Small dogs; big responsibility

30th Aug, 2018

Written by Noleen Fourie, Level 1 Canine Advisor (FOTD)

I would like to ask you, the reader, a small favour. Close your eyes for a few seconds, and imagine that you are only about 25cm tall.

Now take a look around you from this height. All of a sudden the world looks bigger – and quite intimidating! Now, take it a bit further. You’re not only tiny but you’re not in control of anything in your life. You don’t get to decide what and when you eat, where you sleep, and even worse: humans who tower over you touch you, pick you up and make loud noises right in your face without asking your opinion on the matter.

Yikes! Hectic, isn’t it? You’ve just taken a peek into the life of a small-breed dog.

“That’s not a dog, it’s a rat!”

Small as these doggies are, they have a big reputation. And it’s not always a good one! Just think of the phrase “small dog syndrome”. They’re often described as “mean”, “yappy”, “aggressive”, “rats”, or “not even real dogs”.

It’s true that a certain set of unwanted behaviours are common among small breeds. But think back to what it must feel like to be so tiny – is it not understandable that some things are very scary for them? Or that they don’t want to let go of their stuff (since it’s so easy to take it from them)? Or that they become over-attached to the person they trust?

The good news is: it is possible to raise a well-balanced small dog. The key is in treating them like you would a large dog in terms of providing the basic needs of a dog, as well as training and socialisation. Let’s take a closer look at the role that we as owners play in the personalities of our small pooches.

  1. Socialisation and training

Socialisation and habituation starting with a reputable puppy school is a must for all dogs. It lays a strong foundation, helping your dog to confidently accept different sights and sounds that might cross his path. Basic obedience training and prevention of problem behaviours are also subjects that get attention in a good puppy class. Sadly, though, this part of a pup’s upbringing is often neglected with small dogs.

“They are so small, therefore they’re easy to manage; surely they don’t need training? Besides, how much damage can they do?”

Don’t fall into the trap of thinking this way! Look at it from the dog’s perspective: socialisation prepares him for life. A lack thereof is often one of the causes of behaviour problems. Unresolved behaviour problems have the tendency to escalate.

Not only is socialisation a must, it’s crucial, especially for small dogs. The world is a big, intimidating place for them; raising a dog successfully depends greatly on giving them the best start in life.

  1. Self-preservation

Now, let’s consider the main priority of an animal: survival. Let’s now also consider the way these dogs are often treated: like they are toys.

They’re so adorable that we fuss over them – and we allow everyone who comes into contact with them to do the same. How overwhelming, and even scary, must it be to be handled by noisy strangers on a regular basis?

Even more so for a little one who hasn’t been socialised to be comfortable with people. Often when these dogs show discomfort it’s simply ignored. And what is a dog to do then? Warn a little louder and a little harsher.

This gets even worse with some people teasing the little dog who growls at them. No! The dog is showing that he’s severely distressed! The cycle continues and behaviours escalate; and before you know it, you have a small dog that lives up to the reputation of having a terrible temperament.

  1. Genetics

Your dog’s temperament is 60% genetics. So how do things go wrong with small breeds?

Firstly, the so-called “responsible” breeder who isn’t quite as responsible as they claim to be. And there are more of them than you might think! Being registered doesn’t automatically mean that a breeder ticks all the boxes of being responsible.

A good breeder will carefully plan which dogs to breed with, based on many factors, including temperament. A breeder who cares about dogs will not try to breed smaller and smaller pups – there’s NO such thing as a teacup dog, and any breeder who tells you differently only cares about one thing: your money.

Moving away from breeders, things get even worse. From the owner who refuses to sterilise their dog and then accidentally ends up with a litter, to the dog owner who knows absolutely nothing about dogs except that they can score a few bucks by selling puppies, right through to the puppy mill where bitches are used to breed as often as they are biologically capable of, producing litter after litter to make money for unscrupulous people.

Not only is there no moral justification for treating dogs in this matter, but this also contributes to a problematic gene pool. This is why, no matter what breed you have in mind, be very sure where you get your dog from.


Anthropomorphism is when we attribute human qualities to non-human “entities”. And it’s so easy to do this with our dogs – they are our babies. But it isn’t without risks. Often we see small dogs dressed in elaborate outfits, blinged-up, and being carried around in handbags or pushed in strollers. Where do we draw the line?

Doing the above is okay, but on certain conditions. Whatever you’re doing needs to be accepted by the dog comfortably, with no fear. By all means, put a jersey on your Chihuahua – they really struggle with cold weather.

The same goes for carry bags and strollers. If the dog is comfortable, there isn’t a problem. But don’t make use of them all the time. Even small dogs need to take walks. Whilst exercise is already seen as being valuable, walks allow dogs to sniff, sniff, sniff – and that’s a massive source of mental stimulation. Having a healthy dog with a stimulated mind lessens your dog’s chances of developing behaviour problems.

The moral of the story is that small dogs are not toys. Simply providing for their dog-specific needs will go a long way in eliminating unwanted behaviours.