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Preventing and Reversing Small Dog Syndrome

Jan 28, 2021
AUTHOR Dr. Ross Bernstein

Reviewed by Dr. Ross Bernstein

Dr. Ross Bernstein is a seasoned veterinarian who we’re fortunate to have as the head of our Board of Pet Experts. Dr. Ross earned his doctoral degree in veterinary medicine at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, where he was trained under the guidance of some of the country's most renowned veterinary professionals.


These days, it seems that small dogs are the pets to have, whether you are a celebrity that is looking for a photo opportunity with a small dog in your purse or a regular person who wants a pint sized companion. Many rental apartments and townhouses are now allowing tenants to own dogs and keep them on their property as long as they are under 25 pounds small dogs have grown in popularity. A small dog will not become so strong that they end up taking you for a daily walk, and since they weigh less they’ll wind up going through a lot less dog food, potentially costing less money. But what a small breed dog lacks in physical strength she can make up for it with her strength of will.

A Dog is a Dog is a Dog

When small dogs start to have behavior problems, it is often due to something called small dog syndrome. Just like their canine wolf cousins, dogs are pack animals that respond to a pack leader. This is true whether the dog is a Chihuahua, or a St. Bernard, or anything in between, When humans keep dogs as pets, it is vital that they stay in charge of the “pack.” When dogs are allowed to make the rules, all sorts of problems can result including; excessive barking, biting, having accidents, and destruction of property.

Few would argue that a small dog is initially very cute, and since they never get very big it is easy to think of them as perpetual puppies. They are allowed to do things that would never be tolerated from a larger dog, such as jumping on people or furniture. Many think, “they are so little what harm could they do?” Then weeks or months go by and they know the answer because the dog has small dog syndrome.

Preventing Small Dog Syndrome

The first way to prevent small dog syndrome is to pretend he is a big dog. This means when you take him for a walk, he walks and does not get put into a carrier or purse like a fashion accessory. If the dog legitimately needs a sweater on a walk because it’s chilly that’s fine, but don’t dress him up in cute little outfits. He’s a dog, not a doll. Doll’s are much less expensive to own and are less likely to shed or make a mess.

Being carried puts a dog in a position where he is un-naturally elevated which could make him irritable to say the least. Imagine being hoisted, against your will, on Shaquille O’Neal’s shoulders and carried around for miles. You’d probably lash out too. A few minutes of snuggle time with your small dog can be hard to resist, but make sure to give your dog proper warning, and respect his decision to refuse if he wants to. Of course, if you’re heading out to a vet appointment or another similarly important outing, you might have to pick him up even if he’s not that into it. Find a way to warn your dog that you intend to pick him up. When a dog is taken off guard he’s more likely to lash out.

A dog’s own physical body is his territory, but the things in your home like your couch, your children’s toys, your clothes, or your person is your territory and your dog should learn to respect the boundaries you set. Learning these behaviors may not be as cute as learning to roll over or fetch a toy on command, but they are far more important if you expect to maintain control over your dog and keep him from budding into other human relationships or displaying aggression toward your friends or other dogs.

Here are some common sticking points:

Jumping up on people -If you owned a St. Bernard, you wouldn’t tolerate it jumping on you and your guests. The same logic needs to be in place for your ten pound Lhasa. Every dog needs to add the word “down” to his vocabulary.

Excessive Barking

A bark or two to alert you of someone’s arrival is a sign of a good watchdog, but going on and on and interrupting your visit is just plain rude. This should not be tolerated. A simple command such as “I see, quiet” should eventually be enough to curb the behavior. Don’t allow you guests to praise or pet the dog until he stops, because this will indicate that he is doing the right thing. If he does not stop, bring him to any area away from people, but preferably not his kennel because you don’t want to create a negative association with the kennel. Some owners attach a leash to a kitchen chair or table until he calms down, and then will offer praise when he is ready to behave appropriately. Or you may want a second kennel to be used only for “time out.” purposes.

Getting on the furniture

Depending on the condition of your furniture and your desire to keep it that way, you may or may not want your dog on the furniture. If you do decide to allow it, it needs to be on your terms. Make your dog ask permission before jumping on the couch by way of a single bark or even looking at you with those “puppy dog eyes” as long as he waits for his cue. Some dog owners have a special blanket that they will put beside them on the couch when they are open to have their canine companion by their side. Whatever your strategy, your dog should be able to take no for an answer when you’d rather sit alone or with someone else.

Sleeping in your bed

A lot of experts will say “absolutely not” when it comes to allowing your dog to sleep on your bed, but many people find it comforting to have their dog near by. What’s most important is that the dog knows that your bed is a privilege, not a right and that they stay off until you say it’s okay. There should also be a designated spot where your dog is allowed to lie that won’t interfere with your sleeping space. And there should be another sleeping spot established for nights when you’d rather be free of canine company.

Acting Jealous or Possessive of You

If your dog is sitting beside you and starts to growl or tries to bite a human companion that wants to sit by you too, it’s likely that you’ve got a problem with jealousy and possessiveness. This is full blown small dog syndrome, where he thinks he is the boss and he decides who you can or cannot hang with. This is not cool. It’s time to reassert your place as the pack leader. If he can’t share your company, he should be allowed it at all.

To some this behavior can look cute in a small dog, but it should be taken as seriously as if a German Shepherd were snapping at your significant other, friend, or even your child or grandchild,

Reward Systems

You want to be careful not to imply any type of award when your small dog exhibits bad behavior, but you do want to reinforce good behavior. During the early training stages, whether your dog is a puppy or you have recently acquired him as an adult being liberal with small treats is okay, but these should also come with praise so that eventually, the desired behavior can continue even without the treat.

Dr. Ross Bernstein

Member of Alpha Paw’s Board of Pet Experts

Dr. Ross Bernstein is a seasoned veterinarian who we’re fortunate to have as the head of our Board of Pet Experts. Dr. Ross completed his undergraduate studies at Duke University, earning his B.S. in Neuroscience with a minor in Economics and Psychology. He then went on to pursue his doctoral degree in veterinary medicine at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, where he was trained under the guidance of some of the country's most renowned veterinary professionals.

After UC Davis, Dr. Ross completed a one-year rotating internship in Medicine & Surgery at the University of Illinois, College of Veterinary Medicine, and recently completed an additional year of further training in small animal surgery at the Las Vegas Veterinary Specialty Center, where he gained extensive experience in complex soft tissue, orthopedic and neurological procedures.

Dr. Ross shares his home with a Golden Retriever named Duma. We’re lucky to have someone as experienced, knowledgeable, and passionate as Dr. Ross in our pack – not only as our trusted advisor, but also as our good friend. Thank you, Dr. Ross!

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