Little dogs often get a bad rap. People who dislike small dogs say that are yappy, hyper-excitable, nippy (reactive), untrained, and often spoiled (whatever that means) . Indeed, it appears that even the Wicked Witch of the West had it in for the wee ones.
So, are any of these beliefs true? Are little dogs truly as bratty as some would have us believe? And, if indeed small dogs are found to exhibit more than their share of bad behaviors, are these inherent traits that come along with the miniaturized body type or does the owner shoulder some of the responsibility for junior’s transgressions?
Once again, we turn to science for some answers.
Background: When surveyed, owners of small and toy breed dogs have indeed been found to rate their dogs as more excitable, disobedient, impulsive, and in some cases, more likely to bite, when compared with owners of large dogs (1-4). Factors that may contribute to the reported differences between small and large dogs could originate with the dog, with the owner, or via idiosyncracies of the relationship between the two. In 2010, a group of researchers at the Austrian University of Veterinary Medicine decided to study these factors (5).
The Study: This was a large study. The authors surveyed almost 1300 dog owners in urban and suburban areas who were living with one or more companion dogs. The questionnaire collected information about owner and dog demographics, history of ownership, daily activities, dog care/training practices, and owner perceptions of their dog’s behavior and response to commands. For this study, dogs were classified as “small” if they were reported to weigh less than 20 kg (~44 lb) and large if they weighed 20 kg or more. Following collection of the completed surveys, the researchers used a statistical technique called Principle Component Analysis (PCA) to identify correlated groups of questions that suggest common underlying factors or themes. Three dog trait factors were identified: Obedience, Aggression/excitability, and Anxiety/fearfulness. Two primary owner factors that were found were Consistency and Training Methods, and the most important owner/dog relationship factor was Shared Activities.
Results: When the small and large groups of dogs were compared, several statistically significant differences were found:
- The dogs: Small dogs were reported by their owners to be significantly less obedient and significantly more excitable, anxious/fearful, and aggressive than were large dogs. These results confirm those reported by other researchers.
- The cause? However, contrary to many popular stereotypes about little dogs, it appears that the owners (not the dogs) were an important influencing factor in the expression of these undesirable behaviors……Dorothy, Take Note.
The Owners: The owners of the small dogs were found to be less likely to train their dogs, less likely to play with their dogs, and were also less consistent in their interactions with their dogs.
- Correlation: Moreover, significant positive correlations were found between frequency of play and interaction, owner consistency, and better obedience in the small dogs. While not evidence of causation, these correlations do suggest that it is the owners who have more to do with the reputation of little dogs than the dogs themselves.
- Training methods: This was the first study to compare the types of training methods used by owners of small and large dogs. No glaring differences were found, but small dog owners were found to use punishment (+P) less frequently than large dog owners. However, one should NOT use this result as evidence that “small dogs need to be punished more frequently”, because the study also found that the frequent use of punishment during training was strongly correlated with an increase in aggressive behavior and excitability in both small and large dogs. Interestingly, greater reliance upon punishment during training was also associated with greater anxiety/fear in the small dogs, but not in the large dogs.
- Study strengths: Two definite strengths of this study were the number of dog owners that were interviewed and the detailed information that was collected. The large number of questions in the survey allowed the use of a statistical method (PCA) that identifies emerging concepts and that can enhance the reliability of results.
- Study limitations: Limitations are those observed for all volunteer survey studies. A self-selection bias is expected to occur, since people who are more interested in dog-related topics and therefore probably more committed to their dogs are more likely to respond. Second, results reflect owner perceptions rather than objectively measured behavior. Although owner bias must be considered, it is also true that owners know their dog best and that a researcher would be able to obtain only a short snap-shot of each dog’s behavior and habits. Direct observation by researchers would also indisputably reduce the number of owner/dog pairs that could be included in a study of this type – consider the logistics of attempting to interview and observe almost 1300 owner/dog pairs!
- Small and large dog categories: A final note regards the size categories that were used in this study. Dividing the dogs into two groups of less than 40 lbs (small dogs) and greater than 40 lbs (large dogs), may have missed some of the idiosyncratic dog and owner characteristics that are commonly reported in toy breed dogs, those of the 10 lbs or less variety. I would have found it interesting if results for toy breed dogs, those that conveniently fit on laps and who are often carried rather than walked, had been reported and compared with larger dogs.
Take Away for Dog Folks:
- For trainers and behaviorists: This study confirms what many of you already suspect – that small dogs are not inherently little jerks, but rather it is their owners’ inclination to tolerate undesirable behaviors and disinclination to spend time training and exercising their dogs that have lead to Toto’s nefarious reputation (Bad Dorothy). Keep on fighting the good fight – promoting fair, consistent, +R-based training to owners of all dogs, including the wee ones.
- For owners of the little guys: As with certain other aspects of life, size does not matter. Little dogs, just like their big-boned cousins, require regular training and consistency and they thrive on daily exercise and play. And as this research shows, your dog is less likely to become fearful, anxious, or show aggression when trained using methods that emphasize positive reinforcement than when trained using methods that emphasize punishment. Get out regularly with your Toto to train, walk and play with him. Oh, and avoid the witch. Rumor has it that she doesn’t like little dogs.
- Bennett PC, Rohlf VI, Owner-companion dog interactions: Relationship between demographic variables, potentially problematic behaviours, training engagement and shared activities. Appl Anim Behav Sci 2007; 102:65-84.
- Guy NC, Luescher US, Dohoo SE, et al. A case series of biting dogs: characteristics of the dogs, their behaviour, and their victims. Appl Anim Behav Sci 2001;74:43-57.
- Kobelt AJ, Hemsworth PH, Barnett JL, ColemanCG. A survey of dog ownership in suburban Australia—conditions and behaviour problems. Appl Anim Behav Sci 2003; 82:137-148.
- Vas J, Topal J, Pech E, Miklosi A. measuring attention deficit and activity in dogs: A new application and validation of a human ADHD questionnaire. Appl Anim Behav Sci 2007; 103:105-117.
- Arhant C, Bubna-Littitz H, Bartels A, Futschik A, Troxler J. Behaviour of small and larger dogs; Effects of training methods, inconsistency of owner behavior and level of engagement in activities with the dog. Appl Anim Behav Sci 2010; 123:131-142.