Small Dog Syndrome

By | August 11, 2018

My toy poodle Frankie is the world’s most affectionate dog.

Nobody loves me more than Frankie. She is my Velcro dog and my stalker. She is totally obsessed with me and I know that if I need some validation she’s ready and waiting, if not already in my lap.

But unfortunately, this is just one side of the “small dog syndrome” coin.

As soon as we get out the front door for a walk, or even before, Frankie will bark at other random dogs and sometimes even people on sight. It’s not exactly terrifying, most people have a good chuckle. But it gets old fast and left unchecked I’d soon have a problem with the body corporate where I live, and it would definitely take the enjoyment out of our lovely long walks here in beautiful Airlie Beach.

So, I’ve been doing some research and taking some action and maybe our story can help someone else taming their own little lion with “small dog syndrome”.

Disclaimer: I am not a dog trainer. The information here is based on my experience with my own dog. Please contact a professional trainer for help with yours.

As a quick bit of background, Frankie is a rescued dog and we all arrived in Australia fairly recently from Patong Beach in Phuket, Thailand. While we were living there we actually did used to encounter some fairly hostile dogs and cats on our walks (and even some pretty unsavory people if I’m honest) so her behavior isn’t totally unwarranted, but now I’d like it to stop.

Anway, first things first…what is this “small dog syndrome”?

Small dog syndrome is a way to describe poor social skills, lack of training, anxiety and neurotic behavior associated with overly coddled small dogs.

Small dogs are frequently allowed to do things larger dogs are discouraged from doing, such as jumping up on people as a greeting and climbing into your lap uninvited.

Some small dogs aren’t even house trained as their owners don’t notice the mess so much when they are tiny puppies so don’t bother to train them properly.

I believe also that small dogs are probably even more likely than big dogs to be the victims of “puppy farms” or “puppy mills” where they are bred in high numbers with little attention paid to their basic welfare and proper socialization.

When I acquired Frankie she had most likely been dumped and I tend to think it was because her first owner hadn’t raised her right, hadn’t even house trained her in fact, and then once she became a year old that person simply became tired of dealing with the anxious, messy, liability they had created and left her at a dam with all the stray dogs.

Don’t be like that, every dog needs training if they are going to be a happy member of your household, even the little ones.

And by the way; dogs don’t know they’re big or small. I see this everyday when NutNut tries to snuggle on Frankie’s little dog bed. I also have a regular sized tennis ball for Nut and a small one for Frankie but they don’t know the difference. They just know that for some reason one gets more attention at times than the other.

So, anyway, I’ve been researching this “small dog syndrome” and territorial behavior or barking at other dogs in general and also incorporating some guidelines from The Online Dog Trainer Doggy Dan.


Here are three simple things I’ve been doing at home which have made a difference:

I ignore all three of my furkids when I get home.

I don’t acknowledge them or look them in the eye for at least the first 10 minutes. I get home from a long day and I know they have been shut in but I also know that another 10 minutes won’t hurt and the delay will mean they are calmer tomorrow.

I come in, I put my bag down, I sit at the kitchen table and turn my computer on or make myself a snack or do the dishes. It doesn’t matter what I do but I don’t acknowledge them.

If they fuss or make a noise I let them, I just ignore it. They will calm down by themselves.

If Frankie tries to climb into my lap I lift her off and put her down without a word.

Over a few weeks of doing this I’ve noticed that Nut, Mickey and Frankie will all still be at the door when I get home, but they will now quickly disperse and go back to what they were doing or sit on their place beds and wait for me to call them to me.

(Ok, I have to admit that when Mickey climbs into my lap I always snuggle him. But he’s a cat; he doesn’t bark at anyone. Plus he’s gorgeous so actually he can do whatever the hell he likes)

I don’t let Frankie climb into my lap uninvited

If I do that means I am allowing her to claim me as hers. 

If I am hers she feels she needs to guard me when we go out.

So, now I calmly lift her off me and then wait and then call her to me and invite her to sit with me.

We still get to snuggle but it must be on my terms not hers.

The Girls and Mickey also sleep on my bed (which some dog trainers might say is a no-no) BUT there is one very important caveat;  as the pack leader I say when it’s bedtime and when it’s time to get up and they are denied access to the upstairs area at all other times; there is a baby gate at the bottom of the stairs to enforce this rule.

I’ve taken over the job of Security.

