Karen B. London
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Differences in Behavior of Big and Little Dogs
What do you think?
Big and small dogs: What

Are there differences between the behavior of big dogs and the behavior of little dogs? There are obviously all sorts of influences on behavior, some of which may be confounded with size while others are not, and there are statistical issues with asking about size, but that doesn’t take away the fun of thinking about the differences in the behavior of large and small dogs.

Bark editor-in-chief Claudia Kawczynska has asked me to address this subject in my next behavior column, which I’m really excited about! Though I have some thoughts about this, I’m most interested in knowing what YOU think.

I’m particularly interested in observations by anyone who has worked with a lot of dogs of all sizes—trainers, behaviorists, groomers, veterinarians and any other canine professionals as well as people who have been guardians to many dogs. But if you have comments based on just one or a couple of dogs, that’s great, too!

I’m so curious what you think, and your opinions on the following questions or any insights at all will be most welcome.

DOES size influence canine behavior, and if so, how?

What does being a big dog person versus a small dog person mean to you?

Do people treat large and small dogs differently?

How does guardian behavior toward dogs of unequal sizes influence their dogs’ behavior? (This question is of interest to scientists. There’s a 2010 research paper called “Behaviour of smaller and larger dogs: Effects of training methods, inconsistency of owner behaviour and level of engagement in activities with the dog”.)

Are there different expectations of dogs based on their size?

If you were seeking a dog of a certain size, was behavior a factor in that wish?

I look forward to hearing from you!


Karen B. London, PhD, is a Bark columnist and a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist specializing in the evaluation and treatment of serious behavior problems in the domestic dog.

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Submitted by Lauren Payne | January 24 2012 |

I am a trainer, and a self-professed "big dog" person - but I acquired a stray adult Chihuahua last year, and brought him into my home, which consisted of a large Catahoula/Dane mix, and a blue heeler. And the ONLY difference I am seeing in behavior is towards me! The little one has a strong temperament; he was thoughtful and wise when incorporating himself into the pack (though he is a resource-guarder). I think, based on his size, that his persistency in getting my attention is different. HE can jump in my lap; HE can sit on my lap; HE can leap off the floor 3 ft high. The others cannot, they are too large. He also does not take the lead in anything, and is more of a follower than one might expect from his bold temperament. I'm not going to comment on the "yippy" factor, but I'm learning that little tiny dogs are fascinating, though I will always be a Big Dog Person!

Submitted by Anonymous | January 24 2012 |

Some miscellaneous musings:

From more than a decade of dog park attendance, the only difference that seems consistent where size matters is in jumping up on a human. I assume it's because humans welcome doggie paws on their lower legs but not doggie paws on their shoulders. I think that gets at the question about how people treat small versus large dogs. I've also seen different expectations with small dogs getting away with behaviors such as challenging other dogs because that's perceived to be cute rather than a problem.

I don't see much difference in big dog people versus small dog people. I know dog owners who have small and large dogs both. For example, one poodle person I know has a standard and a small one.

Our current dog is a golden retriever and behavior was an absolute factor. We really wanted golden retriever behavior.

The difference between a small versus large dog person seems to be partially related to energy levels. Of course we have Jack Russel terriers but in general the choice is lifestyle related. An 80 year old would choose an older, lower energy, probably smaller dog who does not need a lot of exercise, for example.

Submitted by Caroline Hoffman | January 25 2012 |

This is a great description of what i see weekly at the dog park. We have a small, medium and large dog and nobody ever pats their leg for the large dog to jump up, but everyone wants the basset hound to dirty up their pants! We have tried so hard to stop her of jumping up on people, but no matter where we go, people encourage it and it makes me so mad! All my effort flys out the window and sometimes she even looks at me across the park before she does it, as if asking "really? can i?". I would never ask any sized dog to jump up on me, and maybe its because I own large dogs, but jumping up is a bad habit, and should not be accepted or reinforced by anyone, especially dog owners! You would think they would understand, right?

Submitted by Monica | January 24 2012 |

I personally own 2 Cavalier King Charles Spaniels and so I consider myself to be a smallish-medium dog person. In my experience tiny and small dogs tend to have more behavioral issues because of their owners don't always treat them or train them the same as larger dogs.

