Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Small Dog Syndrome Correlated with Owners' Behavior

I have always favored mid-size to large dogs, finding small dogs too frequently to be obsessive barkers and growlers that drag their owners around and have never learned a command. Where I live in Arizona part of the year, I walk my labradoodle several times a day and at least once a week have to hear some idiot say, “Are you walking the dog or is the dog walking you? Hah! Hah!” This joke of a question comes despite the fact that my dog does not tug at the leash and stays at heel. I used to respond with something like, “No, my dog is trained, unlike yours.” At some point I gave up. Most people in my neighborhood are old and have small dogs that they have never attempted to train and which pull so strongly that the “masters” have to lean back as if water skiing in the wake created by the dog’s engine. At some level I knew that the frequently bad behavior of small dogs is not due to their size but rather to their owners.

I had never considered that a study might be designed to confirm that poor obedience and excitability in small dogs results from the behavior of the owners, but a group of mostly Viennese scientists looked at precisely this issue in an article just posted by Applied Animal Behaviour Science (the English spelling of behavior is correct). In fact this is not the first study to consider the behavioral differences between smaller and larger dogs, as one learns from the many papers cited in the article. Previous studies have found that small dogs are more often disobedient and excitable, more impulsive and more likely to bite. Of course the consequences of aggression are generally less dangerous with small dogs, and I have seen people refuse to reproach owners of small dogs, perhaps feeling that complaining about the bite of a dog that is smaller than a cat should not be made into an issue. It has been suggested that the tolerance of aggressive behavior in smaller dogs may have led to spreading predispositions for aggressive behavior in the gene pool of smaller breeds. (Guy, N.C., Luescher, U.A., Dohoo, S.E., Spangler, E., Miller, J.B., Dohoo, I.R., Bate, L.A., 2001. A case series of biting dogs: characteristics of the dogs, their behaviour and their victims. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 74, 43–57.)

Owners of small dogs train them less, at least in my experience. In Phoenix there are a great many small dogs, but the vast majority of dogs at the Phoenix Field and Obedience Club classes on Monday nights in Encanto Park are mid-size to large. It is easier to ignore the bad behavior of smaller dogs, but it may also have something to do with the fact that older owners are less inclined to drive ten to twenty miles for an hour of work with a professional trainer. Older owners may also be less consistent in setting boundaries that the dog is not allowed to cross, and less consistent in the kind of punishment that is used. Inconsistency in use of rewards and punishments has been shown to result in more behavioral problems in dogs.

There are other differences in the behavior of owners of smaller and larger dogs. Smaller dogs are more likely to be allowed on furniture. However, large dogs are more likely to be played with, and to be taken on walks.

The Viennese study involved sending a questionnaire to about 5,000 dog owners in the city. There are over 50,000 dogs registered in the city, and others that are not registered for one reason or another. About 1400 questionnaires were returned but some were rejected for various reasons and 1276 were analyzed. Three quarters of the respondents were women. Any time I have been in an obedience class, the majority of the handlers were women so this does not surprise me.

Dogs were divided between those that were larger than 20 kilograms (about 44 pounds) and those that were smaller. I believe the results would have been more dramatic had the comparison been made between dogs under 10 kilograms (22 pounds) and dogs over, say, 25 kilograms. Smaller dogs were seen by their owners in the study as significantly less obedient than larger dogs. Smaller dogs were reported to act slightly more often in an aggressive or excited way. Smaller dogs were rated significantly more anxious and fearful. As is consistent with my experience, owners of smaller dogs were significantly older than owners of larger dogs. Owners of smaller dogs were somewhat less likely to use punishment. As to consistency of enforcement, 15% of owners of smaller dogs did not adhere to fixed rules, whereas only 7% of owners of larger dogs admitted this about themselves. Owners of smaller dogs more often thought rules were unimportant (43%) compared to owners of larger dogs (29%). Only 41% of owners of smaller dogs sought obedience training, compared to 55% of owners of larger dogs, and owners of smaller dogs engaged in training activities less often even if they tried sometimes.

