Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Fun and craziness for all
The puppy friskies, the evening zippies, the canine crazies—No matter what you call them, those furious bursts of energy are common enough that most dog guardians experience them regularly. It’s hard to nail down the cause of them, but the result is dogs flying back and forth across the yard or the house, leaping onto the furniture, pushing off the walls, trampling the garden, twisting and turning in mid-air, and perhaps simultaneously playing with toys or chasing other dogs. Wheeeeee!
Though it can be hazardous for house and limb, I adore these moments. Sure, the dog in such a state has gone a little loopy, but the joyfulness of these brief periods of reckless abandon more than make up for that.
The precursors of these bouts are not always clear. Some dogs act this way at certain times of the day. Others seem to respond to environmental factors such as excited kids, a visitor that is especially adored, or multiple squeaks from a toy. Food puts some dogs in the mood to express themselves in this canine version of the happy dance. Still other dogs seem to respond to cues that they alone recognize.
What makes your dog race around in one of these displays of genuine athleticism and fun?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Handling daily drips
While Hansel and Gretel are famous for leaving a trail of bread crumbs, most dogs would never waste food like that. There are many, however, who do track water in every direction from their water bowls. Some dogs seem to hold the water in their mouths and purposely transport it before expelling it from their mouths. Others simply seem to collect it on their furry faces and inadvertently drip it around the house.
A few well-placed towels and the willingness to sop up the water regularly is all that most of us need to cope with this minor inconvenience of having dogs. I try to be cheerful about it, but there are moments when the puddles seem problematic instead of just comical.
Is there some reason that I always step in the water without shoes on when I haven’t done laundry in ages and I’m getting low on running socks that aren’t weird as it is? Can it possibly be coincidence that my kids slip on the water only when holding something like blueberry pie or a container of water that they have been using to clean their paintbrushes? And why do the puddles seem to be at their biggest and most treacherous when an elderly neighbor stops over?
Have you had an “exciting” moment related to the water that your dog has drooled about the house?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Is this a problem?
He didn’t notice that his dog had picked up a plastic bag during their walk together. The dog began to gag slightly and a little kid on a skateboard said, “Is he supposed to eat that?” Only then did the man, who was talking on his cell phone, look down at his dog, and react quickly, pulling the bag, and the food inside it, out of his dog’s mouth. It could have been a very bad situation, but turned into just a little blip in the day’s walk.
Rarely do our dogs get into potentially dangerous situations while out on leash walks with us, so this was exceptional. It sure made me think, though. Does it make a difference to our dogs if we walk them while we talk on our cell phones or not? I think it does, because it prevents us from being truly present throughout the walk.
Sure, part of the value of the walk for the dog is the exercise and also being outside sniffing and otherwise having their lives enriched with stimulation beyond what’s available at home. Yet, the social aspect of the walk, attending to the same things and each other—experiencing it together—is lost if one member is lost in cell phone land.
I think there is great value in walking our dogs without talking on our cell phones, but I’m not a purist about it. I think it’s better to walk your dog while you talk on your cell phone than to skip the walk and make the call from home. I’ve certainly walked dogs while I took care of things by phone. Sometimes it’s because I really need to make a call before business hours end, but I want to take a walk before it gets dark. Other times it’s because my day is so busy all around that I multi-task every chance I get. I work hard to make sure my life is not always like that, but it still happens sometimes.
What do you think about walking your dog while talking on your cell phone? Does it make a difference to you or to your dog?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Be aware of your dog’s struggles
Gray Dog was adorable dressed as a shark, and he was definitely the unofficial winner of the costume contest at a recent early Halloween party. (He was the only dog there, which may have given him an edge, but he was deserving of the triumph.)
Gray Dog is a well-adjusted, social, go-with-the-flow dog who accepted his party clothes without incident. He seemed to welcome the extra attention from people and generally ignored the costume as far as I could tell.