At home if there’s a noise or a neighbor arrives home or whatever I tell The Girls (Nut and Frankie, the dogs) “Mummy heard that” or “Mummy knows” before they start barking.

Or, if they start barking I say “Thank you Frankie” or “Thank you NutNut”

That’s always enough for NutNut but if Frankie continues to bark I will actually get up and look around and say “Thank you, Mummy’s taken care of that”

If she continues from there I calmly put her in the laundry and close the door and leave her for a little while to calm down. She has a wee wee tray and water in there so it’s very safe.

Of course, for us, it’s when we’re out and about that the real challenges occur but here are some things that have worked well with Frankie.

Frankie walks nicely on a lead now, but this has taken a long time to achieve. I don’t think it was something she learned as a pup. I think she has leaned how to do this mostly by walking with NutNut and copying her.

I have noticed that she is way more aggressive to other dogs when on a lead. So, if it’s safe to do so I let her off lead or drop the lead when I see other dogs.

Safety first of course!

I know I can’t have her disturb another dog who is on a lead, so this only works with off lead dogs in the parklands around our home. It also wouldn’t work if the other dogs were aggressive. I happen to be very lucky where I live that most other dog owners are somewhat responsible people.

I see that Frankie will bark and bark at a dog if she’s on lead but that it stops the instant she’s off. Many dogs will bark from behind a fence but won’t if they can actually see the other dog up close. This is known as “barrier aggression”.

Barrier aggression is twofold in that on the one hand the dog is frustrated that she can’t socialize freely, but on the other hand she might also be fearful and since the lead prevents her from escaping she turns to aggression as a defense. Fight instead of Flight.

Of course, a lot of the time it might not be safe or legal to let your dog off lead.

So, what then?

  • You must take control and if you have a dog the size of Frankie it’s not that hard. It just requires some patience and determination.
  • I have experimented with a few things and have found that different approaches work in different situations. The solution won’t be any one thing and the changes we’ve made at home (outlined above) play a huge part.
  • It’s about how we interact overall; everything I do must convey to little Frankie that I am the pack leader and I don’t need her to assume that role.
  • When another dog approaches firstly I don’t react and I try to just focus on our own walk.
  • Sometimes Frankie will pass a dog with no sound but if she starts to fuss and I can tell she’s going to bark I might change direction a few times to remind both of my dogs that I am the leader. Sometimes that does the trick.
  • If Frankie starts to bark I can move her so I am between her and the other dog so she can see she is protected by me; she is no longer the first line of defense for the pack.
    I might put her behind Nut so she simply follows her.
  • If all else fails and hell breaks lose I can either ignore her and wait for the storm to pass or I can turn towards her with my back to the other dog and stand leaning over her and say calmly “Mummy’s got this” and that usually does the trick.
  • Shouting and getting upset doesn’t work; stay calm and use as few words as possible
  • If she’s good and passes a dog without reacting the occasional treat doesn’t hurt either.

I’ve seen a huge improvement since Frankie arrived in Australia in March and the longer we stay here the better it gets. Over time we have built up a history of pleasant or neutral experiences around other dogs which will gradually help erase those early memories and learned responses in Phuket.

I should add here that as “pack leader” I’ve recently started saying no sometimes to children I don’t know petting my dogs. They can shake hands with NutNut but that’s it. We shake hands and move on, best they leave Frankie alone unless she approaches them.
My dogs have always been pretty good with children but of course I want my dogs to only have good experiences and I am finding that too many children just  don’t know how to be around dogs. They also won’t follow my instructions, especially with tiny Frankie (“only pat with one hand, don’t pick her up, don’t touch her tail…etc.”) I don’t dislike children (they’re ok) but they just sometimes lack experience or aren’t old enough to understand animals. It’s my responsibility to look after my dogs and Frankie gets scared easily.

At the end of the day it’s better for my dogs to simply see children at the park and nothing happens; it’s just a non-event, then for them to have an over-eager child frighten them.

As always, it’s my job to protect them so they don’t have to protect themselves.

Anyway, Frankie now happily plays with other dogs at the dog park sometimes and is much less reactive to other dogs even when she is on a lead.

And at home she is still the world’s most affectionate dog but I don’t let any need for validation or my desire to coddle her all the time get in the way of letting her be the happy dog she deserves to be.

My girls are not spoilt.

But they are cherished.

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