Do Small Dogs Deserve Their Bad Reputation, or Are Humans Jerks?

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You don't have to look very hard to find someone who voices their strong dislike of small dogs. Small breeds of dog have the unfortunate reputation of being vocal, skittish, aggressive, and un-trainable. While these are all labels one could apply to a lot of individual dogs, toy breeds tend to get the brunt of the accusations. So is it true that smaller dogs have "bigger" personalities, or is there something else going on?

There's more to small breed dogs than meets the eye!
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Ignoring body language

Unfortunately, many of the viral "funny" videos of small dogs are actually not that funny when you take a look at the dog's body language. Well before a dog is growling, snapping, or biting, they are likely giving clear signals that they are uncomfortable and need space to feel safe. Many well-meaning dog owners may not realize that the tongue flicks, head turns, paw lifts and yawns are actually stress signals. When those more subtle requests for space are ignored or missed, the dog may then feel the need to escalate to growling, snapping, or biting to get their point across. All of these behaviors are normal and natural for dogs, and if we learn enough body language to notice a dog's "whispers" for space, they won't feel the need to "shout" for it.

The key difference with small dogs is that the aggressive display from a chihuahua is going to elicit a much different response than, say, the aggressive display of a German shepherd. Although the growling and snapping chihuahua is just doing everything they can to express their fear or distress, it is unfortunately common for the dog to be written off as "dramatic" or "mean." Smaller dogs are much easier to write off since their displays just aren't perceived as seriously as their larger cousins.

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Lip licking is one common and subtle stress signals in dogs.
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Rough handling

Sometimes it can be easy to forget just how small our little dogs are compared to everything else in their environment. Imagine living on a planet where every other animal was 20 ft tall. Then imagine that those animals frequently and without warning picked you up and carried you around. It would be a pretty reasonable response to be a little wary or skittish!

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While some small dogs enjoy being picked up, handled, carried, and snuggled, not all of them do. Simply due to a toy breed's size, we can get away with handling them in a more invasive way than with our larger dogs. It is all too easy to force a small dog to do something they aren't comfortable with, like a nail trim, while we might need to stop and find a different approach if a great dane were having trouble with it.

Small dogs are tiny but mighty and can compete alongside the big dogs in many sports.
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Incomplete training

The myth of small dogs being "un-trainable" tends to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The assumption is that a small dog cannot be trained, so the owner does not do any training. Other people then see the small, untrained dog, and are affirmed in their belief that they can't learn the same way big dogs can. And the cycle continues!

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The truth is, every single dog is capable of learning and can benefit from positive reinforcement based training! Small dogs successfully compete in all kinds of dog sports, including obedience, agility, and even weight pull. Behavior problems for a small dog can be much easier to ignore than for a big dog, but the principles of learning apply to all breeds. Working on even some simple training with your small dog is a great way to bond, to help them feel safer navigating a big and potentially scary world, and to help break the unfair stigma levied against our amazing tiny pups!

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