How to Deal With Small Dog Syndrome

April 7, 2011

By Linda Cole

About a year and a half ago, my neighbor brought their new puppy over and begged me to take her off their hands. I took one look at the little wiggling Terrier pup tucked under my neighbor’s arm, and saw a bright eyed face I couldn’t say no to. Riley was 8 weeks old at the time. About a month after she came to live with us, she decided she was going to show our larger dogs who was boss. She went after my Lab mix who looked at her like she was an annoyance he could do without. It’s easy to mistake a little dog’s actions as being jealous, but she was a perfect example of a pup with small dog syndrome.

Regardless of a dog’s size, all dogs should be treated equally. We have a tendency to view small dogs as needing us more than a larger dog. We see things that small dogs do as cute, but if a big dog did the same thing, we would consider the dog’s actions as aggressive. A dog who growls at another dog, a cat or a person is saying they are the dominant dog. Growling is also a sign of aggression. It doesn’t matter what size the dog is, a small dog acting badly should not be tolerated any more than allowing a larger dog to act in an aggressive matter.

Small dog syndrome is when a small dog decides they are taking the lead role in a household. This might include jumping up on you or your guests, not obeying commands, marking territory inside and outside, barking constantly, chewing, and any other bad dog behavior they can get away with. And this is where the problem of small dog syndrome originates – whatever they can get away with, which is usually a lot. Small dogs compensate for their size by acting big and tough when they feel intimidated, nervous, upset, threatened or afraid.

I’m just as guilty as the next small dog owner when it comes to overprotecting my smaller dogs. And it’s not always easy to treat each dog equally. You can pick up a small dog and cuddle with her. She’s the perfect lap dog who snuggles beside you on the couch or in bed. Because a small dog is more apt to be allowed on the couch or in bed with their owner, it’s easy for the little dog to feel like they’re the one in control. We validate their actions by allowing them to misbehave in ways big dogs aren’t allowed to do.

If you have a small dog, they need you to take the lead role. No dog should be allowed to display aggression unless there’s a good reason for it – like someone trying to break into your home. Small dogs have a reputation of being yappy, whiny, or aggressive, but that’s only because their owner allows them to show bad dog behavior. Taking the lead role over a dog, regardless of their size, gives the dog a sense of security in knowing you’re the one making the decisions, and they can trust you to keep them safe. You are teaching the dog how you expect her to behave in a way you decide – not the dog – and it gives her a stable and more relaxed state of mind.

I don’t believe in “bad dogs.” Any size dog acts according to how their owner trains them (or doesn’t train them) and whether or not the owner is the leader or just another member of the pack. All dogs need to understand and obey basic commands. Most dogs don’t want to take the lead role, especially smaller dogs because it’s not in their nature to lead. However, if no one else takes the lead, then the little dog will attempt to rule a household.

Treat a small dog the same way you’d treat a larger dog breed. Your big dog isn’t allowed to jump up on other people, and neither should a little dog. You might think a small dog growling at your side protecting you from another person or pet is cute, but in reality, the dog is showing how stressful she’s feeling. In her eyes, she’s being intimidated and it’s an uncomfortable situation for her, so she lashes out in the only way she knows how – by acting aggressively.

Small dog syndrome is real, but it can be corrected with consistent training and positive reinforcement so your little dog can learn what you expect from her. (Read “Dog Training with Consistency and Patience” for more information). Don’t be afraid to tell your dog “No” and correct her for bad behavior. She’s looking to you to lead her so she can be just a dog who loves you for loving her.

Photo by Colin Purrington

Read more articles by Linda Cole

The personal opinions and/or use of trade, corporate or brand names, is for information and convenience only. Such use does not constitute an endorsement by CANIDAE® Pet Foods of any product or service. Opinions are those of the individual authors and not necessarily of CANIDAE® Pet Foods.

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  1. Denise Beaver says:

    My cross pug is very aggressive towards larger dogs she is ok with my grandaughter large dog but not with others how do I stop her being aggressive

  2. Erin says:

    I have an 8 year old Rat Terrier. I adopted her when she was 2. Unbeknownst to me, she already had aggression problems and that is why the previous owner wanted to get rid of her. I found out about a week after I brought her home. My first experience with it was when she was sound asleep on my lap and I reached over to pick up my glass of water. She came out of her slumber and I thought she was going to eat my face. When she does this now, I get a hold of her as best as I can and set her on the floor. She snaps out of it, and I let her back up and as soon as she falls asleep again, if she is disturbed, she freaks out again. She has other bad habits (barking for treats, barking at thunder, etc.) but the aggression is not good and telling her no and being firm has not worked for 6 years…. so I’m in a quandary. I have had dogs all my life, but have always been able to train them up from puppies and never had problems. I need something very specific…. not just “be firm and give her positive reinforcement.” Thank you!

  3. Lorena says:

    I have a 1 year old yorkie maltese mix and he has recently begun to show aggression towards other dogs and sometimes people. I can’t hug my boyfriend without him barking like crazy (not sure if he’s mad that i’m hugging him or he’s hugging me). I tried to socialize him with other dogs since he was 2 months old. I have always been very overprotective of him especially when I first got him because he was soooo tiny and he’s my first dog so I’m like a new mom. Anyways any suggestions as to what I should do, or how I should handle bad behaviors.

  4. Anonymous says:

    We have four JRT’s two recent rescues from horrible conditions. The little female is very aggressive and likes to bite at us, which we thought was a bit cute as she has almost no teeth left. Not so funny now as she went after a huge dog, and if not for the owner of the big dog saving her she could have been killed. I feel sickened by our “laughter” at her cute antics of defending herself and her stuff and we are working with her to get her better and let her know we are in charge and as much as we love her, we are the leaders.

  5. Anonymous says:

    perfect and just what I needed to know!

  6. Anonymous says:

    wow great post my aunt has a a small dog that has been treated like a king and now he dominates the house , doesn’t listen to his owners commands and is a total pest so people listen to me, don’t let your small dog get the better of you!!!

  7. Anonymous says:

    Your post is so true, i recently purchased an american eskimo from an unknown breeder and turns out the puppy actually came from a puppy mill. She was raised to defend herself from other people and other dogs and recently i noticed that she started jumping up and sleeping on the top of the couch looking down at me… this behavior had to stop because my plan was to sign her up for a therapy dog but with this behavior i wasnt going anywhere with her… i started some training with her and now she is no longer allowed on the couch or the bed or any furniture and i can already see an improvement in her behavior… your post really hepled.

  8. Anonymous says:

    Great post:)

    1. bongo says:

      thanks man, i worked hard on it

  9. Anonymous says:

    absolute nonsense! dominancy and any other word similar to that makes no sense whatsoever in this day and age, how old is that woman who wrote it? 100? does she really think dogs come in to the world to dominate it??????

    1. Firefly says:

      Anonymous, you don’t seem to understand dogs. In a pair or group they, like people, challenge each other, who to trust, who not to. They like order and routineand will step up to the role if it isn’t provided. It’s not macho conquest, as you seem to imply. My small rat terrier/ beagle mix gets defensive and snippy when my daughter’s big huggable sweet lab visits. This article shows that I must take a stronger role with the little one. She is showing fear by acting tough. It rings true to what I have observed. ‘Thus is my mom, my couch, my bed, my toy. ‘ she doesn’t let him enjoy anything, though he lets her have his toys at his house!

  10. EXCELLENT POST!!! Perfectly PAWed.