Understanding Small Dog Syndrome

Posted: 05 Apr 2023 Human Reading Time: 14 Minutes
Dog Reading Time: 98 Minutes
Understanding Small Dog Syndrome

Are you the proud owner of a small dog that acts as if they are head of the household? If so, your furry friend may be suffering from a behavioural condition called small dog syndrome.

Small dog syndrome affects many small dog breeds, and it’ll cause your pup to feel like they are the leader of the pack. And, although many dog mums and dads believe it’s harmless and quite cute - it can actually lead to serious behavioural problems if ignored.

Fear not, as it’s not all doom and gloom, as there are many ways to prevent and manage small dog syndrome. In this article, we explore everything you need to know about small dog syndrome, including a full overview of what it actually is, its causes, telltale signs, and effective ways to prevent or manage it.

Read on to discover more about understanding small dog syndrome…

Yorkshire terrier

What is small dog syndrome?

Small dog syndrome, also commonly referred to as Napoleon syndrome or Napoleon complex, is a term that's often used to describe behavioural issues that some (not all!) small dogs display.

If your dog has small dog syndrome, it essentially means that a dog of small stature misbehaves regularly. And most people disregard this behaviour because they don’t see the dog as threatening. But seriously… don’t underestimate them!

It’s thought that small dog syndrome usually occurs because the dog is (significantly) physically smaller than everything else, such as other large dog breeds and their human owners. Because of this, they may feel the need to overcompensate, which can lead them to become this little force to be reckoned with.

Technically, it’s not something that can be medically diagnosed by a vet, but rather a way of describing certain behaviours that happen in conjunction with one another and are commonly seen in smaller breeds of dogs.

How popular are small dogs in the UK?

Petkeen, a platform that provides detailed advice for pet owners, reported that we’re runner’s up to Germany for the title of the most pet-friendly place in Europe. But just how popular are little furry friends here?

The Kennel Club, one the largest organisations overseeing dog welfare, responsible pet ownership, breeding, and training, reported that 50% of the top ten most popular dog breeds here in the UK are small, with the most adored being the dachshund. The top spot, however, goes to the much-loved Labrador.

It’s thought that small dogs are most popular due to being almost like a ‘forever puppy’ and tend to have a longer lifespan than larger breeds. Other common reasons for dog owners choosing a smaller companion come down to the fact that they’re better suited to smaller homes and require less exercise to stay healthy. Most of the time, they are much easier to groom, too.

What are some telltale signs of small dog syndrome?

Small dog syndrome can look like many things, but the most common behaviours we see are just plain old disobedience (which can feel like it’s almost on purpose), whining in protest until you give in to what they want, nipping, biting, or lunging when things don’t go their way, growling at everyone and everything, a disregard for personal space (e.g. jumping or walking all over you), and actively not listening to basic commands. In other words, it’ll feel like you have a real diva on your hands.

Some frequent, more specific signs of small dog syndrome that may signal aggressive behaviour can include (but are not limited to):

  • Their hackles become raised when they find something uncomfortable.
  • Consistent barking to warn you to stay away.
  • Growling that gets louder when you approach them.
  • Back and forth lunging.
  • Licking their lips excessively.
  • Whale eyeing you. This is when your dog shows the whites of their eyes whilst looking at you. Think of it almost as side-eyeing someone. This can indicate that your dog has high anxiety levels and may become aggressive if things don’t go their way.
  • Showing their teeth, even if it’s subtle.

How early on can dogs show signs of small dog syndrome?

Small dog syndrome may start to show when you’re supposed to train your puppy, which is usually around 8 weeks old. But, if there’s one thing for certain, it’s that smaller dog breeds aren’t born with this behavioural issue. It’s learnt. So, bear in mind that there isn’t a set ‘age’ at which dogs seem to develop small dog syndrome. It’s simply a case of allowing certain habits to come into play without stepping in.

Plus, around this time of their adolescence, it can be normal for them to be slightly resistant to learning new things or even show interest in socialising with other dogs. The problem is when they don’t seem to grow out of it, and it can be difficult to know when to chalk it down to typical puppy behaviour or a sign of small dog syndrome beginning to develop.