Many tiny dogs get carried around like little dolls and are not given the proper lessons in manners that other dogs receive. As a result these tiny doll dogs don't learn to interact with other dogs and humans like other larger dogs do. Many doll-dog owners also discount the incessant barking and annoying behavior as "cute" and play it off as insignificant because their doll-dog is so tiny and adorable. Personally, I've met more ill-behaved tiny doll-dogs than I have large dogs. The only dog that ever nipped at my hand was my neighbor's Papillion who is not well socialized with people.

I LOVE all dogs no matter the size, but I just want tiny dog owners to remember that just because it's teeny doesn't mean it isn't a dog. Large or teeny, all dogs benefit from the same sorts of socialization and training and a well-behaved dog is a joy to be around no matter the size.

Submitted by Anonymous | January 24 2012 |

DOES size influence canine behavior, and if so, how?
Unfortunately yes - the behavioral expectations are much more significant with larger dogs. There also seems to be a behavioral expectation that smaller dogs are 'human' and it is cute if they are aggressive and poorly trained. Also I know of MANY small dogs that never become house trained. No owner of a large dog would allow that.

What does being a big dog person versus a small dog person mean to you?
I guess I see large dog owners as fun people who are more active and friendly than small dog owners. I also associate large dogs with families and children. Small dogs seem to be popular with older, more serious, single or childless couples, & less active owners who have the dog completely as a companion.

Do people treat large and small dogs differently?
Absolutely! I believe that large dog owners are much more responsible owners in that they are more likely to train their dogs, expect good behavior, clean up after their dog, and don't find aggression 'cute'.

How does guardian behavior toward dogs of unequal sizes influence their dogs’ behavior? (This question is of interest to scientists. There’s a 2010 research paper called “Behaviour of smaller and larger dogs: Effects of training methods, inconsistency of owner behaviour and level of engagement in activities with the dog”.)
I feel like I've answered this several times - it appears that the majority of small dog owners are less responsible than owners of larger dogs. It is small dog poop that I see on walks, it is the small dogs that are leash reactive or flat out aggressive, it is the small dogs that don't interact with other dogs well. They are often coddled by owners which translates to them not being properly trained or socialized which leads to the unpleasant behavior and personality and nasty habits like not being house trained. Another thing is that small dog owners seem to think the 'no dogs allowed policies' don't mean their dog.

Are there different expectations of dogs based on their size?
Again absolutely. Small dogs are so often aggressive, poorly socialized, and thought of as 'cute'. It is insane to me when I hear the owner of some small dog talk about how their dog thinks it is human and therefore is nasty to dogs and needs to be picked up. No aggression is cute to me regardless of the size of the dog.

If you were seeking a dog of a certain size, was behavior a factor in that wish?
Any dog of mine, regardless of size will be properly trained so the size doesn't dictate TO ME the expected behavior. That said I went to the shelter looking for a large dog (well a pup that would grow to be large). I have a mental picture of active, playful, social and happy dogs as being large. My mental image of a smaller dog is one that is serious, barks more, less friendly, and less likely to get along with other dogs.

Submitted by Lisa Potter | January 24 2012 |

Absolutely there are differences based on size, and I think a lot of it comes from owners. People with small dogs don't always seem to teach them proper manners, possibly because they can physically restrain them (ie: pick them up) more easily. Think of every little dog you've seen snapping, lunging and barking like mad at another dog, a jogger, a bicyclist. The owners laugh and think it's cute/funny. Transfer that behavior to a large (or even medium) dog, and the dog is now seen as aggressive/threatening/unsocial. It's all the same problem, lack of proper training. People with little dogs just somehow get away with it because of the dog's size.

Submitted by Miriam | January 24 2012 |

I have two female dogs currently: my 14-year old Sheltie/Shepherd mix (about 45 lbs) and my step-mom's 9-year old Shih-Tzu who recently came to live with us. Totally different behavior! The little dog has a much more competitive nature (read this "Napolean complex"). Neither of them have lived with other dogs before and get along fine, but the Shih Tzu is definitely the dominant dog in the house. She always has to be out in front when we walk, very much wants to be the first dog fed, and guards her food like crazy. She will come and steal food out of my big dog's bowl right under her nose! Thank goodness my Sheltie/Shepherd is extremely maternal to the Shih Tzu and none of the "stunts" she pulls rattle my big dog. Just one person's observations, and I think you have to take breed into account in this discussion as well, but I find it interesting. The dynamic is not what I would have expected.

