Small Dog Syndrome:
Who's Your Pack Leader?

by Gary Le Mon

Chihuahua wearing a crown

Small dog syndrome is an unwanted behavioral condition that's entirely preventable. Guarding against it is one of the responsibilities you volunteered for when you accepted the job of pet parent.

If you have a toy dog breed you understand the special considerations that must be made for your tiny companion. You may worry about nutrition, exercise and dangers from other dogs. But sometimes your worry invites behavioral consequences. Understanding how your roll as pack leader affects your dog can help avoid this problem.

What Is Small Dog Syndrome?

Small dog syndrome is a behavioral condition that develops in small canines as a result of being treated differently because of their size. Humans have a soft spot for tiny creatures. Combine this with a love of dogs, and you find owners treating their animals in a number of inadvisable ways that give the animal permission to “be the boss.”

This problem is often seen in Chihuahuas, toy poodles, Pomeranians and other small breeds. Unfortunately, our special treatment, though well intended, only serves to increase the stress level in the animal and lead to a number of unsuitable behaviors.

How We Reinforce Small Dog Syndrome

Owners may allow their dog to jump on people because “the little guy is so small he hardly makes an impression.” The owner may

  • feed them from his own dinner plate
  • carry the dog around continually
  • allow the dog to bark any time he pleases

Because the dog is small the owner may allow him on the bed, on chairs or on laps. The owner may “baby” the dog, letting him set the schedule in the household for eating and going outdoors. These actions give rise to a variety of bad behaviors that carry the collective name “small dog syndrome.”

Symptoms of Small Dog Syndrome

Symptoms of the syndrome are easy to recognize. The animal may

  • bark furiously and lunge at other dogs on the street
  • bark continuously at any noise (especially Dachshunds)
  • nudge and insist on attention at inappropriate times
  • bark or snap at others jealously when sitting on the owner’s lap
  • jump on visitors, on laps or on the furniture
  • rule the roost by setting his own feeding times
  • demand potty times or pull on the leash as you walk him
  • exhibit severe separation anxiety when the owner leaves the house

Because these dogs are small they often get away with bad behavior without being disciplined. Though such behavior may be nature’s way of giving small dogs an advantage for survival, the behavior can also cause annoyance and frustration for the owners and others nearby.

Can You Undo Your Mistakes?

If you've made the mistake of spoiling your small dog, you can still take measures to undo the damage. Rest assured you are not alone.

First, you must understand that your tiny dog is still a dog. He is part of a family of creatures that have evolved to live in packs - and he will be happiest when he knows his place in the pack.

As the pet owner you must be the pack leader!

This status means that you must do the disciplining when the animal gets out of line. You must set the time and place when events occur just as the pack leader would do in the wild.

Of course, dogs should never be disciplined with harsh methods. Many dog trainers recommend using your hand in the shape of a “talking hand” to give your dog a nip as the pack leader dog would. The pressure should be hard enough to make an impression, but not enough to do any real damage. Use this “hand nip” to make him get off laps, stop begging for food and curtail other behaviors.

In addition you must set yourself up as the leader of activities both indoors and out. If you have not trained your little dog to “heel” properly, begin the process immediately. Teach him to refrain from lunging at other dogs during walks. At home, keep the dog off the bed and off your lap until he is in a submissive frame of mind. Then give him permission.  Be firm about his feeding schedule and make him do a trick for treats. Avoid showering too much affection on him. In other words, let him be a dog.

How To Raise An Emotionally Healthy Small Dog

The best way to manage behavioral problems is to prevent them from starting in the first place. Begin a consistent training program immediately on acquiring your small dog. Teach him the rules of the household consistently day by day.

Keep in mind that small breeds often have higher activity levels and shorter attention spans. Conduct training in shorter sessions and allow the dog a break in between. Avoid letting his cuteness seduce your better judgment.

Begin socialization with other dogs early by attending puppy training classes and going to dog parks or other outdoor activities. Use treats to reward good behavior. Reinforce rules to correct bad behavior. Instead of killing him with kindness, your job as pack leader is to eliminate small dog syndrome by helping him identify his natural order in the pack.

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