4 Training Myths About Small Dogs

Training myths about small dogs can be directly harmful to their well-being. Let’s dispel some of these tall tales about our itty-bitty friends.

Feb 10, 2024By Chelsea Pinkham
training myths about small dogs

Feisty. Spicy. Demon dogs. Small dog syndrome. What hasn’t been said to describe the alleged aggressive nature of little dogs? As dog lovers, we’ve all experienced it: small dogs having explosive reactions to larger dogs who seem to always keep their cool. So how do small dogs become aggressive, how can we prevent it, and how do we best care for these pint-sized pups? Avoiding these harmful training myths can revolutionize your relationship with your small dog.

“Small Dogs Are Less Work”

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People who want dogs without intensive exercise or enrichment requirements often gravitate toward small dogs. Intuitively, it seems like the correct train of thought: the smaller the dog, the less exercise and stimulation the dog needs. But this isn’t true and is the root of many small dogs’ behavioral issues.

A dog’s mental stimulation, enrichment, and physical exercise requirements are determined by their genetics and temperament as an individual. Most breed groups have specific needs and encompass a wide variety of sizes. Most hounds, for example, are prone to following their noses and wandering off if given the chance. That characteristic doesn’t change, whether the hound in question is a massive Bloodhound or a petite Beagle.

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Researching your dog’s breed or breed mix thoroughly is an important aspect of ensuring your pet’s well-being. Consider the job a dog was bred to do, not just their size. Some small dogs, like the Pekingese, were truly bred to be lapdogs; others, like the Rat Terrier, were bred as working dogs with specific jobs.

The small Shetland Sheepdog requires far more mental stimulation than the giant Newfoundland; the itty-bitty Jack Russell Terrier requires far more daily exercise than the regal Great Dane. All dogs require daily mental stimulation and enrichment, regardless of the amount needed to satisfy them. All dogs benefit from training and need daily time put into them to bond with their caregivers. Dogs are not low-maintenance pets.

“Small Dogs Are Meant to Be ‘Purse Pets’”

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To many well-intentioned dog owners, being carried around in a purse, dressed up in human outfits, and treated as an accessory may seem like the height of being a pampered pet. But there are other ways to pamper our dogs while honoring their nature as animals.

Small dogs are still dogs, and dogs have biological needs. They benefit from socializing with other dogs, exploring the outdoors, exercising, sniffing, digging, and other natural canine behaviors. Carrying out these natural behaviors serves as a healthy outlet for dogs, decreasing frustration, anxiety, and other common behavioral problems.

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This doesn’t mean it’s wrong for your adorable Italian Greyhound to sport a snazzy sweater in the winter! It just means that treating dogs as accessories rather than animals can be harmful to their well-being. Before subjecting a dog to something, ask yourself: “How does this benefit the dog?” and “Is the dog enjoying this?”

Small dogs deserve the opportunity to engage in training with their caregiver, participate in enriching activities like dog sports, and explore the world around them.

“Small Dogs Are Inherently Aggressive”

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Many small breeds, especially Chihuahuas, are often dismissed as being inherently aggressive by nature.

In reality, small dogs’ aggression often stems from a lack of human ability to respect dogs’ boundaries. Small dogs are often treated like toys, lifted, and carried around without concern for their comfort or well-being. Because most dog owners are not well-rehearsed in canine body language, stress signals can go unnoticed or ignored. When small dogs’ warning signs are ignored, they may feel the need to escalate to the point of growling, snarling, or snapping. These behaviors are sometimes dismissed––worse yet, even provoked because the reaction is seen as “funny”.

long haired chihuahua agility
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Social media platforms like TikTok are full of “funny” videos featuring owners antagonizing their own pets, pushing them far beyond their comfort zone until the stressed dog reacts. Sadly, many of these accounts, featuring primarily Chihuahuas, have gained a great deal of popularity.

When a larger, more physically dangerous dog asks for space through growling, their request is typically respected. The consequences of being bitten by a Rottweiler or German Shepherd are far more serious than a bite from a Maltese or Chihuahua. Additionally, aggression in small dogs is often dismissed as being normal because small dogs are viewed as being aggressive.

If a breed known for its friendly nature (such as a Golden Retriever) bites, people are generally concerned and want to get to the root of the issue; if a small dog bites, the behavior is less likely to be addressed. Aggressive behavior is a concern in all breeds and should be addressed with urgency and compassion.

“Small Dogs Are Fearless”

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It’s a scene you’ve likely seen before. Two dogs, one small and one large, walk past one another. The large dog is nonchalant as ever, sauntering past the small dog. But the small dog is up on his hind legs, growling, snarling, and yapping his tiny heart out. Why is this?

It might be easy to picture the smaller dogs’ tiny voice in your head saying, “Lemme at ‘em, lemme at ‘em!” But as comical as that idea is, little dogs’ motivation for behaving in this way is less intentional than most might think.

“Small dog syndrome” is a term often used to describe small dogs’ tendency to behave aggressively. Also called “Napoleon syndrome,” such terms imply that small dogs are entitled, cocky, and arrogant. These ideas are anthropomorphic and unhelpful. Worse yet, this attitude promotes the harmful training myth that small dogs must be “put in their place”, disciplined harshly, or dominated into submission by their owners.

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Some breed groups that include small dogs, like Terriers, can be prone to assertive attitudes, but being small doesn’t automatically lead to fearlessness.

To the untrained eye, reactive behavior may make a dog seem fearless. But reactivity is a symptom of a lack of confidence, and a dog’s need to protect themselves from danger. Explosive reactions to frightening triggers are a dog’s way of creating distance between themselves and the triggers.

The true reason that little dogs are prone to reactivity is that their smaller size simply makes them feel vulnerable. This is the opposite of fearlessness! If you stood at the height of a Pomeranian, wouldn’t the world seem a little bit daunting? Smaller dogs need even more active, positive socialization from a young age than many large breeds.

Rather than forcing them out of their comfort zone, we can work to gently expand their comfort zone, paying close attention to their body language in various situations. Using rewards such as toys, treats, and affection in the presence of potential triggers can help change a dog’s emotional response.

Chelsea Pinkham
By Chelsea Pinkham

Chelsea is an animal advocate, rescuer, and aspiring rewards-based dog trainer. She is a Fear Free Certified Pet Professional with over a decade of animal experience. Chelsea has worked at animal shelters, sanctuaries and with many private dog training clients. She immerses herself in canine behavior education as she pursues her CPDT-KA dog training certification. In her spare time, she trains dozens of fun tricks for her and her partner’s rescued adventure cat, Iggy!