaller-sized mouth.
Would You Do That to a St. Bernard?
Why is it that things we would never dream of doing to a dog weighing 80 plus pounds, are somehow perfectly acceptable to do to dogs who weigh only 10? Our little dogs often are asked to tolerate us doing so much more “stuff” to them simply because of their size and simply because we can. Can you imagine anyone swooping in to pick up their St. Bernard and whisking them off to another room even if they physically could? What if the St. Bernard was to emit a warning growl as the person came swooping in? Would they still proceed anyway? I imagine that growl would give most people pause about whether or not what they are doing is truly necessary. And yet, so often when small dogs emit a growl, people don’t take it seriously. Instead, they either continue to do what they were doing or they punish the dog for using the warning system nature provided.
In some cases (hello social media, I’m talking to you) you’ll actually see people not only laugh at but actually encourage the little dog to exhibit behaviors that are deemed “aggressive.” All for the sake of some views, shares, and likes. Those types of posts make me cringe the most because they perpetuate the myth that small dogs are inherently laughable and that doing “stuff” to them to elicit a response is not only acceptable but all in good fun. That in turn maintains the misguided labels people use to describe small dogs who are only behaving in certain ways because they have learned that is the only thing that works.
Unlabeling Our Littles
Aside from height and weight there really are not that many differences between the littles and the bigs (or the mediums for that matter.) They still have the same need to express species-typical behaviors such as sniffing, chewing, digging, and scavenging or foraging for food. They still have the same needs for social interactions, safety and security, health and hygiene, as well as the more obvious need for food, water, and shelter. And yet, so many times little dogs are given labels such as yappy or spoiled, or stereotyped as having “little dog syndrome” or a “Napoleon complex.” I say rubbish to all of that.
One of the laws of behavior is that behavior works. We all behave in our environments to get more of what we desire or less of something we wish to avoid. The weight or height of a dog doesn’t change that fact. The super “yappy” Yorkie is barking for a reason. The tiny chihuahua with the Napoleon complex? There is a reason for that behavior too and it hasn’t so much to do with the dog’s size but with the dog’s inability to have a say about things that are either being done to or around it.
Giving Our Littles Agency
In their book Canine Enrichment for the Real World, authors Allie Bender and Emily Strong define agency as “the ability to have some level of control in our environment and be able to make choices that will result in a desirable outcome.” (pg 27) This holds true for not only primates and canids but all of the animal kingdom. In the case of our small dogs, it is very easy to forget that they have the same need for agency as much as their larger counterparts do. Allowing all dogs, the small, the big, and the in-between, to have some say in what is being done to them or with them has a huge impact on their mental well-being.
I think this is particularly true for small dogs as we have a tendency to treat them like portable playthings instead of individuals with their own need to express behavior in a way that works for them. If a little dog is growling at or biting their person when they are being lifted into the air or they snap at a family member when the family member is playing dress-up with them, then that is a signal from the dog that some help is needed to make them feel more comfortable. Like all dogs, I think the greatest gift we can give to our small dogs is to learn about who they are as a species and adapt our interactions with them to reflect that we genuinely get who they are and care enough to modify our behavior to make our relationship with them be the best it can be. It isn’t just on the dog. It’s on us too.
If you want to help your little dog feel safe and secure and comfortable in your home but are not sure where to start, here are some actionable items to think about implementing:
- Learn all that you can about canine body language, paying especially close attention to signals that dogs exhibit when they are worried or stressed about something in their environment.
- Teach your dog how to say “yes” to things like grooming, dressing them up, or husbandry procedures.
- Conduct a consent test to make sure your dog is enjoying a petting session.
- Teach your dog that being picked up will predict something yummy like a small piece of hotdog, cheese, or boiled chicken.
- Use a verbal cue or a hand signal to let your little know that they are about to be lifted. I use “1, 2, 3, Up” for my dog. It warms my heart to see him sort of launch himself up when I say the “up” part because he knows what to expect each time. Other cues that can work for lifting are “up, up and away,” “super dog,” or “take off.”
- And finally, ask yourself if what you are doing to your little dog is really necessary and if the answer is no, find an activity you can enjoy doing together like scent work or trick training. You might be amazed at just how smart, athletic, and eager your little learner is!