The only difficulty he had was minor—it was a touch more challenging to fit through his doggy door with his costume on. The stuffed shark, complete with dorsal fin, on his back added significantly to his height. He made it through okay the first time, although perhaps more slowly than usual and with the costume rubbing the top of the frame. After that, he negotiated the doggy door as easily as usual, apparently adjusting to his temporary size increase. It did not seem to bother him, but many dogs might have found this new experience upsetting.
This was my first Halloween party of the year, and it reminded me of the importance of assuring that dogs are not limited in any significant way by their costumes. Many costumes inhibit walking, running or play, impair vision or hearing, or prevent dogs from fitting through tight spaces. Others interfere with their ability to eat, drink or eliminate.
It’s no fun for a dog to be in a costume that seriously gets in the way of basic functions. For some dogs, no costume, no matter how minimal, is fun in any situation. Whether to dress dogs up for the holiday is an individual decision.
I think if the dog enjoys it, then it’s fine, but if the dog is distressed at all, it’s unkind and not worth it. Part of making sure that a dog is okay with being in a costume is making sure that the costume does not limit what the dog can do. So, if Gray Dog had struggled with the doggy door, I would have been in favor of removing his costume. Since he was able to roll with it, I was charmed to see him continue to be a shark.
I know people who love to dress their dogs in costumes for Halloween, and others who are opposed to it for their dog and every dog. What do you think? Will you be dressing your dog up for Halloween this year?
Good Dog: Activities & Sports
Tracking showcases your dog’s most scentsational talent
When long-time tracking enthusiast Penny Kurz discovered that her mailbox had been vandalized, she took action. Harnessing up her tracking dog, Deuce, she set out to find the perpetrator.
“Deuce sniffed around the mailbox and started running what looked like a car trail to me,” says Kurz. “A car trail will hang along the curb or edge of grass along the sidewalk. When he puts his nose down into footprints, it looks different. He took me up a couple blocks, made another corner, up another street, then all of a sudden stopped. He went across the front lawn, poking his nose into the footprints, went to the front door and sat down.
“I was ready to knock on the door, say someone broke my mailbox and my dog tracked to this house,” says Kurz. “Then I looked down at Deuce. Unfortunately, you lose a little credibility when you’re standing there with a Miniature Poodle. I chickened out—if I can’t fix the mailbox, I’ll borrow a German Shepherd and go back.”
Follow the Dog
Unlike agility or obedience, where the handler gives instructions and the dog is expected to follow, in tracking the dog is in charge. He wears a harness attached to a 30-foot leash and pulls the handler down the trail. Some dogs are confident and fly down the track, whereas others are methodical and take their time. In a test, each dog receives his own track, and two judges follow the dog-handler team. Putting on a tracking test is labor-intensive and requires a lot of land, so the dog must be certified prior to entry to ensure that he has been trained to the proper level.
Three main organizations sanction tracking tests. The American Kennel Club (AKC) is probably the best known, but allows only purebred dogs. For the beginner level, or Tracking Dog (TD) title, the dog must follow a track 440 to 500 yards long with three to five turns and aged 30 minutes to two hours. At the end, he must indicate a scent article, such as a glove, to the handler. The Tracking Dog Excellent (TDX) title requires intermediate tracking skills. At the most advanced level, or Variable Surface Tracking (VST) title, the track is 600 to 800 yards long with four to eight turns, aged three to five hours, and covers three different ground surfaces, mimicking an urban environment.
To give you an idea of the degree of difficulty, AKC Field Representative Herb Morrison says the TD has a 55 to 60 percent passing rate, the TDX has a 20 percent passing rate, and the VST has a 5 percent passing rate. The rare dog who passes all three levels is a Champion Tracker (CT).
Elizabeth Falk and her five-year-old Bull Mastiff, Archie, recently made AKC history when he passed his TD. He became the first of his breed to earn his VCD (Versatile Companion Dog), which requires Novice-level titles in agility, obedience and tracking.