Is it a genetic condition?

Nope. Small dog syndrome is not a genetic condition that can be inherited. Sure, small dogs have a reputation for being a little more challenging, but this isn’t down to genetics. It’s down to how they are treated - and what they get away with.

Enabling undesirable behaviour is the biggest reason why we see this so frequently with smaller dogs, as it’s more likely to be overlooked due to their unthreatening stature. This doesn’t happen as frequently with larger dog breeds, as most dog owners will take the time to train them because their physical power is a little more intimidating.

Common behavioural patterns found in dogs that have developed small dog syndrome

We’ve talked about the signs, but now it’s time to look at behavioural patterns. We’ve provided some patterns in behaviour you may notice in dogs with small dog syndrome.

  • Follow the leader - is your dog the boss of the house? When they bark, do you immediately obey and follow her lead? Well, they probably believe that they are in charge. They run the household.
  • Reluctant to change - does a change in routine throw off your pup? It can be as simple as taking them for a walk at a time that isn’t normal for them.
  • A ‘what’s mine is yours’ mentality - a dog with a Napoleon complex may regularly show signs that they feel as though they rank higher than you in the household. This may look like walking across you or feeling entitled enough to attempt to take food from your plate, whether you’re paying attention or not.
  • Unwavering begging - another common behavioural pattern. If something doesn’t go their way, if it’s not met with aggression, then it’ll be met with whining. And they won’t stop until you give in!
  • Hostile towards new experiences - a behaviour that may be the most obvious is becoming overly threatening or on edge when around new people, dogs or environments. This can look like showing their teeth, becoming stiff or simply warning anyone who comes too close to them or you. And it’ll be a pattern, never a one-off.
  • Walkies - a dog with this behavioural issue may play ball with walkies initially, but if it’s too long or they aren’t a fan of the route, they may just stop altogether. Or, it’s not uncommon for the pup to start whining to you, jumping at your legs to be carried the rest of the way.
  • Reactive tendencies - does your dog bark at any other dog they encounter? Especially the big ones? This is a common behavioural pattern we see with small dog syndrome, and it simply means they feel insecure and vulnerable in the presence of an unfamiliar dog.
  • Going to the toilet in the house - no matter how much effort you’ve put into toilet training your dog, a behavioural pattern will be that if they need to go, they’ll go just anywhere. And it’s not that they don’t know better, because most of the time they do. It’s territorial behaviour that they are showing here, and they’re telling you that they rule the roost.

Can small dog syndrome be corrected?

Absolutely! Small dog syndrome can be completely corrected. You just need to take the right approach. We’ll go into more detail on this later, but training and socialisation are key, and it's important to establish yourself as the pack's leader.

Do small dogs tend to have more behavioural issues in general?

There is some evidence to back this up, yes. Royal Canin, a publisher of scientific studies to provide insight to veterinary practitioners, reported that smaller dog breeds were more likely to be scheduled for behavioural advice from veterinary professionals.

However, it’s worth highlighting that, as we mentioned earlier, smaller dog breeds are much more likely not to be trained and socialised to the same standard as larger dogs, simply due to the unthreatening stature of a smaller dog breed. And, let’s face it - we’re much more likely to treat smaller dogs like babies. So, while there are smaller dogs with more challenging behaviour, it’s preventable and likely down to the fact they may have been allowed to get away with it.


What causes small dog syndrome?

As you’ll know, small dog syndrome is a behavioural condition that can manifest into inappropriate aggression and dominance over just about anything. However, let’s take a closer look at the causes behind it. And disclaimer, it might be you. No, well, it probably is you.

And listen, we just want to preface this by saying that we’re all guilty of babying our dogs. They are our babies, after all. So, if you’ve accidentally given your dog a god complex, try not to be overly critical of yourself. And always remember, this behaviour can be corrected.

The first and most significant cause of small dog syndrome is very simple - lack of exposure. We all need experiences to grow, right? Well, it’s the same for our furry friends.

