PET TIPS: Why do little dogs try to act tough?

Ever heard of the “Napoleon complex?” That’s the theory (now disproven) that short people tend to compensate for their size by being mean and aggressive.

You may have also noticed a similar phenomenon in dogs. The toy breeds have a reputation for being feisty – almost as if they think they’re much larger than they actually are.

Many toy-breed owners acknowledge that their dogs seem fearless and assertive, but they say that these are qualities to be admired, not criticized.

However, owners of large breeds complain that there is a double standard, and that small breeds are allowed to get away with bad behavior that would never be tolerated in a bigger dog. There is a simple reason for that: When a large dog does attack, he can do much more damage because of his powerful jaws. There has to be a zero-tolerance policy, because his first bite could kill.

This is not to say that small dogs are harmless. A bite from their sharp teeth can certainly result in a painful injury, similar to being bitten by a cat. Yet many owners choose to ignore their pet’s behavior, or even think it’s amusing.

Veterinary behaviorist Dr. Stephanie Borns-Weil says part of the problem is that people treat little dogs as if they are fashion accessories instead of recognizing that they are animals experiencing real emotions. Owners may regard their small dog’s barking and biting as “adorable,” when in fact the dog is in distress.

“So much of aggression is fear,” she said. “There’s nothing cute about a dog’s feeling afraid and needing to defend herself.”

Toy dogs also may have the unique experience of being carried around all day by humans. While most people know that they should approach a large dog cautiously, with small dogs they feel free to encroach on the animal’s personal space.

“There’s always that giant hand that comes down from the sky to pet them. They’re more defenseless (than a large dog) against that,” said Borns-Weil. “There’s also a tendency to treat them like babies and believe they therefore must want to be handled and cooed over, yet that’s not always the case, just as it isn’t for larger dogs.”

Given that explanation, it’s easy to see why a small dog might be cranky and argumentative. With dogs of all sizes, Borns-Weil says that owners need to learn how to read their pet’s body language and not force him into situations where he feels uncomfortable.

If your tiny dog snaps and growls whenever he is approached by a person or another dog, he’s sending a clear message that he does not want to socialize. And he certainly doesn’t appreciate it when people laugh at his reaction and say, “Ohh, isn’t that precious!”

Debbie Gilbert has been handling dogs for 50 years and won numerous AKC obedience competitions with her late Sheltie, Sunny. She lives with her current Sheltie, Daisy. E-mail your Pet Tips questions to

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