Monday, May 16, 2011

Small dog syndrome: How much are owners really to blame?

Liam sitting on my lap not showing any signs of small dog syndrome
I've been seeing a lot of information on the Web lately about the dreaded "Small Dog Syndrome." Websites like this one claim that is this a sort of dog mental illness, brought about by the terrible behavior of an owner who allows the dog the world with no consequences.

As defined by these trainers, small dog syndrome behaviors range from jumping up when uninvited, refusing to share toys or attention with other pets or humans, and barking/biting at strangers. These trainers claim this behavior is based exclusively on the bad behavior of owners who refuse to train their small dogs in the way that they would train their large dogs, and the small dogs pay the price. This site outlines a case for this theory in pretty stark terms.

On the one hand, I agree that small dogs are often allowed on furniture more frequently than large dogs. They are also picked up off the floor frequently. This makes sense. They're small animals.

However. I am not certain that this is an entirely negative act that is sure to cause damage and biting/barking. Liam likes to climb in my lap, and I like him to sit there. I pick him up often. And, he has never bitten a single person, ever.

Liam, however, must be invited before hitting the couch, and he knows the command "Not now" when he must sit next to me, rather than on me. If I had a large dog, this dog would likely be required to follow those same rules, and he probably would be allowed on the couch from time to time.

Secondly, I think this theory mistakenly holds large breeds up as ideals and doesn't take into account the specifics of smaller breeds. Saying that a chihuahua barks and growls because she is picked up and allowed on the couch while the Great Dane is quiet... that's just crazy. Some breeds are simply more vocal than other breeds. And small dogs don't have the market cornered on volume. The most vocal dog on my block is a German Shepherd.

This theory also neglects the reasoning that people use when they get a small dog: I can pick him up and snuggle with him. No matter your dog's size, it is important that dog owners enforce rules and create limits. But people with small dogs should be allowed to pick up their little dogs and hold them on their laps without feeling like they're committing a deadly sin.

Additionally, we also must respect the breed traits of our animals if our small dogs develop undesirable behaviors. We can't train our Min Pins to act like Golden Retrievers. They may always bark a bit more. That's what they do. We should respect their limitations and work within the breed, perhaps encouraging her to bark less frequently. Note I mentioned training here. Simply banishing a chihuahua to the floor without pairing this change with targeted training won't solve her problems. It may make those problems yet worse.

Don't believe me? Check out this list of the Top 10 easiest dog breeds to train. Only one breed listed here is considered a small dog. We could blame all of the owners of all the small dogs around the globe for improperly training their dogs, or we could remember that small dogs take patience and skill to train and methods that work on large dogs may not work on them. Blaming the owner is not helpful. Providing usable methods would be.