The Great Little Dictator

Written by Claire Atkinson M.A. (Cantab.), Qualified Dog Behaviourist and Certified Tellington Touch® Practitioner

Small Dog Syndrome (SDS) is all about little dogs exhibiting undesired behaviour in the belief that they are less of a nuisance, and less of a danger than larger dogs. Typically, dogs will be over-excited, demand attention and are inclined to snap, yap and bark.

Their behaviour would be unacceptable to the owner of a larger dog – imagine a Great Dane being allowed to jump up on people.

The symptoms usually develop as the owner believes that their small dog needs to be protected against the outside world. The result is often an under-socialised dog that over-reacts to any strange stimuli. There is sometimes an anthropomorphic tendency in that owners may see their dogs as similar to humans, dress them up, and treat them like a child.

But dogs are a different species and we need to address their canine needs the same way we would for a larger dog.

The behaviours that are typical of an SDS dog are varied, but will possibly include the following:

The great little dictator.

He or she owns the house, and will bully family and other dogs in order to get his/her way. The family tries to do everything to keep the peace, which usually means giving in to their every demand.

Toilet issues.

They may refuse to go outside for their toilet needs, preferring to use any or all parts of the house. This can occur despite the owner trying everything in the book to get them “house-trained”. That’s because they’re exercising their control over the household; it’s a display of dominance.

Miss Fussy About Food

Owners tend to feed some of their own food, or snacks. Eating dog food is for, well, other dogs. 

You want me to do what?

You carry them all the time. Walking is not an option when you can be transported in luxury. But all dogs need physical and mental stimulation and a walk gives them the opportunity to experience their environment, sniff, and meet and greet.


Another aspect is that the well-meaning owner wants to protect their dog from any possible danger, and this includes meeting other dogs, people, and able to behave well when out and about.

Star Wars

Should she actually be walking, she may snap and growl at other dogs and people. For her, unsocialised, this is scary stuff and, as she has missed out on the meet and greet with other dogs and people, her fear is real. Her behaviour could lead to a fight as she is showing inappropriate greeting manners.

Look at me!

Jumping up is very common in a world where everything seems so much bigger than you are. He’s compensating for his size, so this is also a sign of insecurity, anxiety and fear. It’s also an attention-seeking behaviour that he may have learnt and serves him well in that the owner will pick him up.

What can be done about it?

With patience and a commitment to helping him/her become a “dog”, these unwanted behaviours can be changed for the benefit of both the dog and its owner. For some people, it’s really hard to accept that, as a different species, the dog within needs to be a dog. At this stage, you may want to work with a behaviourist or a trainer who will set you both up for success.

The technique we use is called positive reinforcement. It’s based on the fact that a behaviour that is rewarded is likely to be repeated. As the dog has learned that its antics achieve what it wants, it takes a little more work.

First establish what treats really work for her. These are seen as having high value for the dog, such as biltong or pieces of sausage. This is because the value of the treat, in the dog’s mind, has to be higher than the perceived reward of her unwanted behaviour. First, you need to decide what you do want your dog to do. We want to have at least one default behaviour (usually the “sit”) that we can request of our dog.

Take jumping up. Ignore the behaviour so that she doesn’t receive her usual result (e.g. being picked up). At the same time, ask for her default behaviour, and praise and reward copiously. Done properly, she becomes aware that “sit” gets a much better reward than jumping up, and thus the jumping up starts to extinguish.

These are generalised ways of looking at healing a dog with SDS behaviour. As always, get help from a professional to achieve a good result.

You’ll be glad you did. And so will your dog.