“One of the challenges was me trusting my dog,” says Falk, who accidentally flunked Archie at their first tracking test. “He was trying to turn, but I thought the track went straight [and] it was a deer track. Our first trial was definitely a valuable lesson.”
The World of Scent
On the other hand, DVG America, which offers tracking as part of its Schutzhund working dog program, requires the dog to be right on top of the trail or risk losing points. Whether you decide to track for fun or compete, the key is to be open-minded about your dog’s abilities. Carolyn Krause, author of Try Tracking!, began tracking in response to a comment by a sport writer who described Dalmatians, her chosen breed, as “stone-nosed.” Over the past 25 years, her dogs’ multiple tracking titles have clearly proven him wrong.
“If you have ever looked at grass with dew on it and saw all the trails from animals crossing,” says Krause, “that gives you an idea what the world of scent shows your dog. We can see it for just a few minutes. By simply taking your dog to different areas and trying things in the book, you can learn a lot about your dog’s personality and temperament. You don’t have to pursue a title, but you do need to make a commitment to it. You have to drive around with a “tracking eye”—oh, there’s an interesting place—and wonder if your dog could follow that. It’s amazing what your dog will show you.”
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Do you value your dog’s insights?
Years ago, my dog unexpectedly stiffened when I stopped on the street to talk to my neighbor for the first time. Though this man approached my dog gently and appropriately, my dog backed way and refused to interact at all. It was embarrassing because the man seemed friendly enough, and my dog was usually comfortable meeting people in that context. I had just moved to a small town and was eager to meet other people. My dog’s behavior was off-putting and felt like a bit of a setback socially. My new neighbor was nice enough about it, but he did seem a little offended.
Later, when I mentioned this to the family who owned the house I was renting, they were horrified, but not with my dog. They were appalled that I had spoken to the man my dog had rejected, telling me that he everyone in town knows he is mean. They warned me to be careful, telling me about his history of violence, specifically towards his ex-wife and children, and also towards other people in town. They advised me to have no contact with him at all. I later learned, as one does in a small town, more about the injuries he had caused classmates years ago in school, about the restraining order his family had against him, and various other unsavory details about him.
“If your dog doesn't like someone you probably shouldn't either” is a popular expression, reflecting the general view that our dogs are good judges of character. My dog seems to have had the proper reaction to my neighbor immediately, though I did not. Has your dog ever reacted people who didn’t alarm you, though perhaps they should have?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Looks aren’t everything, but they do play a role in communication
Dogs excel in their role as our best friends. Spooning with us on a cold night, they seem almost hyper-domesticated. If there were a gold medal for “Achieving Domestication,” dogs would win it.
Some days, however, the story is quite different: chasing squirrels, digging up newly planted flowers, eating — then throwing up — grass, romping in a mud puddle post-bath, rolling in an overripe carcass. At these moments, we’re apt to look at our four-legged companions and say, “Really? You’re domesticated?” And, of course, they are. This mixture is what makes dogs, dogs — one minute, dressed in a Superman costume and the next, shredding and eating said costume.
People often cite life experience and breed when trying to account for the ways dogs behave. Who hasn’t heard, “He’s a rescue and was probably abused — that’s why he’s shy,” or “She’s a Labrador Retriever, so she always has a ball in her mouth”? Dogs of unknown origin are described in a similar fashion, relative to their possible breed identities: “Petunia kind of looks like a Chihuahua, but she definitely has that Border Collie eye.”