When our dogs are puppies, if they are not given many opportunities to experience situations where they may feel unsure, such as with new people, other dogs, or even unfamiliar environments, what will likely happen is that they become really anxious about anything that isn’t you or their home environment. Because that’s all small dog syndrome is, really. It’s anxiety. And what does this typically lead to? We’ll tell you. A plethora of defensive behaviours, such as growling, barking, and eventually, snapping.

Next on the list of common causes of small dog syndrome is lack of training. Without proper guidance, any dog, not just a smaller breed, will likely exhibit behavioural problems that leave you feeling out of control.

What this can look like is a disregard or unwillingness to acknowledge you as a ‘leader’. Instead, dogs with small dog syndrome will try to assert dominance over you. And not only you but also other people and animals in pretty much any situation where they feel their dominance is threatened. Which, of course, will be hyper-sensitive for dogs with small dog syndrome!

In addition, there is an encouraging element to the cause of small dog syndrome, too. In other words, a lack of negative reinforcement when certain behaviours are displayed. For example, suppose a dog is showing signs of territorial aggression, particularly towards the dog owner themselves. In that case, this may be deemed ‘cute’ and, therefore, left uncorrected.

Over time, this behaviour that was once viewed as harmless can sometimes develop into serious aggression if someone tries to approach you and they are sitting on you, even if it’s someone they recognise as not being a threat.

What are the dog breeds that are commonly associated with small dog syndrome?

No particular type of small dog breed is associated with small dog syndrome. From a research standpoint, no evidence suggests that one small dog breed is more likely to develop small dog syndrome than another.

That aside, certain breeds can pop into mind, if you will. For example, a Yorkshire terrier or a chihuahua. However, it’s worth noting that this is a generalisation of a dog breed, and many (many!) pups belong to these breeds that do not have small dog syndrome, as it’s purely a case of how they are brought up.


How to prevent or manage small dog syndrome

If you have a puppy, but you’re starting to spot signs of small dog syndrome - don’t worry. This is actually a great time to start preventing this behaviour before it manifests into something more challenging!

On the other hand, if your adult dog has now developed small dog syndrome, it can be a little trickier to correct, but definitely not impossible. Managing small dog syndrome follows the same steps as you would take with a puppy, so see below for what you can do.

  • Socialisation - exposure, exposure, exposure. Starting at a young age is incredibly valuable to their growth, and it’ll help them to learn how to interact with other dogs, people and environments appropriately. You can take the same approach with an adult dog - just proceed with a little more caution.
  • Be present in social situations - don’t overwhelm your dog too quickly. Start with small and controlled interactions, maybe just one or two dogs at a time, just in case you need to jump in at any point.
  • Training - you need to be seen as the leader of the pack, not them. And to achieve this, you’ll need to be patient and train them to understand they are secure and safe, and that you’re top dog. Start with the basics (e.g. sit, stay, leave it) and always remember to reward great behaviour.
  • Get moving - exercise is a great way for anxious dogs to release steam. Be sure to go for regular walkies, as this will help you to reduce your dog's chances of becoming destructive or naughty due to boredom.
  • Outline your boundaries - whether it’s training them to sleep in their bed instead of yours or to not wee on the carpet when things don’t go their way, outline your boundaries and stick to them. If you slack on these, it can be confusing for your dog to understand what to do, and they’ll simply keep pushing your limits.
  • Lots of love - many small dog syndrome behaviours can be chalked down to feeling insecure, anxious, and unable to trust. Work on building the bond you have with your dog so that they can learn to follow your lead.
  • Know when to ask the professionals for help - if you’re noticing signs of the more aggressive types of behaviour that can develop with small dog syndrome, ask a dog trainer or a vet for advice. This can look like excessive snarling, barking, growling, or even nipping in the early stages, and swift intervention can really help you to get it under control.
  • Be understanding and consistent - there’s no use in being consistent with your training for a couple of weeks and then leaving it. Consistency is absolutely essential in this scenario, and so is your ability to understand that they aren’t always going to get it right.

