By Dr. Becker
Most owners of small dogs handle their pets quite differently than owners of larger breeds. For example, big dogs must learn voice commands like “come” and “stay,” in part so their owners can keep them safe. Many small dogs never receive this training because their owners find it easier to simply pick them up and move them out of harm’s way.
Small dogs (25 pounds or less) also seem to bring out a very strong protective instinct in their owners. The little guys seem so vulnerable that their safety is a constant worry. Unfamiliar dogs are an immediate threat. Rough play with bigger dogs could result in a crushing injury or broken neck. Eating non-food items is potentially much more dangerous for a tiny dog than a larger breed. And the list of small-dog dangers goes on.
House Angels, Street Devils
Because so many little guys and gals are untrained and under-socialized, it’s common to encounter small dogs in public places who are fearful of humans, reactive toward other animals, and yappy. They pull at their leashes, ignore their owners when they are off-leash, piddle and poop whenever and wherever, and have no idea what basic obedience commands are all about.
Little dogs are often “street devils” and “house angels.” At home their behavior is mostly tolerable … except when the doorbell rings, someone walks past the front window, or you want them to quit taking snacks from the litter box. But outside the house it’s a different story – often a horror story.
By only protecting and rarely training our small dogs, are we doing them a disservice?
Confronting the Small Dog Stereotype
Tiny dogs are every bit as capable of learning obedience behaviors as their larger counterparts, and it’s for their own good. Think of it as extra insurance in situations where you might not be able to swoop down and rescue your pet from danger.
In addition to obedience training, your small dog can also learn to participate in canine competitions like nose work, agility, flyball, freestyle, and many others. Small dogs often don’t get nearly enough physical exercise or mental stimulation, so these types of activities can be beneficial for a variety of reasons.
Regardless of size, all dogs learn new skills the same way, so positive reinforcement training works just as well with little dogs as it does with bigger dogs.
Training Tips for the Tiny Ones
Remember, training a small dog is no more difficult than training a large dog. You just need to make a few accommodations for size.
- Stand small. Towering over a dog is intimidating when the animal hasn’t yet learned human body language and vocal tones. And the smaller the dog, the more overwhelmed she can feel in the presence of a big hulking human. So when training your little one, until she’s had some experience reading your signals, be sure to show her welcoming eyes, small movements, and a soft voice. Don’t deal with her “head on” immediately. Turn slightly to the side and get down close to her level instead of looming over her.
- Use small training treats. Tiny dogs need only tiny training treats. Otherwise, you’ll own a not-so-tiny dog in no time. Anything more than, say, a treat the size of a quarter of a pea, is too big. You can buy or make treats to break into very small pieces; you can also use some of his regular food as treats.
- Train on her level. Training a small dog from a standing position can be merciless on the back, and the last thing you want is to be in pain when you’re trying to focus on molding your pet’s behavior. Initially, you should sit on the floor not only to save your back, but also to appear less intimidating. Other ways to do training exercises include sitting on a low stool or chair, or moving your dog to a comfortable raised surface (a table or bed, for example).
- Use tiny toys and training tools. Your small dog needs a lightweight collar, harness and leash. Generally speaking, leather and chain collars and leashes aren’t a good idea for little guys. I always recommend harnesses for small dogs to avoid neck injuries. Some very small dogs have incredibly fragile necks. And just as his treats should be an appropriate size, so should your small dog’s toys and other supplies like food and water bowls, crate, etc.
- Teach your dog a verbal “lift-off” cue. Small dogs are often startled to be suddenly lifted off the ground by a human. If you put yourself in her place, imagining at any moment you will lose the ground beneath your feet, you can see why this is a stressful event. That’s why it’s good to train your dog with a verbal cue that signals you’re about to pick her up. Just make it a simple one-word signal. To train your pet to the cue, put your hands on her, say the word, and apply just a bit of pressure without actually lifting her. This gives her time to understand she’s about to be lifted. When you know she’s aware you’re about to pick her up, go ahead and do so. Consistent use of the cue will help her learn to prepare for “lift off.”
- Respect his smallness. Little dogs can be difficult to train to lie down – and there’s a good reason for it. Your pet is already small and vulnerable, and he knows it. When he’s lying on the floor, he’s even smaller and more vulnerable. He’s also likely to be more sensitive than a bigger dog to cold, hard or rough surfaces. So train your little guy to lie down using a soft, raised surface. He’ll feel less threatened and more comfy.
- Give your little dog some space. As much as possible, your dog should be allowed to meet new people and dogs on her own terms. Picking up a shy or frightened small dog to force an introduction removes her ability to keep her distance if she needs to. So leave her on the ground, and respect her wishes. If she seems skittish or unfriendly, don’t force the issue. This may be an area where extra work is needed to properly socialize your pet.
- Set big dog standards for your small dog’s behavior. If you wouldn’t allow a 70 pound dog to jump up on you, don’t accept the behavior from your little one. Reward only desirable behavior and ignore behavior you want to extinguish. Little dogs can learn to sit and stay just like the big guys do. The same goes for jumping up into your lap, charging out the door ahead of you, or ripping treats from your fingers. Don’t accept rude behavior just because your pet is small.
Lastly, treat your little dog like a dog! He’s not a baby or a dress-up doll. He needs to be socialized, which means having lots of positive experiences with other dogs and people. He needs to be on the ground much of the time so he can learn how to climb stairs, get into and out of your vehicle, and move confidently on all kinds of terrain.
Don’t be afraid to take your little guy for a hike, or a K9 nose work class, or into the water to see if he’s a swimmer. The goal is to expose your little dog to lots and lots of different experiences, activities, animals and people, without forcing him into situations he fears or putting him in any kind of danger.