According to Christine Hibbard, CTC, CPDT-KA and owner of Companion Animal Solutions in Seattle, Wash., when associating a dog with the “look” or “behavior” of a particular breed, it’s important to remember that “the way dogs look and their actual genetics can be very different.” That, at least, is what studies are showing. As Victoria Voith, DVM, PhD and boardcertified veterinary behaviorist at Western University of Health Sciences in Pomona, Calif., explains, “Mixedbreed dogs are a collage of features of their ancestors. So much so that they often don’t look like any of their immediate parents or grandparents. In fact, they may look more like other breeds.” DNA tests often reveal that dogs are not simply a cross between two purebred parents. Instead, tests come back as 25 percent of this, 12.5 percent of that and a pinch of a few others. Since a dog’s looks and his genetic code can be on very different pages — sometimes in different books altogether — attributing a dog’s behavior to its “look” can some- times be a faulty assumption.
What about purebred dogs? Do these dogs from concentrated breeding pools give clues about why dogs act as they do? The AKC and other breedcertifying organizations certainly ascribe global attributes to breeds: The Schipperke is confident and independent; Boston Terriers are friendly and lively; Chows are independent and aloof; Clumber Spaniels are gentle, loyal and affectionate.
Breed standards, however, are simply guidelines. As Denise Herman, CTC, lead trainer and founder of Empire of the Dog in NYC, says, “When you get a puppy of a particular breed, people think it’s a blank slate, but it’s really an unknown slate. Breed gives an indication of where that unknown slate may go, but not all Border Collies herd, not all Huskies pull sleds and some Chows like everyone equally. A puppy of a particular breed is an unknown slate with the possibility of those characteristics.”
No Two Alike
The controversial practice of dog cloning provides a great example of the limits of behavior assessment based on genetics. In Dog, Inc., Pulitzer prize– winning investigative reporter and Bark contributor John Woestendiek explains how, after spending $20 million to clone their beloved dog Missy, Joan Hawthorne and John Sperling found Missy’s successor different from the original. “Missy was robust and completely calm. Missy wouldn’t come through my home and knock over every wine glass … They’re not at all alike,” says Hawthorne. Their genetics were the same, but personalities? Not so much. Even clones aren’t clones.
While genetics and life experiences certainly contribute to who dogs are, they’re not the entire story. The other part of the picture is in plain sight.
Breed standards specify required physical attributes pertaining to the tail, the ears and the coat, among other things. Most of these individual attributes, of course, appear across breeds and even in dogs in general. As a result, dog physical appearance — and its implications for how dogs communicate and how they are perceived — can be examined in its own right.
The famous Russian silver fox experiment is a clear reminder that the behaviors animals demonstrate can in some ways be linked to the way they look. In a few generations, foxes bred for docility and friendliness toward humans began to look quite different from those who were fearful of humans. As Stephen Zawistowski, PhD, CAAB and science advisor to the ASPCA, summarizes, “As the foxes became more tame, they began to develop a more ‘dog-like’ appearance, with piebald coats and floppy ears.”
The signals a dog has at its disposal may simply be a matter of basic equipment. As Zawistowski observes, “There are some things that are anatomically not possible for a dog to do, simply based on its anatomy. How can you tell if a Basset Hound has his ears up and forward? A Rottweiler can make a great lip pucker, but how on earth can a Bulldog pucker?” To be sure, the lack of overt behavioral signals does not suggest a dog is not feeling a particular emotion, or even that he might not adopt different strategies to convey them. But the implication is clear: The perception that Rottweilers are aggressive and Basset Hounds are laid-back could be a function of their physical features — and thus, the behaviors they can perform — rather than their mental processes.
With this in mind, could dogs’ physical appearance affect how they communicate? Or even, for that matter, how they’re treated by other members of their species? When a Great Dane comes across a French Bulldog, olfactory cues will reveal that the French Bulldog is, in fact, a dog, but does the Great Dane think to himself, “Hello my long-lost, thirty-times-removed cousin!” or “What the heck? You smell like a dog, but I don’t understand what you’re saying.”
