There is a pervasive kind of attitude from many people surrounding certain kinds of dogs, one of which involves the smaller breeds. We see it all the time – a reference made to ‘small dog syndrome’. That meme that circulates about listing aggressive breeds, saying that breed does not equal aggression, but then places the Chihuahua in the number one slot. The smaller breeds are the ones we see frequently in the ‘funny’ videos of the snarling growling dogs. ‘Oh, they’re always like that aren’t they, little dogs!’
Take a moment to think about how the world appears from the perspective of a small dog. How their lives are different to those of larger dogs. As humans we tower over most dogs but then think just how much smaller some of these breeds are, and just how much larger we must seem to them. These little dogs are literally living in a world of giants, with their lives going on for the most part way above that dog’s head.
Aggressive behaviour displays from these little dogs seem to provoke an amused reaction. Because they are small, they can do relatively little harm and so not perhaps seen as dangerous in the way that larger dogs giving displays of aggressive behaviour are. Alternatively, they find themselves ignored. How often do we see the small dog barking at something, whether another dog or person, and their human is simply dragging them along, because they can? Small stature means that these dogs are easy to manhandle, to move to wherever we want them.
As good guardians, we know this is not the way to treat dogs. That just because we can do something doesn’t mean that we should. Equally where there are things we can do to help our dogs feel safer and more comfortable in our world, we absolutely should be doing those things.
Just because these dogs are small enough to easily restrain or move, that doesn’t mean that their feelings are small. They are already at a disadvantage from being small in a land of relative giants, and it is unfair for people to disadvantage them further by not acknowledging the dog’s emotional experience. A Chihuahua, a Papillion, a Yorkshire Terrier, a Jack Russell, all of these have the exact same emotional capacity as a Belgian Malinois, a Rottweiler, a Dobermann, an Irish Wolfhound. Yet that second group finds themselves acknowledged far more when they are struggling in a situation.
Yes, it’s probably true that the second group of dogs could do far more harm to a human if cornered in a situation. But that reduced capacity to harm us does not in any way excuse us from the responsibility of being aware of the dog’s emotional state.
It's also important to remember that there are potentially many reasons that a dog may be uncomfortable in a situation. Lack of socialisation, of exposure to the world, as young puppies may mean they are unsure how to handle new and novel things. A past scary experience can result in long-lasting fear. Illness or pain can make dogs sensitive and worried about keeping themselves safe.
We are their caregivers, we are their advocates, and it is up to us to advocate in every way possible for the dogs in our care, no matter what size they are.
A stressed, uncomfortable, scared dog is just that, no matter what size they are. As their guardians, the people who essentially control every aspect of their world, we must learn to recognise the emotions driving their behaviour. We must do all that we can do to help them feel safer and more secure in their world.