Small But Mighty: Training Tips for Little Dogs With Big Personalities
Small dog breeds generally refer to dogs that weigh under 20 pounds as adults. Some examples of popular small dog breeds are Chihuahuas, Yorkies, Shih Tzus, Pomeranians, and Pugs. While small dogs make great companions and can be easier to manage due to their size, they still require training just like larger dogs. In fact, small dogs have some unique training needs compared to bigger dogs.
Small dogs tend to have quicker metabolisms and bladders, making housetraining more challenging. Their tiny size also makes them more fragile, so care should be taken to avoid injury when playing or handling them. Small dogs are prone to developing behavioral problems like separation anxiety, aggression, and barking if their needs for socialization, mental stimulation, and training are not met. Due to their size, small dogs may exhibit "small dog syndrome" with tendencies like snapping, growling, and disobeying unless properly trained. Lastly, small dogs seem to retain their ‘puppy’ like stature, which makes disciplining harder to implement for small dog parents. Smaller breeds are treated differently than the larger dog breeds, which may impede typical dog training techniques.
With the right techniques focused on their unique needs, small dogs can be a joy to train. Setting small dogs up for success requires patience, consistency, and an understanding of their perspective. The key is to start training and socialization early, use positive reinforcement methods, motivate with treats, prevent injuries, and avoid practicing behaviors that can lead to small dog syndrome. This article will cover the best training approaches for small dog breeds at every stage of life.
Socialization is critical for all dogs, but especially for small breeds. Early socialization during the first 16 weeks of a puppy's life is vital for proper development. Without it, small dogs may become fearful or aggressive later in life.
During socialization, expose puppies to new sights, sounds, smells, people, and other dogs in a gradual, positive way. Let your pup meet new people of diverse ages, appearances, and backgrounds. Schedule supervised play sessions. Make sure all dogs in the social group are properly vaccinated. Make introductions positive by pairing new experiences with treats and praise. In some situations playdates are best done on neutral territory. Dogs develop a protective territory at home, and may feel their territory is being threatened. Save home playdates for once the puppies form a bond.
Continue socialization into adulthood. Set up playdates, visit dog-friendly public facilities, and training classes. Seek out well-run puppy kindergarten, and doggy daycare facilities, and do updated obedience classes. Tag along on neighborhood walks with a friend and their calm dog. Socialization is an ongoing process to maintain a small dog's confidence.
Housetraining a small breed dog requires patience and consistency. The use of crates, frequent potty breaks, and positive reinforcement are key techniques for successfully house training small dogs.
Crate training is highly effective for house training small breed puppies and dogs. Dogs are naturally averse to soiling their sleeping area, so confining them to a crate prevents accidents in the house. The crate should be just big enough for the dog to stand up, turn around, and lie down. Younger dogs will need to be let out more frequently to relieve themselves. An ideal schedule is taking the puppy out first thing in the morning, after meals, after playtime, and every 1-2 hours in between. Also take the dog out right before bedtime. Praise and treat the dog for going potty outside in the designated area. The dog should never be left in the crate for more than 3-4 hours maximum.
Frequent Potty Breaks
Puppies and small dogs have small bladders and high metabolisms. They need to urinate and defecate frequently. Take your dog outside to their potty area at least every 2 hours when they are active and awake. Pay attention to signals they need to go, like circling, sniffing, or whining. When they first wake up, right after eating or drinking, and after playtime are key times for potty breaks. With consistency, your dog will get on a regular toilet schedule.
When housetraining, use positive reinforcement methods. When your dog potties in the right spot outside, immediately praise them enthusiastically and give treats. This reinforces the desired behavior. Never punish the dog for accidents. Yelling or rubbing their nose in it does not work and can harm your bond with the dog. Simply clean up any messes thoroughly with an enzymatic cleaner. With time and consistency, your dog will learn where they should go.
Teaching basic commands is an important part of training small breed dogs. Due to their size, it's especially important that small dogs are responsive to commands for safety reasons. Maintain eye contact to stay fully engaged. Consistent eye contact ensures your dog is engaged and ready for your command. This will reinforce the connection between the command and action.
Incorporating hand gestures with the verbal command teaches your dog verbal and hand gesture commands at the same time. A well trained dog will respond to both verbal and gestured commands interchangeably. Here are some tips for teaching basic commands:
Small dogs are very motivated by food, so use treats when teaching new commands. Break the treats into small pieces so you can reward continuously without overfeeding. Every time your dog correctly performs the behavior, reward with a treat.