Here to translate for the dogs is Jim Ha, PhD, CAAB, research associate professor and staff member of Companion Animal Solutions in Seattle, Wash.: “The way dogs look — their morphology — can definitely change the quality of their visual signals. Dogs who are more infantile in appearance — paedomorphic dogs like French Bulldogs, Pugs and Cavalier King Charles Spaniels — are nice examples of how we are handicapping the dog’s ability to signal properly. But we also find that dogs who are not paedomorphic in appearance can have trouble signaling and communicating with one another as well. Signaling difficulty is not only associated with paedomorphic dogs.”
The changes we’ve made to dogs’ physical appearance do not necessarily make it easier for dogs to communicate with one another. Ha suggests that many aggression issues stem from misuse of signals and miscommunication between dogs.
Voith has a similar assessment: “Based on clinical experience, but not tested systematically, dogs that are fuzzy or black are often attacked by other dogs. I think that is because their social signals are not easily detectable — if at all. Subsequent to being attacked, black or fuzzy dogs become defensively aggressive towards other dogs, generally on leash.”
Herman agrees. “For any dog with a lot of fur or hair, you can’t see muscle tension, and it’s harder to read stiffness. Is a Komondor having a piloerection [raised hair along the dog’s back]? I have no idea.”
Or, take tails. Dog tails come in a spectrum of shapes and sizes. Are they important for dog-dog communication? Humans certainly take note of tails; when asked to assess dog behavior, we pay an inordinate amount of attention to the tail (possibly because we do not have one). Does a Labrador look at a Corgi and think, “Umm, excuse me, sir. I’m having a hard time understanding you. I believe you’ve misplaced your rear-end thing.” For another species commonly found lounging around our homes, tails are highly relevant. While a graduate student studying with noted ethologist John Bradshaw, Charlotte Cameron-Beaumont found that cats more readily approached, and approached in a friendly manner, a cardboard cat silhouette whose tail was in the “tail-up” position as opposed to those cat silhouettes with their tails down. Tails play an important role in cat-cat greetings (good luck, Manx).
When the dog researchers explored how dogs respond to other dogs’ tails, they pulled out the big guns: a model robot dog resembling a Labrador Retriever. Apart from its tail, the “dog” was motionless. The researchers found that when the robot dog had a long wagging tail, it was approached more than when it had a long still tail, which as you probably assumed, suggests that the tail conveys emotional state, and that wagging is more inviting than not wagging. When it came to short tails, the story changed. There was no difference between how the robot dog with a short/still and a short/wagging tail was approached. It appears that the longer tails were most effective at conveying emotional information, and since short tails are hard to read, they might not be read at all.
For Herman, the implications are obvious. “When you dock tails, it takes away part of their communication signal. It’s the dog version of Botox. Ear cropping falls in the same category. Dobermans with cropped ears ostensibly look alert to other dogs. They can’t be read [accurately] because they can’t change.” It’s difficult to derive cues and information from cropped ears. If anything, their constantly alert position could mislead other dogs.
E’Lise Christensen, DVM and boardcertified veterinary behaviorist in New York City, agrees. “I think cosmetic alteration could affect communication with other dogs. It certainly [has an impact on] assessments by owners, because they forget to look at the stump of the tail for movement and tension. Ears that are too cropped mean owners have to look for muscular movement at the skull level rather than the pinna, the outer part of the ear, where we customarily look. Flat faces make it more difficult to read small muscular movements.”
Herman suggests that taking note of a dog’s morphology can give owners a better appreciation for their dog. “It’s hard for other dogs to see that a Chow is really stiff, simply because he is [engulfed] in a ball of hair. It can be helpful for pet dog owners to recognize that what dogs have or do not have at their disposal could add confusion to dog-dog communication. This appreciation could help owners empathize with their dog, instead of blaming their dog or feeling angry for the dog’s behavior.”
Hibbard reminds us that the issue at hand can be twofold. “If you can’t see the ears, that’s one problem. But if you can see the ears but the dog uses them wrong, that’s another problem.”
