Tiny Terrors: Why Do Toy Breed Dogs Have Such An Aggressive Reputation?

Abbey Johnson CPDT-KA, FDM


December 12, 2023

“Ankle biters. Napoleon complex. Small dog syndrome.”


How often have you heard phrases and labels like these when describing toy breed dogs out in the world who struggle with fear, reactivity, or aggression? It’s no secret that small dogs have accrued themselves a pretty poor reputation in the public eye, with most people stating they’re more scared of a Chihuahua out in public than they are of a larger, more stereotypically “aggressive” breed. But, it’s not often that we stop and ask ourselves WHY we see this phenomenon happen. Should small breed dogs be behaving this way in such large numbers?


Less Likely To Be Properly Socialized and Enriched


Most people look for a toy breed dog because they’re looking for a convenient, portable pet. They’re popular with apartment dwellers, people living in urban environments, and those who tend to be looking for the perks of companionship in a lower-maintenance package. And while having a smaller sized dog certainly can have many perks, it does seem that the pendulum of this idea of “convenience” has swung a bit too far, with people equating a dog’s size (or lack thereof) to the level of needs the dog has. This thinking often starts in puppyhood. When you take home a tiny puppy who can fit in the palm of your hand, it seems like common sense to shelter them from the world, keeping them holed up in your home and away from any potential danger until they grow a bit bigger. But, because there is an early socialization window that closes in early puppyhood, small dogs must be given safe opportunities to take in the world around them just like any other. Exposure to all the different sights, sounds, smells, and stimuli of the world around them while intentionally building positive associations with these novel experiences is an imperative way to set small dogs up for success in navigating the world around them confidently as they age. There are safe ways to socialize and introduce your puppy to novelty without unnecessarily exposing them to disease risk or other dangers of the world. Think: bringing your puppy out to new environments in a stroller/wagon, building puppy-friendly obstacle courses in your home with various novel objects and surfaces, exposing your puppy to various sounds they will experience in life while pairing these sounds with valuable treats and enrolling in a positive reinforcement-based puppy group class to give them life experience around other people and puppies in a controlled environment.


I also frequently see people becoming increasingly frustrated with their small dog’s behavior, thinking that their dog lacks “obedience” or “needs more training,” in reality, the dog has additional enrichment needs that their owner did not initially anticipate. Just like with dogs of any size or breed, addressing behaviors like excessive barking, overarousal, inappropriate chewing, etc., can be challenging if the dog is operating at a physical exercise and mental stimulation deficit. A small size does not always necessarily equate to a smaller energy level! When dogs are chronically deprived of outlets to use their minds and move their bodies, we see behavior that most families can describe as problematic. Before viewing behavior in your toy dog as something that is “just ingrained in their nature” or requires more training, instead ask yourself if all of their needs are being met regularly and consistently. They are not always the couch ornament you thought you were signing up for! If you are seeing an increase in problematic behavior with your small breed dog, examine their day-to-day routine and ask yourself if there are any opportunities to give them additional outlets to express natural behavior or redirect inappropriate behavior to an appropriate outlet.


More Likely To Be Mishandled


One of the biggest perks of a small breed dog is their portable nature. Their equipment takes up less room, is easy to take out and about with you, and requires minimal effort to scoop up into the air for an impromptu snuggle session at your every whim. But, this often becomes a problem when we view their “carry-able” size as a constant invitation to invade their personal space without checking in on how the dogs feel about the interaction. In many situations where a large breed dog owner would need to “ask” or prompt their dog to get up from a spot on the couch, invite their dog to walk over for some pets or move their dog along on a walk, a small breed dog owner may instinctively opt to scooping up or grabbing at their dog to achieve the same result instead. However, this invites the question, “just because we can, should we?”


While there is nothing wrong with picking a small dog up who is comfortable to be carried, it’s essential that in your day-to-day communications with your small dog, you are still making an effort to give them agency and choice over interactions they have with you. And these adjustments to your interactions don’t have to be life-altering to tremendously impact your dog’s relationship with you and overall confidence. You’d be amazed at how giving a dog the option to say “no thanks” or make their own choice to interact can improve their overall quality of life! Instead of walking over and scooping your little dog into the air for some cuddles, have a seat on the floor and pat your lap, inviting your dog to have the choice to come over to you. When your small dog is comfortably resting, let them lie undisturbed. If you need to move them from one place to the other, try calling them over instead of grabbing at them. Giving your small breed dog more agency in their lives doesn’t have to be a dramatic change, but the difference it makes in their relationship with you can be huge. The importance of consent and choice is even more overstated when the dynamic between a person and their dog has a significant size factor at play.


