Small dogs deserve to feel safe
Today's blog topic is one I feel very strongly about. AHEM *steps ceremoniously onto soap box*.
Little dogs have got a bad rap, and I think it's pretty undeserved. I've seen and heard this as a trainer, as a dog owner, while volunteering in shelters, and just about anywhere else that dogs have come up. I hear it all the time, people refer to them as "nasty" and "yappy". While you might think that small dogs have earned this reputation, I really don't think it's a problem with "little dogs", but rather it's about untrained, under-socialized dogs who just happen to be little and their owners who are ignorant to dog body language. Look at youtube and you'll find hundreds upon hundreds of videos of small dogs being purposefully antagonized by people, often by their own family members. The comments section are filled with people's laugh reactions and "LOL" comments, calling the dogs "divas" and "overdramatic", completely oblivious to the distress that the dog is in. And I think that's a damn shame.
Imagine what it's like to be a small dog? Imagine, living life as the smallest living creature at all times in all environments. Now, imagine that the one person you count on to advocate for you doesn't do it. You try to say you're uncomfortable in every way you know how, but that person laughs at you, ignores you, or pushes you harder. This is what I most often see with small dogs who are behaving in a "bad" manner, dogs who's needs have been repeatedly ignored, causing them to become hyper sensitive. So, why does this happen? I think it's a perfect storm of size disparity (small dogs are more likely to feel threatened because they know they have a physical disadvantage by being small) and socialization practices.
I find that small dogs are often under-socialized. In my experience socialization is not emphasized as strongly with small breed puppies as it is with large breeds; this is probably due to the fact that an unsocialized mastiff, german shepherd, or cane corso is quite a bit riskier to have around than an unsocialized toy poodle, but regardless of size ALL puppies should be socialized appropriately and listened to. Additionally, small breed puppies should be taught to enjoy being picked up, and given choice in their daily lives, rather than being picked up at every turn and forced to do something. When you are introducing a small breed puppy to a new person or situation puppy should be on the floor and allowed to move toward and away from the person, teaching them they have choices. Choice is empowering, and often we remove choices from our small dog's world! (See my bog post titled "Vote with your Feet" for more information!)
I've worked with a large number of small reactive dogs, and am sometimes asked why it even "matters" to modify their behavior when you can simply pull them away, or pick them up. Usually I'm called with the main concern being embarrassment rather than safety; the owner is embarrassed to even walk their dogs, but there's definitely no threat that their chihuahua mix is going to be pulling them over any time soon. But when I meet with these clients, I emphasize the fact that even though it's embarrassing for the owners when their dog turns into a mini-Cujo, it's even more distressing for the dog! When a small dog is barking and lunging it's because they truly don't feel safe, and I don't think it's fair to just "make" a little dog live with it because you can push and pull them or pick them up. It's our responsibility to help our dogs feel safe in this world, regardless of the size of the dog.
So, next time you see a little dog "yapping", try having a little empathy for the dog, making an effort to understand what they may be feeling. And for those of you with small dogs, make sure to always listen to how they're feeling, and do your best to advocate for them.