It’s All About Us
Training, life experience, genetics and psychological disorders are the common suspects for “out-of-sync” behavior, but how a dog looks — or rather, sees — is often overlooked. In 2003, professor Paul McGreevy, DVM and researcher at the University of Sydney, and his colleagues discovered that, contrary to popular belief, all canine eyes are not the same. Shortnosed dogs have what is called an area centralis, which allows them to focus more clearly on the world in front of them, like humans, while long-nosed dogs have a visual streak, which enables better peripheral vision. There’s a physiological reason why a long-nosed dog would take off after something way in the periphery while you and a shortnosed dog continue to sit on a park bench wondering what the long-nosed dog saw.
It stands to reason that these differences would not only affect how dogs see the world around them, but also how they attend to us humans, and that’s exactly what we find. Dogs are quite adept at following our pointing gestures, but brachycephalic (flat-faced) breeds, with their more forward-facing eyes, follow these gestures better than dolichocephalic (long-nosed) breeds. In turn, this sense of being seen and responded to accordingly (or not) may affect how we perceive and relate to dogs.
Undoubtedly, dogs are a composite of their genes and individual life experiences. But the physical features that they come with, or that we give them via docking and breeding, can contribute to how they interact with others and are perceived by dogs and humans alike. When thinking about why your dog behaves the way he does, it can be helpful to be superficial and look at what’s right in front of you.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Is your dog hard to tire out?
I picked my kids up from the climbing gym a few weeks ago after they had spent an hour and a half there. It’s great exercise—physically demanding both aerobically and from a strength perspective—and many parents claim that their kids sleep really well afterwards. Not mine. They just don’t seem to tire out easily at all, and the fitter they become, the harder it is to wear them out. The instructor actually said to me on this occasion, “They’re pretty energetic still. I don’t know what to tell you. We tried to tire them out, but they could probably climb for several more hours.” To be clear, they were not misbehaving, but neither were they worn out.
Many dogs are like my kids in that they are not easily exhausted. In fact, for many dogs, the exercise that we typically give them—a long leash walk—doesn’t tire them out at all. It invigorates them. It’s discouraging to consider that when we take our dogs out for a walk, we may not be tiring some of them out, but rather, pepping them up. That’s certainly what a brisk walk does for me. A run, especially a hard run or a really long one does exhaust me, but a walk does not. My kids are even harder to tire out. Like many dogs, the only way to truly tire them out is to spend a lot of time in the ocean or a lake. The sun and swimming can accomplish what more typical forms of exercise can’t.
It’s a great feeling to be tired, worn out, and ready for a relaxing evening followed by a good night’s sleep. It’s a great kindness to provide our dogs with that same experience. However, it’s not as easy with some individuals as with others. Some dogs are suitably tired out by long leash walks, but others require hours of off-leash running at high speeds or long play sessions romping with other dogs to have their exercise needs satisfied.
Do you have a dog who seems to perk up from 30 to 60 minutes of exercise and really needs a lot more activity? What does it take for your dog to be happily tired?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Combined skills allow food raid
Though many cats and dogs are very dear friends, others simply coexist or even fight to varying degrees. It’s fair to say that they are not always on the same team. That’s why I find it so endearing when dogs and cats cooperate to work towards a common goal, even if it’s to get into trouble together.
The most common example I hear from friends and clients is about these two species combining their skills to acquire food. Cats are easily able to jump up onto counters that the dogs in their households can’t reach, but once they are up there, may be unable to break into any containers of food they find. Pushing bags of food onto the floor where the dogs can tear into them is one strategy, and it’s not that rare.
Has your household experienced such division of labor—the cat tipping a bag of food off the counter and the dog opening it so both can feast on it? Do you have other stories featuring dogs and cats who are in cahoots together?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Does size affect behavior?
