Little Dogs With Big Egos

You often find amongst vets that we all seem to have our favourites – some vets are cat people, others prefer dogs, some get quite excited even about ferrets and rabbits etc. However, regardless of which way we lean there’s one patient that never fails to send our heart sinking to our boots as soon as they enter the clinic – it’s the unruly, unmanageable, anxious/frightened dog. Big or little they are a handful and, you guessed it, the majority are the little ones.

Because we see more nasty little dogs than nasty big dogs and I used to think it was an attitude thing to do with the small guys. I now think that’s wrong. They simply don’t care about being little or big or fat or anything such things don’t matter to dogs. So, why is it?

First: Smaller dogs that tend to be aggressive have some kind of terrier blood in their genetic makeup. It might be a little way back, but terriers are fighters – they were bred to get stuck in at the drop of a hat and they do. The genes last on over many, many, many generations and they lurk just under the surface.

Second: I believe smaller dogs are more likely to miss out on the good attitude shaping that comes from the kinds of proper socialisation, training, discipline and control that other dogs get as a matter of course… and it shows!

Most owners of middle to large sized dogs are fully aware that their dogs need to sorted out right from day one so they can have a good chance of growing up to be well adjusted companion animals – the sort of dogs that know how to behave in a sensibly controlled and manageable way. Most people are simply not willing to take the risk (or put up with the nuisance) of having an unpredictable, or an unmanageable, or even an untrustworthy dog in their life. Properly socialized, properly trained and properly controlled dogs are not just more manageable and more likeable, but they also cope better within themselves as well – they are more composed – they make better friends – they are happier dogs.

And here’s the point – it is not just middle to large sized dogs that need to be properly socialised, trained and controlled – it is all dogs, large and small alike. While there is still a bit of inconsistency in the mindset of dog owners when it comes down to the importance of socialization, training and control in general, those with the small dogs are the ones who most often get it most wrong by assuming these prerequisites don’t apply to their dog.

So, why are we so lenient with the smaller guys? Why do we assume that we can get away with less training and less discipline for them? Why is it that we so often hear people say (and with complete confidence), ‘he is just a small dog, he won’t need to do socialization and obedience training’.

My guess is that the “no need to train small dogs” is something to do with their owners having a perception that these little fellows are not really dogs at all… or something along that line anyway. It is a bit hard to fathom, but at the end of the day they are dead wrong if they do think training and obedience are unnecessary for smaller dogs, what ever reason they have. Badly behaved little dogs can be just as poisonous as badly behaved big ones. The better their training the better their behaviour – and vice versa!

Here are some simple questions:

  1. Will your dog walk sensibly beside you when exercised on leash?… It should and many do, it is just a matter of basic training.
  2. Will your dog come when called – and I mean every time if you ask? It should – and this is just first grade dog training stuff.
  3. Will your dog drop what it is doing if you say “Uh! No! Come away from / stop that”? It should and it will if it thinks you are worth taking notice of.

It would be interesting to see who gets three out of three YES answers. It would be even more interesting to see how the response data cross tabulates with the single variable; ‘Size of Dog’. My guess is there would be a predictable fail rate of more than 90% with the little ones.

Sure, the obvious answer is that people often think that when push comes to shove, they can fall back on simply physically dominating a small dog when they won’t do as they’re told. But here’s where that plan falls down – by the time they’re at the point of needing to do that, it is too late. With ill behaved, poorly disciplined dogs (large or small), their willful attitude and total disregard for your authority may be a lot stronger than most of us anticipate – and it can start to verge on dangerous. The ego outweighs the dog! – and you got problems!

Getting back down to the basic understanding of what a dog is all about will help to show why training and behaviour management is just as important for small dogs as it is for the larger ones. It is because ALL dogs, regardless of size, shape, breed or type come from a common background and have the same basic behavioural needs. First AND last, we should never forget that dogs are pack animals and this means they are highly social fellows (like us). Within all stable healthy and strong dog packs there is control, there is discipline and there is a clear and regularly reinforced hierarchy of authority. A dog’s position in its pack dictates every aspect of its life – who to take orders from, what behaviour is acceptable, who to defer to, who to push around, how to react to new stimuli, when they eat, where they sleep… and the list goes on.

In well led and well ordered dog pack society, every individual dog knows its position, its authority and its responsibilities. But if the order starts to disintegrate or boundaries become blurred and their position becomes unclear, uncertainty and anxiety creeps in. They have no idea who to look to for leadership or guidance when this happens so they tend to start making the rules up themselves. And if they seem to get away with this JUST ONCE, they invariably (perhaps instinctively) assume that this lack of order and control gives them an invitation to take a shot at taking over whether they are up to it or not. Before too long we have the naughty, bossy, aggressive, demanding unruly dog.

It is very interesting that naturalists have been able to clearly show how wild wolf packs lacking a strong and capable leader quickly decline and perish while those that have a strong and capable leader prosper in even the very harshest of environmental conditions. The pack needs each other but they still can’t function properly without their leader. Clear leadership is an absolute imperative for dog composure. My experience is that dogs seem to get distinctly “edgy” when that leadership is missing in their lives. It may even be that dogs have evolved to have an instinctive understanding that inept leadership is a life threatening state of affairs.

So what is leadership and how can we provide it for our dogs? Leadership is all about discipline and order and composure in the pack family and by doing obedience training for young dogs we (their owners) can assume that leadership mantle. Their innate programming is “set” from the beginning to seek and identify who their leader is. Obedience training not only does it for them, it does it in a way they are clearly able to immediately recognize and understand.

It is also interesting, and important to note, that there is NO equivalent in the social world of natural dogs to the cuddling comforting protective owner. Sooking / spoiling behaviour on our part is alien to their instincts. It is something we do to them to fulfill a need of our own rather than a need of theirs. Remember that in a dog’s den (in realitysville), at a certain point in a pup’s development (about 8-10weeks of age), the bitch changes her focus from nurturing to become an enforcer. She actively starts shaping and correcting the pup’s behaviour so that they’re ready to take their useful place in the pack. After this point, no more silliness is tolerated.

Pups who belong to households where they are cuddled and babied when they should instead be getting straightened out, are predisposed to becoming the noisy, nervy, naughty and sometimes nasty little dogs – the confused and edgy pup that then starts to challenge the rules.

So there are clear messages in all of the above for small dog owners:

  • Your pup is a dog and a dog is a dog. Big or small they expect the rules to be laid down.
  • Decide what the rules will be at your house and enforce them from day 1.
  • Be consistent and clear as to what behaviour is expected and don’t be tentative about it
  • Ensure all family members are consistent.

Start your small dog off on the right foot and they’ll be a happy member of a harmonious family. But ignore the warnings and you may well find yourself living with an animal whose better attributes are to some degree compromised by a nasty, demanding, disobedient streak that might be very difficult to manage.