Saturday, November 19, 2011

Her Highness, His Majesty; the Small Dog

In a previous post, I wrote about the misconceptions surrounding bully breeds or "hard" dogs. Today, I really want to tackle yet another stereotype that often leads to serious issues for dog owners and lovers; the one that follows our tiny dogs everywhere they go. This one is for the powder puffs, princesses, and Napoleon Bonapartes of the small dog world.

Loucee and the agility set her grandma made!
One of my absolute favorite breeds is the chihuahua and it is very hard for me to make that statement in public without at least one person reacting as if I myself dropped to the ground and bit their ankle. Chihuahuas are just one of those breeds that get a very bad rap for being nervous, temperamental, and unduly aggressive. Most people have not met a well-rounded, well-socialized chihuahua, but I assure you that they exist! In fact, when socialized and raised properly, chihuahuas can perform amazing tasks. A great example of this truth is a young chihuahua that I have worked with for the past few years named Loucee. Her repertoire of tricks and commands is impressive to say the least and Loucee even loves agility as well as therapy work. I've yet to meet another dog (of any breed or mix!) who shows as high a level of concentration when being worked with. She does hate to become bored and tires of repeating the same task over and over (as do I) but when she knows that something new is being taught she really gives her full attention until the behavior is mastered. This has led to some amazing work, such as training with flash cards and the concept of "reading."

While Loucee is a little star and a very unique pup, it is not a complete miracle that she's accomplished so much. The largest factor in her success has been a family of people completely devoted to her training and socialization. From a very young age, Loucee has gone out and about with them, being exposed to many different people and situations. While she often does this from the comfort of her stroller, we also put an emphasis on getting her out to walk amongst the public so that she did not become possessive of that space or too afraid to leave it.

If you are having issues with a smaller dog or want to prevent them, please read on for some tips on how to handle some of the most common "small dog" behavioral issues.

Possessiveness: This is a huge one. Some small dog breeds do have a tendency to become possessive or otherwise attached to just one person (or certain items), so this can be a major problem for other people in the household. It is very important to train cues such as "off" so that you can communicate to your dog to remove itself from furniture or a lap in the instant that its behavior becomes inappropriate. Only well-mannered pooches get to share the furniture or your lap. The person of choice may have to spend some time quickly but gently picking the dog up and placing it back on the floor at every instance of bad behavior, but with practice this usually does the trick.

Insecurity plays a major role when it comes to a possessive dog. It is imperative that you teach your dog appropriate ways to achieve what it wants, whether that be its favorite bone or cuddle time on your lap. If the dog knows no other way to acquire what it wants, it will resort to the growling and snapping behavior that worked before. Put special emphasis on teaching your dog to "release" its favorite items in exchange for a high-value treat. Put NO emphasis on trying to boss an insecure dog around. While it may not seem this way, your dog is very aware that you possess more physical strength. Like a small child, it will still throw a tantrum and become unruly if you've never taught it that this doesn't work or that there are much better ways to earn a reward. Routine is your best friend; train your dog with plenty of rewards (especially those that involve its favorite things) and it will forget all about more inappropriate ways of obtaining them.

Biting Guests: Small dogs can be snappy little animals! Again, this is commonly due to improper socialization and/or a general sense of insecurity. Older dogs who need socialization can greatly benefit from a group training class with an experienced trainer who uses ONLY positive reinforcement. (Beware those that claim to do this but still rely on other methods such as leash jerks or choke chains). Every interaction with people needs to be a very positive one so if the doorbell transforms your dog into a tiny version of Cujo, you have a lot of work cut out for you. Try to limit the amount of time that your dog is in "crazy" mode by calmly and quickly putting her in a comfortable place such as a crate or other room as soon as you know a guest has arrived. Even better, if you know you're going to have visitors ahead of time, put your dog away beforehand so that you can greet them in peace. Once your dog settles down and everyone is calmly seated, you can allow it to come into the room. Have your guests toss some favorite treats to the floor where your dog can see them but make sure that no one floods your pet with attention or makes too much eye contact. Nervous dogs become more nervous when the attention is placed on them. A nonchalant and calm approach is absolutely critical. If you have a dog that is far too aggressive for even this to happen safely, you will need an in-person evaluation by a qualified trainer or behaviorist who uses 100% positive methods. The last thing you want to do is bully an insecure dog into a level of fear that it cannot recover from.