He chose the dog, but I chose the name,” the woman explained. Their dog was an especially petite Boston Terrier, but his name — Titan — was one more typically bestowed on a larger dog. I’d seen this type of incongruity before, and though it’s sometimes just for the sake of being ironic, often it’s about conflict. Couples who disagree about whether to add a large dog or a small dog to their family compromise by choosing a dog of one size and a name that’s usually given to a dog of another size. I’ve also met Pixie the Newfoundland, Tank the Bichon Frise, Bitsy the Bouvier and Goliath the Pug.
People often have strong opinions about what size dog best suits them. Some prefer small dogs because they’re more likely to be welcome everywhere, especially when traveling, while others gravitate to large dogs because they associate them with fun and friendliness, as well as kids and families. Sizebased biases are also common, and sad to say, I’ve heard a number of derogatory terms for both small and large dogs. And anyone with big dogs knows that people sometimes fear them even when their behavior is exemplary and a small dog is present whose behavior is not. One Bark reader implored me, “Don’t forget to cover that big dog stigma!”
Many people have asked the question, “How is the experience of having a large dog different than that of having a small dog?” Part of the answer may come from evaluating whether big and small dogs really are different in ways that extend beyond size, particularly in their behavior. Another piece of the puzzle involves determining if people’s behavior toward and expectations of dogs varies based on the dog’s size.
A Sizeable Spectrum
People with little dogs who don’t want them to help themselves to food simply avoid picnicking on the floor and are careful not to leave chairs where they can be used as stepping stones to the table or counter. People with large dogs often find that no place lower than the top of the refrigerator is safe or truly off-limits. With a large dog, the accidental consumption of dangerous foods, such as chocolate, is far less likely to lead to serious consequences than for a smaller dog because it takes much more for the dose to be toxic to a larger dog. Similarly, the few extra treats that lead to weight gain in smaller dogs may be no big deal for a large dog. Finally, helping a large dog with mobility issues can be physically demanding for the caregiver.
Some worry about big dogs around children, but I must confess that I worry when we dog-sit a friend’s sixpound Pomeranian. My kids are gentle with him and do a good job of being kind and respectful, but I’m still worried that they’ll collide with him and cause an injury completely by accident, no matter how actively I’m supervising. With bigger dogs, that isn’t as much of a concern.
Many people point out the advantages of small dogs in urban environments: it’s easier to rent an apartment (weight limits favor them); tight living spaces may be easier to share; and getting small dogs into and out of an apartment building, especially while you’re housetraining them, is far less of a challenge. Yet traits that can be troublesome for urban living — high exercise needs, sound sensitivity, a tendency to bark excessively — have nothing to do with size. Some dogs are beautifully suited to life in the city, and others are not.
So, are behavioral differences sizebased? For the most part, the answer is a resounding “No!” Dogs of all sizes love to play chase, fetch, go on walks, run off leash, meet new people, romp with their best dog buddies, participate in training sessions and eat tasty treats. By the same token, dogs of all sizes are vulnerable to sound sensitivity, exhibit separation anxiety and aggression, jump on people inappropriately, bark to excess, chew on shoes, dig in the garden, or have accidents on the floor. They all wag their tails (if they have them!) in joy.
And yet, there are clearly differences between individual dogs, based perhaps on age, gender or the environment in which the dog lives and was raised. While the similarities in dogs of different sizes are far greater than the differences, can we deny those differences?
Science Steps In
The study’s most important overall finding? There are significant differences in behavior between large and small dogs and between guardians of large and small dogs. The researchers reported that a range of interactions between people and their dogs are related to the size of the dog.
Small dogs were reported to be less obedient, slightly more often aggressive or excitable, and more anxious and fearful. People with small dogs also reported a lower level of consistency in their interactions and enforcement of rules than did those with larger pups.
Much has been made of the practice of treating small dogs like babies, though it’s hardly surprising that it occurs. Babyish features affect human caretaking behavior; we’re evolutionarily hardwired to find big eyes, small size and proportionally large heads endearing. Psychologists call this the “Aww phenomenon.” If babies weren’t so cute, parents could be less likely to respond to their needs, and the offspring would be less likely to survive.