Keep Sessions Short
Small dogs have short attention spans, so keep training sessions to 5-10 minutes, a few times per day. End each session on a positive note with a behavior they know well. Quitting while you're ahead will keep them engaged and wanting more at the next session.
Hold a treat above your dog's nose, then slowly move it backwards over their head until their butt touches the ground in a sitting position. Say "sit" right as they sit. Provide a verbal reward, “good dog,” then give the treat. Gradually introduce the verbal cue before the lure. Once your dog knows the verbal command simply use a hand gesture each time you use the verbal command. Simply point down and say sit. Verbal reward, and a treat.
Have your dog sit. Say "stay", take a step back, then return and give a treat. Gradually increase the distance and duration of the stays. Change locations too so they learn to stay regardless of distractions. Once they respond to the verbal commands add a hand gesture. Hold your hand up, like a crosswalk guard would do to initiate a stop. Verbal reward, and a treat.
Start in a distraction-free environment. Say your dog's name enthusiastically, then "come!" When they reach you, reward them with praise and a treat. Increase distance and add distractions slowly. A physical gesture we use with our dogs is to squat down to release the command. As soon as we lower our body and squat, our dogs will come without verbal commands. You can look up physical gestures or develop what feels natural to you. Verbal reward, and a treat.
Command Down Or Lay Down
Hold a treat in your hand at your dog's nose level. Slowly move your hand towards the floor and their head will follow into a down position. Say "down" as they lie down, then reward. Fade the lure over time. Add a physical gesture, verbal reward, and a treat.
Command Leave It
Place a treat on the floor, cover it with your hand, and say "leave it." When your dog stops trying to get the treat, reward from your other hand. Gradually build up to leaving treats, food, or toys without covering them.
With positive reinforcement training methods, small dogs can master basic commands! Just remember to have short, engaging sessions and plenty of tasty rewards. With consistency, your small dog will be responding reliably in no time.
Leash training is essential for teaching your small dog proper leash manners and ensuring they don't pull excessively during walks. Small dogs in particular have a tendency to pull, as owners often allow it since they are easy to manage even when pulling. However, it's crucial to train them not to do this, both for their own safety and your convenience.
The best way to leash train a small dog is through positive reinforcement. Have tasty treats ready to reward your dog whenever they walk near you without pulling. Praise them enthusiastically when they do this as well. Start practicing inside your home or backyard first, then move to more distracting areas once they reliably walk close to you. If your dog starts to pull, stop walking and call them back to your side. Reward them for coming back and continuing to walk nicely. With consistency, they will learn that sticking close to you results in rewards.
Leash training takes patience, especially for excitable small dogs. Keep sessions short and engaging. If your dog ever starts pulling excessively or ignoring you, just end the session and try again later. Stay calm and consistent, and your small dog will master leash walking.
Retractable leashes are a debatable leash depending on who you talk to. The Little Beach Dog does not recommend retractable leashes simply because the list of injuries reported range from minor to death. We feel the risks are too high, and we recommend avoiding them.
Grooming is an essential part of caring for small dog breeds. Getting your dog comfortable with being brushed and having their nails trimmed from a young age will make grooming much easier as they grow up. Here are some tips for grooming small dog breeds:
Get your dog comfortable with brushing - Brush your dog often starting when they are a puppy. Make it a calm and pleasant experience by giving treats and praise. Gently handle their paws, ears and mouth so they get used to having these areas touched. Start with short sessions and build up time as your dog is comfortable.
Brush teeth - Small dogs are prone to dental problems so regular teeth brushing is important. Introduce a dog toothbrush and dog toothpaste slowly. Let your dog lick a small amount of toothpaste off the brush at first. As they get used to the flavor, gently brush the outside surface of their teeth. Work up to brushing teeth 2-3 times per week.
Trim nails - If nails get too long they can be painful and break easily. Cut nails every 2-3 weeks, just taking off small amounts each time. Reward your dog with treats for positive associations. Introduce a nail grinder as pups are often fearful of the noise. Go slowly and use high value treats.
Bathe when needed - Small dogs usually only need bathing every few months unless they get particularly dirty. Use a mild dog shampoo and lukewarm water. Thoroughly dry their coat afterwards. Some breeds may need professional grooming for haircuts or hair removal.
