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Small Dog Syndrome: Nature or Nurture

We have all seen the anxiety and aggression in small dog breeds and let’s face it, we’ve all heard that breeding such a small creature is the culprit for these traits. But what is fact and what is fiction? Are some small dog breeds more susceptible to these negative characteristics? Are smaller dog breeds more susceptible to anxiety, aggression, or reactivity than bigger dog breeds? In our quest for learning, if small dog breed anxiety is just a conspiracy or actually factuality, the Little Beach Dog has learned some big things are packed into our small dog breeds.

Small Dog Syndrome…yes it’s a thing…

  • Disobedient

  • Reactive

  • Shows Aggression

  • Barks & Bites

  • Disruptive Socially

  • Nervous stressed, or anxious

Training & Obedience

Some studies put the issue of small dog breed anxiety to blame on the training and follow-through of the dog's owner. Studies revealed that when training small breeds, the trainer or owner is less likely to follow through because they gauge a small dog breed as fragile or incapable of learning a lesson from the punishment aspect of training. McCann dog training states people often treat small dogs like children. They are therefore overly rewarding to compensate for the human guilt associated with punishment. Both punishment and reward are necessary tools in training. The punishment aspect can be as simple as refusing to give a treat, or stern verbal commands, without giving in to the puppy eye tactics. Because the small dog breed is so cute and often thought of as more fragile than the bigger breeds, human guilt often plays a role in training. Which could confuse or mislead behaviors in a small dog breed. Resulting in role reversal and your small dog breed ruling the roast.

Nature Versus Nurture

Some studies show a small dog breed may become anxious as a direct result of the ‘human parents' anxiety. In other words, a dog’s anxiety is normally a combination of existing fears and reinforced behaviors from their human pack leader.

We all know how attuned to each other a human and a dog can become. If the small dog breed owner becomes anxious in anticipation of an action or situation, this anxiety can transfer to their dog. I’m the owner of a big dog breed and I’ve made this mistake personally, so it’s not just a small dog breed issue. Unfortunately, it can be seen more in the small dog breeds because owners see small dog breeds more like children and less like dogs. Going back to training and obedience, if the human owner is anxious in a teachable situation, they are inadvertently teaching their dog to be anxious in that situation too.

Size and Defense

Some studies also associate small dog breed anxiety with a genetic association with the dog understanding their size difference and either overcompensating or retreating as a safety mechanism. This can be seen as the closest association in the conspiracy theory linking small dog breeds and anxiety. It’s not a brain-related issue, it’s a defense mechanism stimulant. One of the best ways to ensure that your dog learns that size doesn’t matter is through socialization. Especially at a young age when training techniques mold your dog's behavior. Unfortunately, this is also an area where nature versus nurture come into play. Some pet parents have anxiety about socialization, whether that’s simply a trip to the dog park or leaving their small fur baby at doggy daycare. Studies show socialization is key to hierarchy, and in the hierarchy, some dogs lead and some follow suit, it’s a comfort zone for all and it’s part of pack mentality, but neither is relevant to size. When you socialize your dog at a young age they find their place in the pack organically, not out of fear.

Adoptive & Unknown Stress

The last and most tragic association with small dog breeds comes from those that have been adopted or fostered. While it’s impossible to find the underlying issue of their anxiety it’s sufficient to say there could have been some mistreated behaviors or neglect. People often purchase small dog breeds thinking they are less work than bigger dog breeds and easily adapt as a house pet. This couldn’t be furthest from the truth. Small dog breeds need lots of attention. When adopting small breeds it is noted that they tend to have more anxiety than bigger dogs. But this doesn’t mean they are less deserving. Two of my besties adopted a little guy that was shy and meek upon first joining the family. They already had a large dog breed. When they took in their new furry baby they didn’t treat him any different than the large dog breed. Flash forward to the present day and this little dog breed is actually the leader of the pack, and so happy in his new environment that the shakes and shyness are gone and the tail wagging is never-ending.

So upon concluding our study, and without judgment to small dog breeds that may experience some natural anxiety, it’s safe to say that most anxieties in small dog breeds are built-in training and obedience, receptive stress with their owner, and a small dog defense mechanism. All of these can be eliminated through training and reinforcing positive behavior. Small dog syndrome is not something down-bred into its size, and it’s not an inherited trait. Although studies show it may be a body size defense mechanism, studies also show it can be overcome with early socialization. Small Dog Syndrome is literally seen as a teachable moment, not an inherited mishap.

As my animal control officer, dog whisper, best friend would say…

“Every moment is a teachable moment.”


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