Dogs seem to elicit this same “aww” response in humans, especially small dogs, and even more so, breeds with pronounced juvenile features such as Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, Chihuahuas, Japanese Chins, Pugs and Boston Terriers. Since babies affect our hormones, raising the levels of oxytocin — nicknamed “the love hormone”— it stands to reason that adorable dogs do, too.
Socialization, Training and Other Interactions
Many say that their small dogs are “people” dogs and don’t like other dogs; lots of people with big dogs say the same thing. Size notwithstanding, positive experiences with other dogs during puppyhood are the best way for a dog to develop good manners. Absent enough of those experiences, dogs of all sizes face social challenges.
Well-trained dogs are always a joy, but training is another way in which interactions between people and dogs differ based on size. Two research studies found that small dogs do not receive as much formal training as large dogs (Kobelt, et al.; Masters and McGreevy). Also, people play fetch more often and do more tugging and nose work with big dogs than with small ones, and are more likely to take them running or biking (Arhant, et al.). Arhant’s study concludes that differences in people’s behavior may account for the higher rates of disobedience in small dogs.
Codes of Conduct
For example, small dogs are more likely to be allowed in our beds and on our laps (Westgarth, et al.). Practical considerations are at work here. Having a 25-pound dog jump or sit on you is one thing, but having a 100-pound dog do it is another. Others encourage little dogs to jump up on people and get on the furniture, but rarely invite big dogs to do so. Jumping up isn’t the only thing that’s treated differently. The behavior that is considered a nuisance in a small dog may be deemed antisocial in a large dog. Even aggression and other serious behavioral issues are more likely to be tolerated in small dogs.
As evidence that some people with small dogs don’t take undesirable behavior seriously, consider this story: an eight-pound Chihuahua escaped from his home, bit someone and was declared a dangerous dog. When a representative from animal control came, the dog’s people apparently thought it was a joke. One of them was reported to have said, “I broke out laughing. I said, ‘Look at the dog, do you see the dog going after you?’ The guy kind of got upset when I started laughing at him.”
For years, I have specialized in cases involving aggressive dogs, and to be honest, the size of the dog sometimes makes a difference in how I feel about the threat they represent. I once had a very aggressive Dachshund in my office, followed by a Chesapeake Bay Retriever with similar issues. During both appointments, I employed all the cautions necessary in this line of work. Still, throughout the appointment with the Chessie, I was aware of being afraid, while with the Doxie — though I knew I was at risk of being bitten if I made a mistake — I just didn’t feel the same anxiety. Both dogs were equally aggressive, but the size factor affected my fear response.
I’m not alone in reacting differently to aggressive dogs based on their size. Large dogs are more likely to be euthanized for aggression (Reisner, et al.), though another study (Guy, et al.) found that the average “biter” tended to be a smaller dog. It’s possible that greater tolerance for this behavior in small dogs allows genetic tendencies toward it to persist.
In some ways, there are correlations between size and breed characteristics. Many small dogs are terriers and earthdogs, types that have been deliberately developed to be tenacious and curious as well as to dig and explore. If dogs are bred for those characteristics, such behavior will have far more to do with genetic inf luences on behavior than with size.
Also related to breeding, Arhant, et al. found that small dogs were more likely than large dogs to come from pet stores, which generally acquire their “stock” from puppy mills. When you consider that puppy mills are notorious for environmental deprivation and risky breeding practices, it is perhaps no surprise that small dogs are burdened with more problematic behavior..
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What dogs do — their behavior! — is what makes them good company, great friends and essential members of our family, and very little of that has anything to do with size. When dog people swap stories, they are not about the size of the dog, but about the experiences we have in common — the joy, the angst, the training, the vet emergencies, the photos, the occasional chewed shoe, the games, the walks, the friendship, the fun and the love. It’s always a big love, no matter what size the dog.
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