Pet Care

Living with Small Dogs

Yorkie with surprised look and yellow collar is held

To their fans, small dogs are adorable, compact, cuddly, transportable, economical pets with winsome faces and lots of personality. They’re popular with city residents, apartment dwellers and those who don’t have a lot of living space. They eat less than larger dogs, produce less waste, shed less fur, often enjoy a longer life span, are easier to control and don’t require as much effort to exercise.

Other people, however, see small dogs as yappy, snappy, pint-sized troublemakers who are often protective, wary and not good with children. The truth probably lies in the eye of the beholder and depends on the individual dog. Many small dogs do bark a lot, and a number of small breeds seem prone to aggression problems. There are also several size-related considerations to keep in mind for small dogs’ physical safety and behavioral well-being.

Barking

Barking is a juvenile trait in wolves, our dogs’ ancestors, and the earliest breeders probably considered it a desirable trait. Dogs who had a greater tendency to bark were useful because they alerted people to potential danger approaching. Lhasa Apsos, for example, were originally bred to sound the alarm for Tibetan monks when intruders entered monasteries. Despite their diminutive stature, many small breeds still serve as excellent watchdogs today.

Dogs bark for many different reasons, but all barking is basically communication. For reasons we don’t fully understand, little dogs often really enjoy communicating! Many people find this particular characteristic less than charming. However, keep in mind that it would be no more reasonable to ask your dog to stop barking altogether than it would be to ask your family members to stop talking. Instead, it’s best to focus on managing and reducing your small dog’s tendency to express himself. Please see our article on Barking to learn how.

Aggression

Because of their size, we can easily control small dogs—and so we do, often by force. Instead of relying on control through obedience training, we find it easier to simply push or pull little dogs, lift them and carry them. But this manhandling has its price. It often makes little dogs aggressive or sensitive to touch, which causes them to dislike being reached for, bumped, pushed, pulled or petted. To avoid handling, many of them learn to play keep-away when it’s time to be leashed for a walk. Please see our article on Hand Targeting to learn how to teach your dog a great alternative to walk-time keep-away. For general information about handling problems and how to resolve them, please see our article on Dogs Who Are Sensitive to Handling.

Carrying your small dog in your arms can also bring him into closer contact with people and other animals than he may be comfortable with. If dogs are on the ground and have freedom of movement, they can choose to move forward to greet and investigate—or they can choose to move away and avoid if they’re uncomfortable or afraid. When carried in someone’s arms, dogs are stuck. Whether they’re comfortable or not, they have to deal with other dogs approaching them or cope with well-meaning people, sometimes total strangers, overwhelming them with effusive greetings. Against their will, small dogs must often tolerate unfamiliar people reaching toward them, staring at them, petting them and even kissing them. Many dogs find this kind of treatment very upsetting! It’s your job to protect your small dog from unwanted affection, especially if he’s on the shy side.

Protect but Don’t Coddle

Little dogs are more prone to being hurt by other dogs and even people, so it’s best to strike an informed balance between ensuring your dog’s safety and letting him experience the world on his own four paws. Develop your ability to interpret canine body language so that you know when an approaching dog might be aggressive or even predatory. Please see our article on Canine Body Language for detailed information and photos.

Close observation will also help you recognize the often subtle signs of stress, discomfort, fear and impending aggression in your small dog so that you can take steps to keep him comfortable. Signs of discomfort include lip licking, flattened ears, a tucked tail, crouching, looking away and trembling. Signs of imminent aggression include direct eye contact, freezing, barking, growling, piloerection (hackles up), baring teeth and snapping (biting the air). Please see our articles on Fear of People and Canine Body Language for more information about how a dog looks and behaves when he’s feeling frightened, anxious or aggressive.

