Training Advice for Aggressive Small Dogs

April 24, 2014

By Langley Cornwell

A friend of mine has a long-haired Chihuahua mix named Mimi, and the two are inseparable; this dog goes everywhere with her. Most of the time, Mimi is a friendly bundle of personality, happy to greet anybody who wants to say hello. But when another dog is in the vicinity, Mimi goes crazy. She challenges every dog that crosses her path.

I have medium-sized dogs and one of mine acts the same way, so I’m not saying aggressive behavior towards other dogs is a size-specific issue. However, we’ve all heard of fearless small dogs that challenge large-breed dogs with reckless abandon. What causes this type of behavior?

The majority of experts believe this small-dog attitude is a combined result of nurture and nature. In other words, Mimi and other fearless small dogs have learned this behavior through interactions with their humans and the outside world.

People relate to small breed dogs differently than they relate to larger dogs. For example, when my friend walks Mimi and she barks or show dominance towards another dog, the other dog owner may giggle or say something like “that’s cute.” I can guarantee that if the aggressive, barking dog was a larger breed, say a German Shepherd or a Rottweiler, nobody would be smiling.

This same type of thing happens when small dogs jump up. Nobody wants a Shepherd or a Rottie jumping on them, but oftentimes if a small or toy breed dog jumps up, the dog isn’t appropriately corrected. Undesired behavior is often tolerated when it comes from small dogs; it’s viewed as less of an annoyance and less hazardous than if the behavior was displayed by larger-breed dogs. The result? Little Mimi is allowed to practice inappropriate behaviors over and over with no repercussions. The behaviors become a habit and gradually Mimi turns into a scrappy, aggressive small dog.

What Can a Small Dog Owner Do?

To train a small dog to get along with larger dogs, you’ll have to help her feel confident around them. Practice reward-based training tactics. With your small dog on a leash, determine how close she can get to another dog before she demonstrates confrontational behaviors.

Once you know the distance, ease closer to a big dog as you capture your small dog’s attention by feeding her a few Bakery Snacks or another favorite CANIDAE treat. Continue offering treats the whole time she’s near the big dog, and reinforce this with soothing words of encouragement. Your goal is to show your small dog that the presence of a big dog should not be feared.

When the big dog has moved past, stop giving treats and talking sweet. Continue your normal walk. Every time you come across another dog, however, be ready to repeat the process. Eventually, your small dog should be able to walk near large dogs without barking and going crazy.

As for other areas of your life with a small dog, make a conscious effort to treat your pet the same way you would a big dog. Correct your dog if she jumps on other people, even if they think it’s cute. Do not allow her to pull while she’s on leash, even though she’s not big enough to knock you off balance.

The truth is, small dogs are no different than big dogs. Some have an aggressive “small-dog temperament” because we treat them differently. We allow them to do things we would never allow large dogs to do. If we gave small dogs the same socialization we do larger dogs, we could avoid behavior problems caused by fear and aggression.

Remember to socialize your small dog carefully. Keep her diminutive size in mind, but don’t coddle her. Don’t always carry her; allow her to walk on her own (with a leash, of course). The ability to explore her surroundings on her own is good for her confidence and her health.

Many common small-dog aggression problems can be successfully managed or eliminated through reward-based obedience training that emphasizes fun and inspiration.

Top photo by j.sanna
Bottom photo by Dan Bennett

Read more articles by Langley Cornwell

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  1. Lyne Lheureux says:

    Hi i live in Tampa Florida i have a small rat terrier mixes,,he deaf,,when he was a baby he was very sweet then he started showing signs of snapping,and now he is a year old and he bitting 2people,,i have too keep him mussled,,,i love this dog so much,,,,,i think mayb i dont have enough rime to give this dog and he is in a crate 1o hours a day cuz of my job,,im thinking he needs a different environment,i need help this dog is deaf and now he is mean i think he is unhappy,but everyone is scared of this little dog,,,i dont want to put him down,,ughh thank u

  2. Toshia Boyer says:

    I have a Yorkie schnauzer mix she is 6 years old and doesn’t like a lot of other animals she has her picks and today she bit a pit thankfully she didn’t hurt him and he didn’t hurt her but he was just minding his own business and she just bites him out of no where she is always barking a growling at any dogs or cats and I don’t know what to do with her anymore she has trained with everything else so easily but we are having a hard time with this she is especially aggressive with females this was actually the first time she has been aggressive toward a male and my husband is a truck driver so me and her stay with him so it’s really hard to take her out to pee or play when other dogs are around which is almost always all the time

  3. Eve Botelho says:

    I am looking for help witha dog that I adopted as a puppy, she is a long haired miniature dachsund/beagle mix. When I went to choose which pup to get, I was very torn between two of the pups.One was very friendly, the other very shy. I ended up getting the more timid one, which I realize now, was a mistake.
    She loves us and is good with people when she knows them. But her behavior towards strangers and strange dogs is to growl and lunge towards them. I have friends that have dogs and and she is best buddies with them. But I cannot take her for a walk without her being on her guard and refusing to walk if she sees someone in the street. She can sometimes be encouraged to be friendly with puppies. If anyone reaches down to pet her, she growles and sometimes lunges at them. I have taken her to obedience classes and reward her with treats when we are out walking, to encourage her to walk to heal. She will sit and stay when we are at home or in an empty field, with no distractions. I am renting an apartment at the moment, while we are transtioning to a new city, and every time I take her out, if we meet anyone in the hallway she goes balistic. I have always had dogs and have never had one as difficult as this. She has no bad history, i adpoted her at ten weeks. I would like you to know it is not always nurture. I have not treated her differently than the lab, or chow chow, or spaniel mix or poodle that I have had. This small fearful dog, is now so much of a problem it is not a pleasure to walk her, or have people over. She is a tyrant and I have tried the things you suggested. She seems to function from fear and go into attack mode, and nothing I do works.

  4. Fran Prisco says:

    I have a small dog (16 lbs) who always goes after “BIG” dogs too. You need to inform your readers that this behavior can be very dangerous to the little dog. We where camping in the Sierra’s when my dog broke loose from his collar and went after a large dog. The large dog grabbed him in its mouth and shook him like a rag doll, breaking one of his leg (the bone was literally snapped off and his leg was hanging freely) and punctured his abdomen with it’s teeth. Our dog was lucky he survived. His leg healed nicely and the puncture wounds where superficial. BUT… it could have been worse. It is so important to train little dogs not to go after big dogs.