The authors note that small dog owners, and in particular, toy dog owners may perceive their dogs more as babies and have a less objective view of their behavior. This in turn may lead to more unfavorable owner behaviors. I see it every day. Arnhant, C., Bubna-Littitz, H., Bartels, A., Futschik, A., and Troxler, J. 2010. Behavior of Smaller and Larger Dogs: Effects of Training Methods, Inconsistency of Owner Behavior and Level of Engagement in Activities with the Dog. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 123.

Addendum. My dear friend, Fran Breitkopf, takes issue with this posting, noting that I say that "at some level I knew that the frequently bad behavior of small dogs is not due to their size but to their owners." She points out that "it is at all levels that bad behavior of dogs is due to their owners." This is correct and I apologize for the inference that somehow small dogs have worse behavior than large dogs. I wrote this piece while still in Phoenix (where I spend winters and parts of springs) and it shows. Fran's other comments deserve being produced in full, as follows:

"In the 12 years of formal training and involvement on a more "academic" level, I have not seen a difference in expectations of small dogs, from their owners. They are dogs, with the same needs. They have the same responses to other dogs and people. I have not experienced any difference and have had many assorted sized dogs at the same time. While it is true that the smaller they get the easier it is to physically handle them and the more inclined some owners are baby them, but those owners do the same with their big dogs. I know, we did. The bottom line is that most dog owners or guardians expect their dog to be as well trained and socialized as any larger dog ... just as most parents expect and work with their children so they will be well behaved and properly socialized. Bad or lackadaisical parents have poorly behaved and not socialized children ... and dogs.

"Most people that I know with large dogs allow them to be on their furniture and handle their dogs as members of their families, rather than distancing themselves from them. The general feeling, among the people I know, is that whether their dog is small or large they are thought of, trained and expected to be socially responsible animals.

"Most dogs are blank pages when we get them or, if rescued, they have had bad experiences. Their permanent owners have taken on the responsibility of their guardians/parents/trainers....whatever you want to call it. Some owners succeed and some fail, just as some parents do. Parenting is parenting. The dog is a projection of them and the quality of the job they have done raising the dog.

"We have finally begun to understand that canine behavior is interwoven with our behavior, expectations, and ability to communicate. We finally understand that there rarely is a bad dog or breed. We finally understand that the environment that the dog is raised in is key to its behavior. I think that the study you found leans more to old fashioned, out of date thinking. Much the way the old fashioned trainers are still dragging their dogs around and lifting their dogs off the ground, trying to train them."


  1. interesting findings.as a toy dog owner myself, i can totally understand how their small sizes made us perceive them as babies, and as such more tolerant of their misbehaviors.

  2. Such an interesting blog, glad I found it!

    I'm a volunteer puppy raiser for Guide Dogs of Texas (I write about it here: http://alphinisworld.blogspot.com/ ) and am fascinated by the relationships of people and their dogs...particularly service dogs. The last pup we raised for GDTx is a labradoodle who now works as a diabetic alert dog...looks surprisingly like your beautiful Chloe.

  3. I have five dogs and only one is a small dog (Chihuahua). This probably helped me to view my small dog differently than most people view theirs. No matter the size, they are all dogs. She has the same behaviors and characteristics of all my other dogs. And I treat her the same. As with all my dogs, they have boundaries, limitations, love and consistency. She is not permitted to engage in any behavior that my other dogs would not be allowed to do. And she is a source of great joy to me, rather than the terror that so many dogs of her stature are to their owners (and all who visit them!).

    There is no such thing as a bad dog or breed! It's US who always are at the root of bad behavior. They understand us far better than we understand them. If only people would realize that, by treating & thinking of them as their babies, they are doing a disservice to the dogs they profess to love. A well behaved, balanced dog is far happier than a neurotic, fearful/aggressive dog!!!