Submitted by Frances | January 25 2012 |

I have small dogs - a Papillon (Sophy, 3) and a Toy Poodle (Poppy, 2.5) - with very different personalities.

My Papillon is one of those rock solid, born good dogs that can read humans and other dogs at a distance and judge her behaviour accordingly. Her dog etiquette is superb - she knows when to avoid, when to take time, and when a more direct greeting will be welcomed. She checks human faces, and only approaches those who make eye contact and smile. She loves to chase rabbits and squirrels, hates getting wet, and was complimented by a fellow dog owner walking a large lab as being "such a complete DOG - I didn't know toy dogs could be like that!".

My Poodle is shyer - she follows Sophy's lead, and is less keen on approaching dogs and people by herself, and more likely to react if anything startles her. She is velcro poodle - it's probably partly innate, and partly my fault for not exercising her more on her own when she was a pup. She loves paddling and getting muddy, adores people she knows well, and can run like a whippet.

Both dogs were carefully chosen as pups, with temperament of puppies and parents a major factor. Both were socialised, taken to puppy classes (allowed to sit out the first few until they were happy, and kept away from over exuberant large breed pups), did beginner agility, and were raised with the advice of excellent local trainers and behaviourists. Both were taught from the beginning that they were safe between my feet, and that I would protect them, so they didn't need to snark.

I think size does predispose dogs to some issues - a tiny dog is easily hurt by a larger dog, even in play, and is therefore likely to become protective of its space around other dogs. Socialising a toy puppy means walking a tight rope to ensure they have mainly happy experiences, but are not over protected - I wish someone would write a really good guide specifically about socialising small breeds. Humans cannot resist petting them, even when they don't want to be petted, and of course because of their size this means hands reaching down over their heads, which few dogs enjoy. And inevitably treats are offered at a height people find comfortable, which requires the dog to jump up. I agree about the housetraining, too - knowing that any puddles can be sorted with a few sheets of loo paper makes one less motivated to leap out of bed at 3am on a winter's morning - I'm sure mine would have been trained a lot more quickly if they were producing Noah's flood at every opportunity!

But overall I would say most differences seen are down to environment - either poor practices in breeding, or poor socialisation and education. And the benefits of small dogs are enormous - I am one of those many owners who simply would not be able to meet the exercise needs of a Springer Spaniel or Labrador (although my two would cheerfully run for five miles or more, and get at least 1.5 hours off leash exercise every day - Papillons are not "twice around the hearth rug" dogs by any means!); I want dogs that can travel with me and be welcome wherever I go; that can share my chair, my bed, my car, my life, without filling all the space.

Big dogs are lovely - I know a Newfie who is convinced she is a lapdog, and a neighbour's Great Dane is one of the sweetest dogs I know - but they too have their downside. An exuberant big dog can pull you over if it lunges, drool can smother walls and carpets, shed coat means you may not even need a carpet, wagging tails clear tables, noses are at just the right level to counter surf, and a couple of bouncy young large breed dogs playing inside can cause havoc. All of these become so much more manageable with small dogs - and they are just as thoroughly dogs, if only they are allowed to be.

And just to add - my dogs do NOT have a wardrobe of fashion outfits, sparkly collars and leads, or anything approximating to a handbag carrier!

Submitted by Anonymous | January 25 2012 |

The biggest problem I see is that many people treat little dogs like a baby. They carry them around in purses or strollers. They are dogs who have 4 legs and should be able to be a dog..Many are not trained because of the baby status. A little dog can still heel, sit, come,stay, down and anything else you train them to do.
It's about time all could be a dog!

