Little Yappy Dogs

To make a small dog less reactive, you have to let her be a dog.


Imagine if short, slight people were laughed at and called “cute” every time they acted aggressively, or even rudely? Or if they were coddled and adored but largely left out of activities that bigger people regularly engaged in? Or if perfect strangers walked up and squeezed their cheeks and playfully pinched their noses? Or, alternately, if they were shielded by their loved ones every time a tall, bulky person came along out of fear that the large person might act aggressively?

That’s how it is for a lot of small dogs, says Stephanie Borns-Weil, DVM, head of the Tufts Animal Behavior Clinic. Because aggressive behavior is not as threatening in a small dog as in a larger one, they are often not taught any rules about how to behave appropriately. At the same time, because they are frequently seen as adorable “objects,” their boundaries are not respected by people who want to pet or kiss them. And as little accessories, they are not afforded opportunities for exercise, training, and other activities that dogs require for psychological health. Finally, because of their size, their human family members often avoid letting them interact and have fun with other dogs.

This type of treatment frequently results in what some animal behaviorists call Small Dog Syndrome — a constellation of undesirable traits that include too much barking, aggressive behavior like growling and jumping on others, constant, neurotic wariness of people and other dogs, and overall poor manners.

It’s a serious issue because such dogs are unhappy no matter how much their human family members coddle them. Just like their larger counterparts, they
crave structure, activity, and social engagement. And they need to feel secure in their environment.

It’s also an all-too-common issue. More than half of pet dogs in the U.S. weigh less than 25 pounds.

Helping small dogs live full-size lives

Like people, dogs do not judge themselves solely on size. Yes, they can see which are large and which are small, but there is nothing in their genetic makeup that tells them to act one way or another based strictly on their height and weight. All dogs like to do doggie things. With that in mind, we advise the following to keep small dogs from becoming neurotic and therefore difficult.

Consistent training. No matter what a dog’s size, she should be trained to act respectfully. That means more than teaching her to sit for treats. It means no jumping on your lap with demands for table scraps, no jumping up on you or others for attention, no pulling on the leash and so on. This is not to be mean. It’s to teach small dogs about what constitutes polite behavior. Likewise, a dog of any size should be taught that it’s not okay to bark incessantly — or growl, as some do — until she gets what she wants.

Depending on the situation, your role is either to redirect your little dog’s attention or ignore her demands until she ceases the unpleasant behavior. And, most important, you need to be consistent in your responses. The American Kennel Club points out that inconsistent training is more common with smaller dogs than with larger ones. If you let a dog know that it’s okay to jump up on people sometimes and not others, she will have learned that she has to keep trying until she gets the result she’s after. Dogs can’t turn the “switch” on and off.

Shared activities. Just like big dogs, small dogs don’t simply want to be admired and cuddled by you. They want to do things with you — play with a ball, enjoy a game of tag, and so on. That not only makes a dog feel more bonded to you. It makes her more compliant by teaching her that there’s a give and take to situations. If you think little dogs don’t want or need to engage in physical activity, consider that many love (and excel in) both agility and flyball classes.

Know when to protect. Be sure to socialize your dog with a variety of well-mannered dogs and people when she is young so she has positive experiences with her own kind and learns important communication skills. When a dog approaches (big or little), take your cue from your dog’s body language. If she looks relaxed and eager to greet or bouncy and ready to play, let her have fun. On the other hand, if she looks worried or tries to avoid the other dog, take the cue to get her out of there. Have faith that your little buddy can decide who she wants to meet. You may be surprised who she chooses. It might be a scary-looking dog who’s actually as gentle as a lamb.

Rules apply for people, too. Just because your diminutive friend is cute doesn’t mean she is public property. If someone wants to pet her, have them “ask” by crouching down sideways to her and letting her decide. If she wants to engage, she will approach. If not, well… no one is always in the mood to be social or happens to like all comers. Let the potential petter know that Tiny is feeling a little shy right now but that Ms. Petter can toss a treat if she likes.

Never punish. Dogs of any size learn lessons much better with positive reinforcement than with yelling or worse. Praise a little dog for doing the right thing. It will go much farther to make her the dog you want her to be than chiding her — or worse — for doing the wrong thing.


  1. I subscribe to the Tufts Your Dog and have for many years. It has been helpful on many occasions with all my dog buddies both past and present. There seems to be something in every issue that is helpful. I have all the issues to check back on when a question arises when dealing with my dog. Great stuff.

  2. I think that a lot of people get small breeds as child substitutes. My family has owned several small dogs, and each was treated and trained just as they would be if they were large.

  3. It’s always troubling to me to see people lift their small dogs off their feet while on leash. Leash training is just as effective with the littles as with larger dogs and much more humane.


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