Many, many years ago, well before I ever got into behavior, I considered myself a “big-dog person." I wasn’t really around small dogs a ton, but I knew what they were like (or so I thought) thanks to stereotypes. Small dogs are yappy, they’re moody, they’re aggressive, they’re annoying. I had no interest in owning one. I was uninformed and influenced by a world that created behavior conflict in small dogs and then blamed the dogs for the resulting fallout.
In all seriousness, humans aren’t to blame for every dog’s behavior. While this is true, it is also true that many breeds and sizes of dogs have stereotypes about them and lots of people believe them. Even people who work with animals in industries such as vet clinics, daycares and the like may believe and/or reinforce these stereotypes. Even owners of the very dogs the stereotypes are about reinforce them!
My disclaimer before I dive in to tell you about why I now adore small dogs and why their stereotypes are harmful is that it’s crucial to realize that there are in fact genetic influences in behavior among breeds. I recognize that, and it doesn’t negate what I’m about to say.
Human’s perpetuate the very behaviors in little dogs that they like to complain about. They often don’t take little dogs seriously, and they even more frequently don’t socialize them the same way. Anecdotally, I've taught puppy classes and worked with puppies for somewhere around 10 years now. Rarely did I see small breed dogs in those classes. People either think that they’re too small to be in a regular class where large breed puppies also exist, or they aren’t worried about it because they carry the dog everywhere anyway. I don’t know all of the factors that go into why small breed dogs are less likely to find their way into a puppy class, or why a lot of my clients that own small breed dogs did less socialization compared to medium and large dog owners. It’s certainly not for lack of small dogs in my service area.
When puppies don’t get the socialization they need, it can have pretty significant effects on their emotional and behavioral health throughout their life. What I often find myself telling small breed puppy owners is to put their dogs on the ground. That’s not to say that they can’t hold or carry their little dogs, but they shouldn’t do it constantly. If small dogs are not able to experience the world from their true point of view, they don't know how to cope when things that make them uncomfortable occur.
The biggest problem I see is that when a little dog is uncomfortable, frightened, stressed, or scared is that a lot of people are much less concerned about trembling, running away, or lashing out because of it. The result is that the emotional health of the dog suffers. It’s not generally malicious; it simply comes from this idea that small dogs are either terrified of everything because they’re small or they have ‘small dog syndrome’ where they believe themselves to be super tough. This is where the barking at strangers and biting gets brushed off as just “how they are."
If a large breed dog were running away, trembling a lot, barking at or biting people, their owners are much more likely to reach out for help because no one wants to be bitten by a big dog. Most everyone with any sense about them can recognize the risk that comes with that. So large breed dogs are more apt to get taken seriously because of the damage they could inflict or simply the acknowledgement that those behaviors are not normal or healthy.
I cannot tell you how many videos I’ve seen in my lifetime (too many to count for sure) of people laughing while a chihuahua or other small breed is growling, baring teeth, and giving off every other signal that they are uncomfortable. That simply wouldn’t be funny to most intelligent people if it were a large breed dog (although I would be lying if I said I hadn’t ever seen video like that with a large dog). A little dog is terrified and wants the threat to go away, and here they are pushing the dog continually because it’s funny. That is anything but funny, and it makes me feel so badly for that dog who’s distress is recorded for “cute” animal videos on the internet instead of being provided the autonomy and respect it should be getting.
Since coming to the understanding that small dog stereotypes are a vicious cycle of humans inadvertently or deliberately doing everything to limit these pups into these stereotypical personas, I’ve realized I’m not a “big dog person” or a “medium dog person” or even a “small dog person.” I’m a dog person. I’ve worked with tons of small breed dogs at this point in my career and not only do I love them as much as their larger counterparts, but they hold a special place in my heart because I know that they’re as capable of being the opposite of their stereotypes as any other. In fact, I see changing those behaviors as challenge accepted, because it’s incredible watching their journey unfold!