Regular grooming keeps your small dog's coat and skin healthy. Make it an enjoyable routine right from the start.
Exercise before Training
Small dogs have shorter legs and get tired more quickly than larger breeds, so they require exercise that matches their smaller size. Short, frequent walks of 10-20 minutes are ideal. Avoid long hikes or taking them jogging, which can overwork their small legs and joints. If you have a high energy small dog breed, sometimes exercise before training sessions can help them focus.
If you don’t have access to a yard, indoor play can also work to help small dogs release pent-up energy before a training session. A game of fetch down the hallway or up and down a flight of stairs is perfect. You can also use food puzzle toys that make your dog "hunt" for kibble or treats, activating their mind and body. Just 5-10 minutes of indoor play before a training session to release extra energy that can distract your dog from concentrating.
Mental stimulation is just as important as physical exercise for small dogs. A bored dog can become destructive and develop behavioral issues. Mental stimulation helps strengthen the bond between you and your dog while providing an outlet for their energy. There are several great ways to provide mental enrichment:
Food puzzles are a great way to engage your small dog's mind and satisfy their natural foraging instincts. Place your dog's kibble or small treats inside a puzzle toy. As your dog nudges and paws at the toy, treats will fall out randomly. Start with easy puzzles and increase the difficulty as your dog learns how to manipulate the toy. Make sure to supervise your dog during feeding puzzles in case they get frustrated.
Rotate your dog's toys weekly by making only a few available at a time. Then put those toys away and replace them with a different set of toys. This will keep your dog interested and engaged with their toys. Try toys that dispense treats or make noise to pique your dog's curiosity. Always supervise your dog with new toys and discard any that become damaged.
Frequent, short training sessions are excellent mental stimulation for small dogs. Work on basic obedience commands or fun tricks like spin, twirl, and roll over. Keep training positive and reward your dog with praise, pets, or treats. End each session on a good note before your dog loses interest. Regular training strengthens the bond with your dog and provides mental exercise.
Providing your small dog with daily mental enrichment through food puzzles, new toys, and training sessions will keep them happy, healthy, and engaged. A mentally stimulated dog is a well-behaved dog.
Preventing Small Dog Syndrome
Small dogs such as Chihuahuas, Yorkshire Terriers, and Pomeranians are at risk for developing Small Dog Syndrome or Napoleon Complex Canine Syndrome. Although all small dog breeds can develop this bad trait if not properly and consistently trained. This occurs when owners don't set proper rules and boundaries for their small dogs. Small Dog Syndrome can lead to behaviors such as aggression, separation anxiety, and obsessive barking.
To prevent Small Dog Syndrome, it's important to avoid babying small dogs too much. While it may be tempting to carry them around and cater to their every demand, this prevents them from becoming confident and well-adjusted. Instead, integrate training and boundaries into their routine. Set house rules and stick to them. Train impulse control by asking them to sit or wait before meals, toys, or attention. Use crates, gates, and tethers to prevent access to off-limit areas. Implement a "four paws on the floor" rule to discourage jumping up. Reward calm behavior and don't reinforce demanding behavior with attention.
With proper training and boundaries, small dogs can become happy, confident companions. Setting rules and avoiding the tendency to overindulge small dogs helps prevent the unpleasant behaviors associated with Small Dog Syndrome. Implementing structure while also providing adequate exercise, mental stimulation, and quality time helps small dogs become their best selves.
Proper training is crucial for a small dog's health and happiness. As we've discussed, socialization, housetraining, basic commands, leash training, grooming, exercise, and mental stimulation are all key elements in raising a well-adjusted small dog. While their petite size may tempt some owners to forgo formal training, doing so can lead to behavioral problems like small dog syndrome. Just like larger breeds, small dogs thrive when given structure through continued positive reinforcement training.
By taking the time to socialize, housebreak, and train a small dog using reward-based methods, owners will be rewarded with a loyal, obedient companion for years to come. Small dogs have big personalities, and proper training helps them channel all that energy and intelligence in positive ways. Keeping training sessions short and fun will make them more effective for small dogs. With patience and consistency, even the feistiest Chihuahua or most timid Papillon will become a pleasure to have around. Proper training leads to proper behavior and a lifetime of happiness for both dog and human.