Defensive Tips for Small Dogs in an Oversized World

  • Carry tiny, tasty treats with you when you and your dog are out together, and teach him to associate people with pleasant things by giving him treats whenever they approach.
  • If your dog is in your arms and people approach to greet the two of you, put your dog down whenever possible, and give him enough leash to move away if he likes. When someone wants to greet your dog, give the person several of your treats and invite her to reward your dog for a Sit or some cute trick you’ve taught him—like Wave a Paw or Sit Pretty. This ritual serves multiple purposes. It gives your dog a chance to focus on doing something you like, it teaches him that interacting with people is fun, and it avoids a potentially overwhelming greeting from the person.
  • If you can’t put your dog down, you can still take control of a greeting. Turn sideways to the approaching person, holding your dog on the far side, away from the person. Then you can politely explain that your dog is very shy. After asking the person to proceed slowly and gently, you can hand her a treat and invite her to offer it to your dog in a flat palm.
  • It’s okay to tell people they can’t approach or pet your dog. He relies on you to make him feel safe. Don’t be afraid to speak up on his behalf. If words don’t deter enthusiastic dog lovers, try using clear body language. An outstretched hand in a “stop” position can be particularly effective, even for people who seem intent on greeting every dog they meet!
  • Teach your dog to come to you immediately when you call (please see our article on Teaching Your Dog to Come When Called for details) and to jump on your legs as you crouch when you say “Hup!” or “Up!” That way, whenever you see potential danger ahead, you can call your dog to you and get him into your arms quickly. If the danger is a large dog who’s overeager or aggressive, be aware that holding your dog in your arms may further arouse the other dog’s interest. Keep turning away if the larger dog attempts to jump on you, and discourage him by saying “Go away!” in a loud, firm voice. It may help to hold your little dog under your jacket or shirt so that the big dog can’t see him. If possible, enlist the cooperation of the big dog’s pet parent, or ask anyone nearby to help you.
  • It can be a relief to some small dogs to be able to tell you when they need help getting out of a scary situation. Teach your dog that when he puts his paws on your leg, you’ll pick him up. If he learns that this behavior works, he’ll have an alternative to aggressive reactions when he’s afraid of something or someone.
  • If your little dog is a good candidate for off-leash dog parks (please see our article on Dog Parks for guidelines), be sure to stay in the separate section for little dogs if one is available. If one is not available, it’s not advisable to use an off-leash dog park, especially if your dog is quite small (20 pounds or less). In the exciting environment of a busy dog park, larger dogs or distracted people can easily cause accidental injury to a little dog. The risk of predatory behavior is also a concern. Although it doesn’t happen often, larger dogs, especially when aroused by intense group activity or a small dog’s piercing yelp, may view small dogs as prey and attack them.
  • Toy breeds and other small dogs can get injured from jumping off of furniture, leaping out of your arms, playing with children or larger dogs, and getting stepped on. Don’t treat your small dog like a baby, but do realistically assess his risk of injury in a particular situation, and take steps to prevent accidents. For example, you can teach your small dog to use a stool or steps to get onto and off of couches and beds.  

Training

Many small-dog behavior issues can be effectively managed, reduced or prevented altogether through reward-based training that focuses on fun and motivation. Most small dogs are eager to learn simple obedience and tricks for tasty treats.

You and your dog will benefit from training that teaches you how to clearly communicate with him and teaches him how to listen to you. For example, with some basic training, you can learn to move your dog around as you need to without physical force. Start by training him while sitting or kneeling on the ground, or lift him onto your coffee table for initial training. (Place a rubber-backed mat on the table so that he can comfortably move around without slipping.) Offer lots of treats and praise in the beginning. If you make training a game, your little dog will look forward to every session. Once he’s gained confidence, you can gradually stand up to train or put him on the ground.