Socialisation tips for small dogs with aggression

Socialising your dog who has developed small dog syndrome can be daunting. But it’s not impossible - and, again, consistency is key. The more you expose your dog to these situations, the less likely they are to fear them down the line. See below for our advice on successfully supporting your dog in learning how to socialise.

  • Take your time - it’s not a race; it’s a marathon. Unlearning these behaviours can take a while, but rest assured that with consistency, gradually, your dog will start to come around to the idea. Plus, they might even start to enjoy it more than you think.
  • Start early - don’t worry if your dog isn’t a pup anymore. But, if they are, ensure that you socialise them and introduce them to new things as regularly as possible. This will help to remove the anxiety around these situations before it has time to develop.
  • Invest in dog gear - when introducing your dog to new people or animals, you need to be in control of the situation. Make sure they are wearing a lead and a small dog harness so that you can step in and prevent any unwanted behaviour, should it happen.
  • Use positive reinforcement - always reward good behaviour, even baby steps. You can use treats, praise, and/or affection to show your dog they are behaving well.
  • Take it easy on them - try not to become overly frustrated at your dog if they become aggressive, because, nine times out of ten, it’ll just make them worse. Simply give them space away from the situation and try to redirect their focus.
  • Get professional advice - we’ll talk about this in more detail later, but if it is just too much and you’re worried about the harm your dog could be capable of, seek help from a professional dog trainer or vet.

When to consult a veterinarian or professional dog trainer

We know it can be difficult to come to terms with, and it may feel unfixable, but it isn’t. And just like anything else, sometimes, we just need a professional to step in and show us the ropes. And remember, there’s no shame in it. If anything, it’s the most responsible thing you can do as a dog owner.

So, in the case of small dog syndrome, there are several signs to look out for that indicate a need for professional intervention.

Number one. If your small dog is already displaying aggressive behaviour towards humans or other animals, you must find a professional to come in and help you. Even if it’s just growling.

Why? Because that’s your dog warning you. And a warning is enough! While small dogs may not cause as much damage as larger breeds, don’t underestimate them! This type of behaviour can still be dangerous and can lead to injury. A vet or a specialist dog trainer can help you identify the cause of the behaviour and work with you to develop a plan of the best way to address the route of the problem.

Secondly, keep tabs on their resource-guarding habits, which can be over anything. Barking excessively when you try to take something from them is usually the first sign, as it’s your dog letting you know that they are anxious about your behaviour (ironically!) and don’t want you to do it. All you’ll need to do is make your dog feel more secure, not only in themselves but in you and their surroundings as a whole. And what will this require? Usually, you guessed it, with the help of a professional!

Thirdly, if your small dog has started excessively barking, whining, or engaging in other attention-seeking behaviour that feels incredibly demanding, take it as a sign that it’s time to get some advice from your vet.

And, of course, it’s super tempting to give in to our dogs on whatever they want. We know. But, we always need to keep in mind that respect for you should be top of the priority list and to establish that, you need boundaries.

Similar to a child, we don’t see parents giving in to every request because their child demands it, do we? Well, the same logic applies here. A veterinarian or professional dog trainer can help you identify why this is happening and how you can overcome it.

Finally, if your small dog is showing signs of separation anxiety, such as destructive behaviour when left alone or excessive vocalisation, it is important to seek help. This, at its very core, is a signal that your dog is distressed. And sometimes, you’ll need to be away from your dog, whether that’s for work or to get the shopping done. It’s just life.

Separation anxiety can be a little tricky, and it’ll take a bit of time and patience for your dog to get used to it. This part of small dog syndrome ties in with the anxiety element, as when you’re gone, they just don’t know when (or if) you’ll be back. Which, of course, makes them very uncomfortable.

The key to this is reinforcing trust with your pup. And a professional dog trainer will help you to teach your dog that just because you’ve left the house, it doesn’t mean you’ve gone forever. And over time, your dog will start to relax and trust in the situation that you’re only gone temporarily.

Vet treating a Pomeranian

Grab the essentials for training your dog at BullyBillows

We hope you’ve found our article on understanding small dog syndrome useful. And remember, if you’re looking for all the bits and pieces required to get your dog out training and socialising, you’ll find them here at BullyBillows.

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