Dog Coach Francis shared his insights on “small dog syndrome” and how to avoid and resolve SDS of your dog. Here is the full interview of Dog Coach Francis for the October 2013 issue of Good Dog Magazine.

What is small dog syndrome?

“Small dog syndrome” refers to small dogs with a big attitude. In humans, a comparable phenomenon is called the “Napoleon complex.” 

Dogs that are commonly associated with this syndrome often exhibit bad behaviors.These dogs are considered disobedient and uncontrollable; they do not listen to obedience cues, and sometimes may be excessive barkers, show aggression to strangers, other dogs or animals and may act possessive.

Note that bad behaviors in “small dogs”  can also be developed by big dogs. People coined the term from thinking that a small dog is behaving like a big dog with bad behavior. 

 Are there particular breeds of dogs that are more prone to developing this problem?

There are no specific breed prone to developing this problem. All small dogs can and may develop bad behavior depending on how the puppy is raised,socialized and bred.  

Though different breeds have different temperaments choosing to get a puppy from a reputable breeder is a good place to start.

What causes small dog syndrome? How do dogs develop it?

It’s Nature versus Nurture. When we tag a small dog with SDS (Small Dog syndrome), we are giving an excuse on why they are showing bad behavior but we have to check two things, the dogs temperament and the way we treat or interact with our dogs.

Nature. Dogs of all breed whether they are small or big dogs have their natural behavior tendencies or personalities which we call temperaments. A 5lb mini pinscher puppy may be agile and have a very high drive. Bichon Frise might chase small fast moving objects as they are originally bred as ratters. Both dogs may bark on strangers as both dogs have it in their temperament or instinct to bark.

Nurture.This is how we humans raise a puppy. We either consciously train a dog using treats, play or praise a dog or we unconsciously training a dog’s behavior through our body language, rewarding good and bad behavior unwittingly. 

Dogs develop their behavior based on the combination of their natural tendencies and how these behaviors are rewarded or punished. If a small dog for instance is scared of a stranger wearing black, barks excessively and was rewarded by the owner but picking it up while saying ” it’s okay, that’s a friend”, the dog is being rewarded for barking at the stranger. Do this cycle a couple of times and you just have trained a dog to be an excessive barker.

There are some pet parents that go beyond pampering their dog and crosses the boundary into spoiling the dog. Where most issues start to occur. 

How can owners tell if their dogs have the syndrome? (signs, red flags, etc.)

        Some of the signs that a dog has this behavior are :

       • Barking when approached.

       • Barking at strangers

       • Biting and snapping

       • Destructive Behavior

       • Growling

       • Possessive over food, toys, etc

       • Stubborn

       • Paws at or Jumps on people

       • Other bad behavior of a small or big dog.

How can owners prevent this syndrome from developing? (Steps to take to prevent this from happening to their dogs).

The golden rule of small dog ownership: if you would not allow a large dog to get away with a behavior, neither will you allow a small dog.

Here are a few additional tips: 

  •  Understand that no matter what breed, size or age of a dog, they are dogs and not toys.They are not humans and can never replace a real human baby.
  •  Small dogs are NOT fashion accessories and should never be a fashion accessory. 
  •  Let your dogs walk. You don’t have to carry them all over.
  •  Do not just pick up the dog. Teach the dog to get picked up on cue.Your dog might even prefer walking over being carried around.
  •  Teach your dog desired behaviors and set boundaries.
  •  Reward the dog by giving treats or petting them for behaving properly.If you notice any bad behavior immediately stop the reward. 
  •  Use force free training in teaching your dog. 
  •  Always supervise when interacting with kids.Teach the kids how to handle pets properly and avoid playing with fingers. Your dog might go over threshold and might react aggressively. 
  •  A bite is a bite. Whether it’s a big dog or small dog.If you notice any aggression or unwanted behavior call in a trainer to help.
  •  Never use force in training a dog, this might cause the dog to get confused or even aggravate the issue.

Is this still reversible? What can owners of dogs with small dog syndrome do to solve the problem?

This can be resolved by behavior adjustment training techniques. However it will take time and dedication to resolve bad behaviors.

You will need to have an open mind and be consistent. If your dog is showing signs of SDS, try to look for the root of the problem. Ask yourself – when did it start? What happened? Where did it occur? How did I and the dog respond? Then change any negative association into a positive experience.Though behavior adjustment training is the way to go in resolving dog issues, some are resolved to just being manageable but will not be totally resolved. Prevent these issues before it start.

When in doubt, calling a force free pet professional to help is best.

What are the dangers/disadvantages of having a dog with small dog syndrome? Why is there a need to address this problem?

Most people bitten by small dogs are those who unwittingly try to touch or pet a “cute” dog without knowing the dog is reactive. If a dog does bite someone, the owner will shoulder financial and medical liability for the victim or worse, the dog might be requested to be put to sleep.

Dogs with SDS will result in an unhappy, stressed dog. The dog usually reacts to varying stimulus and may seem detached to the world and will greatly affect the relationship of the dog to the owner or vice versa. It may also indirectly affect the pet parent’s relationship with other people.

Other info about the topic you might want to add:

 Small Dog Syndrome is a by product of the “Dominance Theory”. Some other trainers and information on the internet, or even some TV shows promote this “traditional” training techniques using “alpha rolls and pack leader mindset” in  resolving dog behavior. It is based on a flawed study of wolves in the 1930’s and 1940’s. 

The use of alpha rolls was thought to have been used by wolves to forcibly roll a subordinate in submission and assert dominance. Recent studies have shown that alpha rolls are part of a ritual offered voluntarily by a subordinate world and not force into the lower ranking wolf. The reality is, dogs are not wolves and wolves are not dogs. Wolves’ natural habitat is the forest, on the other hand,  dogs’ natural habitat is your home. Wolves are predators while dogs are more of scavengers than predators.

The dominance theory or traditional techniques can be dangerous. It may result in a ticking time bomb if the root cause is not resolved but suppressed. I encourage people to learn and understand what motivates dogs, to move to modern, force free training method which emphasizes the use of scientifically sound learning principles and use functional analysis to identify and resolve problem behaviors.