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Small dog syndrome?

Have you every wondered why some small dogs don’t seem to know their size?  Chihuahuas are sometimes referred to as a ‘big dog in a small package’.  Small dogs seemingly barking at anyone that comes near them. Not just chihuahuas though, think of toy breeds that are carried around in bags as fashion accessories,  or small dogs constantly being carried around by their owners instead of walking on their own four paws. All these dogs are in danger of developing some kinds of behavioural issues which might be called, ‘Small dog syndrome.’

Actually there are some very real parallels in the human world too.

Small dog

Dogs that are constantly being picked up by their owners never really develop the ability to deal with stressful situations on their own. If they are always able to rely on their owner to protect them when they see something that frightens them, they never develop their own emotional resilience. This kind of tolerance of frustration comes over time when a dog is allowed to become gradually more confident in its own ability to deal with the outside world through experiencing small amounts of stress. Stressed owners sometimes pass on their own anxiety to their dogs by constantly picking them up for reassurance.

The same kind of emotional resilience happens to humans too. Do you remember when we used to have to wait a whole week before we knew how our favourite and most exciting television programme would resolve itself? “Don’t miss next weeks exciting episode!” – nowadays we can just sit down and binge watch a whole series of programmes in one session. No longer do we even have to go out to the take away shop to order our fast food (or even make something yourself at home), we can just phone and someone brings it to us! Click on the Amazon website and have something delivered the next day. Many examples in the modern world now prevent us from learning the skill of delayed gratification. If something is really worth having then it is worth waiting for.

I worked at Battersea dogs and cats home for a number of years, and from time to time a litter of very small puppies were found abandoned and would have to be reared by hand. Dedicated volunteers and vet nurses would hand rear puppies, getting up in the middle of the night to feed puppies to give them exactly what they wanted when they wanted it. Care is always taken however, to very gradually introduce them to the concept of stress in their lives. Occasionally being left alone for short periods, being left to go hungry for a bit longer, hearing loud noises, change in environment, new sights and sounds and unexpected happenings. This is all part of a regime of careful socialisation. If puppies do not experience this ‘stress immunisation’ then just think of the disaster that might occur when a teenage90kg bulldog doesn’t get his own way, feels stressed and cannot cope with the situation then explodes into a temper tantrum! (this happens to teenage humans too doesn’t it?)

Tolerance of stress is also a biochemical process in a dogs brain. Stress hormones are produced when something frightening happens, these hormones allow us to prepare our bodies to run away or fight. All living creatures, both human and canine, must learn to deal with stress all the time in our every day lives. You cannot avoid stress, it is around us all the time. Taking exams, losing a loved one, overcoming illness are all normal everyday happenings. This tolerance of frustration must be built up slowly, and very gradually over a lifetime. There will always be stressful situations to deal with in life, but we must learn to deal with them.

Constantly picking up a small dog because you think they might be a bit worried about something never allows them to develop their own emotional resilience and learn to know what it feels like when they have dealt with that situation on their own. They develop a real self confidence. Knowing that you have overcome your fears is a powerful reinforcement and a valuable life skill.

Sarah Morris (whose personal opinions are expressed in this article).

NFDOG Committee member.