Emotions And Communications Are Not Well Respected


In recent years, social media has not favored the small dog. Hashtags like #chihuahua and #smalldog across the internet are completely saturated with viral videos of dogs pushed into dramatic, aggressive displays, all for the sake of having a laugh and getting likes. Extreme cases of reactivity, resource guarding, fear, and pain-related issues are riddled across the internet, and you’ll rarely see a comment section filled with anything less than users cheering on this kind of behavior. Unfortunately, when dogs of any breed are portrayed in this light to the masses, it has very real implications for the overall quality of life of the entire population. Ask just any average person about their thoughts, and influence from this kind of culture around small dogs online will have them telling you, “it’s just in their nature,” “they’re just dramatic like that,” or people will even go so far as to make jokes about the fact that they would never adopt a small dog from a shelter or wish they had an opportunity to harm these dogs because they “deserve it.” Dogs experiencing extremely real fear, anxiety, and stress are completely dismissed. If anything, we are intentionally pushed into this state of mind on a regular basis simply because we have entirely desensitized ourselves to the fact that they are even sentient, feeling beings at all. There is no cognitive difference between a Maltese and a Labrador, but you’ll often find people holding one to a different standard of care than the other.


We don’t need to wait until a small dog has escalated to lunging and biting to determine if they are stressed. However, many people seem to struggle with picking up on more subtle communications from their small dogs and don’t necessarily notice something is wrong until the dog has escalated to the top of the aggression ladder. This isn’t without reason- small dogs are obviously much closer to the ground, and their features are much smaller and less defined. So, it would make sense that it’s much easier to miss a muzzle twitch, a furrowed brow, or a subtle lip flick with a dog who doesn’t even weigh 10 pounds. So, when training small dogs, especially ones who struggle with fear, reactivity, or aggression issues, it’s imperative that you brush up on your skills of reading more subtle body language signals so that you can pick up on escalating levels of stress before a more significant reaction occurs. 


What Are Some Common Behavior Concerns We See?


While all dogs are individuals, and a unique combination of their learning, environment, genetics, and self (or L.E.G.S. as coined by Kim Brophey C.D.B.C., CPDT-KA) determine the behavioral tendencies we see with each dog, it is also common for many toy breeds to present with specific behavioral concerns that are important to look out for and be prepared to address if you decide to welcome one into your home.


 1. Separation-related distress- Small dogs who are a part of the toy group can especially be predisposed to issues regarding anxiety around being separated from their people. They were selectively bred for a specific kind of sociability that makes for a fantastic companion dog, so we may see an increase in anxiety-related behaviors when separation from their preferred people occurs.


 2.  Uncertainty around strangers- Small dogs categorized in the toy group can also display some form of reactivity or a wariness of strangers given their predisposition to attach themselves to one person or a small group of people. This could manifest through reactive behaviors when passing strangers on walks, excessive “alarm barking” around the home, or even fearful behavior in the presence of strangers or visitors. This can be a significant reason why positive early socialization experiences with various kinds of people can be so imperative to set your small dog up for behavioral success.

 3. Resource guarding and “lap guarding”- When the world around you is ten times your size, you will likely feel a heightened defensiveness about protecting your valuable resources or possessions from the rest of the world! Cultivating a relationship with your small dog around feelings of safety and security around their possessions and preferred people is imperative to ensure they are less likely to feel they need to defend the things most important to them from others.


 4. Handling sensitivity- Again, with the size difference, it’s common for toy breeds to have a lower tolerance for handling and grooming. This can be even more exacerbated when the handling needs to be done by a stranger like a vet staff member or a professional groomer. Working on cooperative care and proactively acclimating your small dog to all kinds of grooming and care tasks is imperative to reduce the likelihood of handling aversion in the long run.


While there are many reasons to add a toy breed dog to your family, we must remember that they are still very real dogs with very real needs, feelings, and unique personalities. Small dogs are dogs first, and if we want to see a change in the population’s general behavioral tendencies, it’s important that we change the way society views and interacts with them.


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