Maybe you’ve always been a big-dog person — until one day, it happens. Some tiny creature with great big eyes steals your heart and poof, you now have a little guy to love and live with. If you’re new to small dogs, you might wonder if there are differences in caring for them because of their size. All dogs are individuals, of course, but you might want to keep the following tips in mind.
One of the mistakes that people make with small dogs is a tendency to disregard their emotional state. Many small dogs learn early on that most humans ignore their early warning signs, which forces them to escalate their behavior to stop something from happening that they don’t like.
So, if you have a feisty little Fido, don’t laugh it off. Your pup is trying to communicate something to you. Barking, growling and lunging on leash may be easier to manage with a 10-pound dog as opposed to a 100-pound giant, but the message is still the same: He’s not comfortable with what’s going on at the moment.
The good news is that the same compassionate training approaches used for big dogs work for little ones. To start, you’ll need to identify your dog’s triggers: What causes him to whine, growl or bark? You’ll also need to know what he loves best. Does he beg for baby carrots? Does he love tug toys more than treats? You’ll need that knowledge when you teach your dog alternative behaviors and help him learn how to cope with and even enjoy the things that currently upset him.
When training any dog, keep the treats tiny; your dog shouldn’t have to chew more than once or twice before he swallows. You’ll also need to consider how much he eats during training when portioning out his regular meals. Depending on your training program, you may end up using your dog’s regular food as treats and forgo the bowl altogether. Keeping a healthy weight is important with all dogs, but it’s easy to go overboard when your dog weighs less than 25 pounds. Surprisingly, many dogs love vegetables, so try introducing your pup to veggies like carrots, peas, sweet potatoes or green beans.
Another critical aspect of understanding your dog (big or small) is educating yourself on dog body language so that you can recognize the early signs of stress. Subtle signals are often missed. A stressed dog may yawn, pant heavily or lick his lips frequently. Some dogs roll over on their backs when scared, an attempt to convey the message, “I’m not a threat, so please give me space.” If the dog has his tail tucked, appears to be tense or is showing other signs of stress or fear, it’s best to let him make the first move. Not all dogs appreciate attention when stressed or scared, just as not all people like hugs.
Many little dogs will tolerate a lot of handling, even when they aren’t enjoying it. To see if your dog actually wants to be petted and what he likes best, you can perform a “consent test.” Give him a little scratch under the chin or on the chest; do that just for a few seconds and then stop. Does he solicit more touch? Great! Give him a little more love and watch how he reacts. Take frequent breaks so that he can decide when he’s had enough. Try different kinds of brief petting and handling. You’ll be able to tell by how the dog engages with you whether he enjoys it.
As a side note: Not all dogs appreciate wearing clothes. While your tiny pup may benefit from donning a sweater in cold weather, pay attention to his body language when playing dress-up. If he isn’t having fun, why do it? It will only add stress to his life, and stress can build up over time. If your dog needs clothing for warmth and balks at wearing a sweater, find a less invasive option, such as a wrap jacket.
Other considerations with a small dog? Don’t think he doesn’t need exercise just because he’s tiny. Get outside and let him walk. Sure, he may prefer to be carried, but exploring the environment and sniffing builds confidence and is calming for dogs. Most small dogs do need to be walked on a comfortable, well-fitted harness to protect their delicate necks and to prevent them from getting loose.
When you’re out and about, keep your dog close to you and pay attention to your surroundings. A small dog walking far ahead into a driveway or intersection could easily be missed by a driver. Having him close (within 4-6 feet) also helps to protect him from larger animals, such as other dogs, coyotes or even hawks.
On the medical side, little dogs are sometimes more prone to dental disease, luxating patella (“loose” kneecaps), fractured limbs from jumping down, bladder issues, or sensitivity to heat or cold. Mitigating these issues may mean trying different food or supplements, training your dog to use a grass “potty patch” or adding pet stairs so he can climb up onto his favorite furniture. Be sure to ask your veterinarian if there are any special steps you should take with your new tiny family member to keep him safe, happy and healthy.
To sum up: Get to know what your dog’s body language means so that you can take action and help him to make good choices before he becomes overwhelmed. Be your dog’s advocate and don’t allow other humans or animals to bombard him. Protect his emotional well-being and let others know when your dog may enjoy some attention and when he would rather do his own thing. And if you ever face behavior issues that you don’t know how to resolve, reach out. Trainers and behavior consultants work with dogs of all sizes and no problem (or dog) is too small.
Janelle Metiva is a certified professional dog trainer (CPDT-KA) and a dog behavior specialist for the Best Friends Lifesaving Center in Los Angeles. She has a soft spot for fearful puppers, scruffy mutts and smelly dogs with skin conditions.