Barking: Some breeds are more "barky" than others and sometimes there isn't a whole lot that you can do it about it. However, you can definitely make improvements with some work. The proper approach greatly depends on the reason for your dog's barking. If this is primarily a problem when you have guests over, see the above paragraph on biting as this should help bring the barking to a minimum as well. If you have a dog who barks at every tiny outside sound or sight, the problem will be a little more difficult to cure. I would recommend an extreme focus on socialization and training that will build confidence. Barking is another one of those problem behaviors that often appears to be the result of an overly confident dog when reality is the exact opposite. A dog in a constant state of fear/anxiety is one that will be set off at the slightest "foreign" sound or cause for alarm. Get your dog out and about more and work hard on rewarding him for quiet and calm behavior. Click and treat for appropriate responses to new things as often as you can. If your dog has no reason to be alarmed by new things, he will stop sounding the alarm as well. This is an issue that really requires you to get at the root of the problem (anxiety/insecurity) rather than putting a band-aid on the symptom (barking). A group training class could also benefit in this scenario.

While I know that these behaviors can eventually become infuriating, it is also extremely important that you not use the "Napoleon complex" excuse to avoid real training. There is no quick fix if your dog has already been inadvertently taught or encouraged to behave obnoxiously. The easiest way to handle these issues is to prevent them in the first place. From an early age, dogs of all sizes need socialization and small dogs need to specifically experience socialization that does not involve being held or coddled the entire time. Smaller dogs need all the training that a larger dog does so that you can effectively communicate ways for it to achieve what it wants before it ever resorts to nervous growling, biting, or barking. Their smaller size (and awareness of vulnerability) makes them far more likely to progress to displaying aggressive behaviors when they feel threatened. Small dogs should go on walks frequently and be exposed to positive experiences throughout their entire lives just like any other dog, so that they can be happy, healthy, and comfortable. 

All of that said, there is no reason that you shouldn't still pamper your little princess or otherwise spoil your pup rotten. Dress them up in cute clothes, buy them adorable tiny toys (while laughing at all of us out here with bigger dogs who can't find an indestructible dog toy to save our lives) and take them wherever you go. Portable pups are often an amazing convenience and make absolutely fantastic companions as long as you remember to incorporate consistent socialization and training! Your dog, vet, family, and groomer will all thank you for taking the time to nurture a well-adjusted, well-mannered, and even stylish pet.


  1. What a cute little puppy!! We have stopped over from PBU!! Welcome to blogland!
    xoxo Chloe and LadyBug

  2. So very true! I'm a mini Dachshund and you would't believe how shocked people are when I walk nicely and quietly on leash, sit before the door is opened, sit before food, am gentle with my kitty sister and respond to hand signals. Just ridiculous. Great post.
    Kisses and Tail Wags,
    Dachshund Nola

  3. Though I can believe that good chihuahuas exist out there, I can't say I met any. There is a huge genetic basis to behaviour, and I see plenty of unconfident chihuahuas in show environments. If these are the future breeding stock, it's no wonder that chihuahuas have a bad name.

  4. Tegan,

    That is definitely a fair take on the subject. Some breeds are more predisposed to nervousness and attachment to one person and breeding makes a big difference. But in recent years I've met quite a few very mannerly and confident chihuahuas who were great examples of their breeds. The difference I've found is that these were all ones that were taken through formal obedience classes from an early age.

  5. Thank you for the welcome, bichonpawz!!

    Nola, that is awesome! One of my favorite classes was nothing but Dachshunds and we had such a blast!

  6. Well, we are just bursting with pride! Terri, we look forward to reading your blog every Sunday, but this week we were just elated to see that the topic was on our special Chihuahua, Loucee! We owe much to you though....we can't even imagine not having you as our trainer. We were truly blessed that day we walked into Petsmart and you became a very dear friend. You have such a God given talent working with animals and we have enjoyed every minuite we've shared with you. The Bryants and Loucee

  7. Your family definitely deserves the credit for how much you've done to make Loucee what she is! I am very glad you walked in that day with Loucee, things would not be the same if you had not. :)