Submitted by Caroline Hoffman | January 25 2012 |

My husband and I have a 3 dog pack, basset hound (small, 2 years old), gordon setter (medium, not yet 1 year) and a rhodesian ridgeback (large...some say extra large!1 and 1/2 years), three very different personalities. We got the basset first, then the ridgeback, then the setter. We let the basset get away with anything before the other dogs came, and she didn't know any tricks and had no training at all. She would jump up on guests, try to sit on their laps in the house and barked to get her way. She was the hardest dog to train on a leash and several times decided to sit mid-walk and refused to take another step. Once the ridgeback came we had no choice but to be very strict and train him well because of his size, he got away with a lot less. He was a bear to potty train, I was up night after night with him, disinfecting and hosing off the cage, giving him a bath and putting him back to bed...it was worse than any child potty training i can imagine. We practiced for hours with him on leave it, stay, sit, go lay down...anything we could think of, and he is by far the best behaved of the three. Naturally a very loyal breed, he sticks by my side even at the dog park and has never been in so much as a scuffle. He also tends to be-friend the smaller dogs at the park and follows them around, we think because he is so used to his sister's size. (the basset) The gordon setter is the sweetest dog of the three, he loves to be held and get "huggies" (dog hugs) from us and the most protective by far. He was potty trained in a day, learns tricks within minutes and does not need the daily repetition of practice to remember a trick. He is constantly trying to show the basset he is dominant by placing his rear end in/on her head. The pack leader of the three is no contest, the ridgeback takes that place easy, but the rest of the pecking order seems to fluctuate.
The biggest thing we see from others, is great fear of the ridgeback, especially when he is off leash. People allow and ask the basset to jump up on them, but don't like the ridgeback to even lick their hand. There is a huge stigma about large dogs, especially by small dog owners, that they are aggressive and don't know how to be gentle. Our ridgeback loves small dogs and is so gentle with babies and children, while the basset is quick to growl and doesn't care to be near or play with kids, it blows my mind that people can think like that.
Another thing we learned early on was, parents do not teach their kids how to approach or meet a dog. Our dogs do not yet live with children, and had very little exposure to them until we started making an effort to bring them into those situations. We got lots of negative feed back about bringing the ridgeback around to meet kids and learn how to act, and that surprised me, since they have no other way to learn the boundaries. Most of the time the dogs behaved fine and the kids were not trained and caused problems by hitting or running up to their faces and behind them and scaring them. We did lots of training with our dogs to teach them how to behave with children, and put a lot of effort into teaching each one the correct behaviors, but the one with the least problems was the ridgeback. He took on more of the role of baby sitter, and watched them closely but never got too excited or involved with the play time. The gordon setter stole our niece's stuffed animal right out of her arms on their first meeting and had to be chased and caught to get it back, yet the parents still fear the ridgeback. I consider myself a "big dog" person, and that is mostly because of the time i spent helping people get over their misconceptions about them and sticking up for them. Smaller dogs, in my experience, have always proved to be more aggressive because of their lack of training and being treated like a human baby. We made that mistake with our small dog, and made great effort to fix it.

As far as guardian behavior, the ridgeback is very protective of me, his female pack leader, and has been since the first day we brought him home. If i get up and leave a room, he comes with me. The setter is more so a guardian of the house and back yard, and alerts us of strange noises and of course the garage door opening. The basset could care less either way, and sleeps through any barking the other two do, she is by far the least protective of anything but her bed, and gets very testy if you wake her during a nap.

We had never heard of a ridgeback or a gordon setter when we found these dogs, and did online research to decide if their breeds were right for our family. The basset was a birthday gift to me from my husband, the ridgeback a gift to myself because i wanted a big dog with protective qualities. In my mind i thought i wanted a great dane, until i met our ridgeback and read about his qualities. Over all we wanted a family loyal, protective large dog that was good with children and other animals. We are just now bringing our first child into the world, but knew at the time we wanted a big family and we would never be a one pet family. The gordon setter was a fluke, the owner of our pet food store occasionally bred them and happened to have one left and offered it to us. We were skeptical until we met him and he just melted our hearts and let us hold him without fuss and already knew how to sit at only a few months. We could see how intelligent he was in his eyes and actions, and knew we loved him at first sight.

Feel free to ask me anything i didn't cover in this novel! Good luck, and don't forget to cover that big dog stigma!

Submitted by Tom | March 14 2012 |

Hey lady,

The experience of one person or instance does not constitute science. That would be to say that since my Ford f150 engine blew up at 50,000 miles, all Ford f150 engines MUST blow up at 50,000 miles, or since my neighbor's rottweiler bit a child, all rottweilers bite children. We know that this is not true. In science, eyewitness testimony is the lowest of the low on the totem pole of evidence.

The correct way to go about answering the boy's question is to cite research and statistics from a wide berth of people, at different levels.

Your own experience is moot.

Remember that next time you answer a question with "your own personal experience," which means nothing.

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