Mark Twain famously said: “It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog.”
If you own a small dog, you may have observed this phenomenon. Why do small dogs seem to want to pick fights with much larger dogs? Why do they act like a Great Dane packed into a five-pound body? Why are they so yappy and bossy?
There is even a name for this behavior called Small Dog Syndrome or SDS. There are theories on why SDS occurs, but many behaviorists and trainers believe it’s the fault of their owners. After researching SDS for this article and being an owner of a small dog, I can say I may be guilty of doing some of these things.
The main reason for SDS appears to be allowing a smaller dog to behave in ways we would not tolerate from a large dog. The “traits” that we give little dogs may actually be learned behavior and not in their genes. The dominant behavior of little dogs is seen as cute rather than threatening and they often are allowed to run up to people or bark at them, for instance. Little dogs may pull on the leash when walking because they are too small to really knock you down.
But allowing these behaviors may embolden them and reinforce their dominant behaviors.
Behaviorists advise using positive reinforcement training with treats and praise. Getting down to the little dog’s level when giving instruction may be helpful. Teaching tricks such as paw shakes for treats can be a fun way to reinforce discipline. Ask your veterinarian to refer you to a trainer or behaviorist to help with difficult cases.
Avoiding SDS in your little dog may also save his life.
When little dogs encounter larger dogs on a walk, SDS can lead to a lopsided and brief battle that usually does not favor the little dog. Serious injury or in some cases death can happen in a blink of an eye.
One way to avoid conflicts is by staying alert and keeping your dog under a short leash and voice control at all times. You can take the additional step of not allowing your dog to look or sniff at another dog.
Teaching a dog early on that he can't visit with every other dog he meets is one good way owners can prevent leash aggression. Teach the dog not to pull on the leash, and to sit and wait for permission before greeting another dog. Basic obedience training can help prevent fights.
Along with leashing and good training, owners can avoid conflicts by keeping their pets from roaming, neutering young dogs before 6 months of age, and socializing their dogs during the critical puppyhood stage between 6 to 8 weeks of age.
Even if you follow all the rules, many fights occur with little warning. Watch for these behavioral cues to see if a fight is imminent:
• A hard, unwavering, targeted stare.
• Dominance posturing, such as mounting.
• Stiff body movements.
• Extreme body language: the tail held stiffly up or down, lips pulled tight against the teeth.
Dogfights can occur between any dogs, not just little dogs with SDS. We are a very dog friendly city and we like to take our dogs with us to enjoy the great Southern California weather. We all love our dogs, big or small. Let’s keep them as safe and healthy as we can.
Dr. Greg Perrault owns and operates Cats & Dogs Animal Hospital in Long Beach.