The Case Against Small Dog Syndrome

By Laura Drucker

“That’s just her Napoleon Complex,” a woman explained to me as her teacup Yorkie barked and struggled against her leash. I looked down at my own dog, a small Terrier mix who by all accounts should have her own Napoleon Complex, if that does in fact apply to animals. She was calm, and oblivious to the anxious dog attempting to nip at her feet.

I’ve often heard dog parents brush off their pet’s behaviors as a direct consequence of their size. And in fact, there is some research to suggest that a correlation exists. In a 2013 study published in the scientific journal PLOS ONE, Professor Paul McGreevy of the University of Sydney’s Faculty of Veterinary Science reveals that there is a relationship between a dog’s size and her personality.

smalldogBased on his research, McGreevy posits that behavior is closely linked to a dog’s height, bodyweight, and skull  size. The smaller the dog, the greater likelihood of undesirable behaviors like barking, begging, and aggression. “The only behavioral trait associated with increasing height was ‘trainability.’ When average bodyweight decreased, excitability and hyperactivity increased,” McGreevy says. Is this a result of small dogs “barking big” to overcompensate for their small bite? Not quite. McGreevy admits that it’s hard to determine whether the relationship is due to a dog’s genetics or his environment.

Smaller dogs are more likely to be overindulged and overprotected, and caregivers are less likely to correct negative behaviors since they generally don’t post a major safety issue. Think of it this way: A large dog who barks and lunges on his leash has to be physically restrained and trained to calm down or he can do some serious damage; a small dog is often just picked up and told to “shush.”

“Humans tend to treat dogs who are small in ways that are different from how we treat dogs who are big, thereby causing dogs of the same size to behave in apparently consistent manners,” says Janice Triptow, owner of Dog Behavior Solutions, Inc. and the manager of behavior and training for Safe Humane Chicago. “All of us who regularly interact with dogs have had a hand in creating and perpetuating certain behaviors.”

One area where a dog’s size directly influences behavior, however, is training. It’s not that small dogs are easier to train than larger dogs or vice versa, but rather that how we train our dogs is directly related to our size in proximity to theirs. Triptow explains, “When walking or training in close proximity to their caregivers, small dogs must learn to observe and follow human feet, while larger dogs can more easily take body cues from their caregiver’s hips, shoulders, or legs.”

She goes on to note that parents of small dogs “have the unenviable task of having to bend over and make themselves low, at least in the beginning, to deliver timely and meaningful consequences to behaviors. They must remain mindful of how impactful their own physical movements can be upon their dog.” Parents of large dogs, on the other hand, must be sufficiently capable of physically handling their dogs, especially since unwanted and uncontrollable behaviors in larger dogs can have more dire consequences.

Just as there are no inherently negative traits in specific breeds, a dog’s behavior cannot be predicted by size and shape alone. How our dogs act is based on a host of interrelated factors, including social history, human interactions, and just plain old personality. So the next time you start to write off your dog’s disobedience as a symptom of their size, remember that you’re likely more responsible for shaping their behavior than genetics.

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