Training Ideas

  • Teach your dog to leap into your lap on cue (command)—whether you’re sitting or standing semi-crouched.
  • Teach your dog to get off of furniture, off your lap and out of cars when you say “Off!”
  • Teach your dog to come when called. This skill can save his life if he ever gets loose. Please see our article on Teaching Your Dog to Come When Called for help with training.
  • Teach your dog to target your outstretched palm with his nose when you say “Touch.” You can use this cue for getting your dog to move left or right on the sofa or bed, to hide behind you when someone’s approaching, or to greet a stranger when she holds out her hand. Please see our articles on Teaching Your Dog to Hand Target and Teaching Your Shy Dog to “Say Hello” for detailed training instructions.
  • Teach your dog a verbal signal that tells him you’re about to pick him up or put him down. As long as he knows what’s coming, being picked up or put down won’t take him by surprise by abruptly lurching him off his feet, and he’ll be able to prepare his body for the movement. For example, use “Pick up” for “I’m going to pick you up now” and “There you go” for “I’m going to put you on the ground now.” These little cues that give your dog advance notice go a long way toward making him feel safer and more comfortable with being handled.   

Punishment

In basic dog training, yelling and physical punishment are neither necessary nor effective in the long run, and this is especially true when working with tiny dogs. Take a moment to consider your dog’s view of the world. Lie down on the floor and look around. Have someone walk closely around your head and bend over you. Have the person reach for you and exclaim loudly, "Oh, what a cute little doggy!” or shake her finger at you, scolding “Bad, bad boy!” It’s a different world down there, isn’t it? Everything around your little dog is well above his head, and you tower above him, giant-sized at 10 to 15 times his height. Standing over him and yelling or reaching toward him angrily can be terrifying to him. Reward-based methods are most effective for all dogs, but especially for small ones who are easily overwhelmed by our sheer size difference. Please see our articles on Clicker Training Your Pet and Training Your Dog for more information. Don’t hesitate to contact a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT) for training help. Professional trainers offer private sessions and group classes, and some will even train your dog for you. Please see our article on Finding Professional Help to locate a CPDT in your area. 

House Training

Some small-breed dogs have a reputation for being hard to house train. There are several reasons for this.

  • Most small dogs are more sensitive to outdoor sights, sounds and sensations than large dogs. Prickly weeds, rocks, large bark and stiff grass can be uncomfortable if you’re only inches off the ground and your paws are tiny.
  • Small dogs lose body heat much more quickly than large dogs, so they’re more susceptible to cold and rain. Sweaters and coats aren’t just cute on small dogs—they’re necessary in cold weather to help them maintain their body temperature. If you want your dog to be comfortable eliminating outdoors in inclement weather, dress him appropriately.
  • Small dogs have small bladders. People often don’t realize that their tiny pets may need to go out more frequently than their larger counterparts, especially as puppies. Take your small dog out often, and watch for circling or sniffing the floor. These signs often mean that it’s time for a trip outside. Interestingly, though small dogs are more often cold than hot, many of them will also start panting when they need to go out.
  • When you’re small, it’s easier to be sneaky! For this reason, it’s vital to avoid punishment when house training a small dog. If your dog has been scared by punishment, he’ll readily learn not to potty at all when you’re nearby. That makes it hard to get him to eliminate outside with you, and it may teach him to relieve himself behind your back or out of your sight indoors. Using a lightweight leash to tether your dog to you can help you keep a close eye on him. If you see him start to have an accident, immediately interrupt him, take him outside and reward him for finishing in the right spot. When you can’t supervise, put your dog in a small confinement area with a potty pad to prevent accidents.

For more information about effective house training, please see our articles on House Training Your Puppy and House Training Your Adult Dog

Socialization

Toy breeds and other small dogs need the same thorough socialization that all dogs do to prevent behavior issues caused by fear and aggression. Socialize your small dog carefully. Keep in mind his small size, but don’t coddle him. Allow him to walk on his own four legs. Doing so is good for his confidence and his health. Let him socialize with children, but always under your close supervision. It’s easy for small dogs to be stepped on or injured. Please see our article on Socializing Your Puppy for comprehensive guidelines.