A black and white small dog.

An endearing characteristic of small dogs is that they often come with big dog attitudes. Convincing as their “big dog” behavior may be, our small dogs still have some unique small dog needs. 

At Lone Tree Veterinary Medical Center, we see a lot of small dogs at our facility and are happy to share some interesting observations on what makes them different from their larger canine counterparts, and how this affects their behavior and care. 

What is a Small Dog?

The most obvious characteristic of a small dog is its size when compared to the medium and larger size breeds. Defined by weight, we consider dogs that are 22 pounds or less at their ideal adult weight to be small. This includes several AKC-recognized breeds such as, the Chihuahua, bichon frise, Boston terrier, cavalier King Charles spaniel, dachshund, French bulldog, pomeranian, Maltese, miniature pinscher, miniature schnauzer, papillon, Pekingese, pug, Russell terrier, toy poodle, Welsh corgi, West Highland terrier, and Yorkshire terrier. The small dog category also includes countless mixed-breeds. 

How Are They Different? 

While a small dog’s size is the obvious difference when compared to larger breeds, small dogs also have other characteristics that require a different approach to their care. Here are several that may help shed light on the uniqueness of small dogs. 

Always Looking Up

Small dogs are often referred to as “ankle biters”, a reputation not always deserved. However, from their perspective, they’re always looking up at their environment, humans, and most other pets. When everything else looks bigger and taller, the world can be an intimidating place and behaviors such as shyness, fearfulness or aggression may result. Ankles are usually at a small dog’s eye-level, hence, the ankle nip or bite behavior. Other behaviors that may be fearful reactions to the surroundings are:

  • Hyperactive, high energy
  • Hypersensitive, fearful 
  • Pacing excitedly
  • Jumping on people, other dogs, or higher places
  • Barking or growling
  • Shaking
  • Lunging
  • Snapping
  • Biting when approached or touched
  • Avoidance, such as hiding or ducking
  • Resistance to or ignoring commands

Lots of Energy

While small dogs appear to have a lot more energy when compared to larger dogs – and this can be true in many cases – it may be due to their shorter body length and legs, which allows them to move quickly, especially when young. Small dogs can more easily maneuver around furniture and other obstacles, which makes them faster than larger or longer legged dogs, especially indoors.  

High energy is also related to the terrier temperament, which is often characterized as “high strung” or “yappy”. Since most small dogs are mixed with a terrier breed somewhere in their bloodline, this trait tends to dominate as it is passed along. 

Easy To Carry   

Small dogs are easy to pick up and carry, but we shouldn’t assume that they always enjoy it. While it’s important to teach them that being carried is not a bad thing, they must also learn to navigate the world on their own four feet. Exposure to the world at their level allows them to learn about their environment and build self-confidence. It also allows them to be physically active and independent. 

Small, But Not Weak

Do not assume that your small dog is weaker than its larger counterparts. Small dogs can be amazingly strong and resilient. This is where that “big dog” personality often comes through.  They enjoy being physically active and are willing to take on activities that present challenges and require persistence. Be sure to give your small dog plenty of exercise and opportunities to run and play. Small dogs are especially good at Agility, Scentwork, and Treibball, all sport classes that we offer in our Behavior Training program that provide the activity and mental challenge small dogs need.    

Less Food, Smaller Kibble 

Small dogs don’t have large dog calorie requirements. Just a couple of pounds of excess weight on a small dog can be the difference between its ideal weight and obesity. Adjust your small dog’s food intake – whether dry kibble or canned – according to your veterinarian’s feeding recommendations. Look for dry kibble geared for small dogs, avoid overfeeding or feeding human food, and go light on the treats.

Need for Socialization 

With all of the personality traits small dogs possess, socialization with people and other pets as early in life as possible is important. Regular interactions with other dogs and people can help small dogs learn the skills needed to interact appropriately, while still maintaining their spunky personalities. This can also help prevent aggressive behaviors and better manage hyperactive or fearful behaviors. Here are a few suggestions to help your small dog be a confident and happy companion:

  • Schedule behavior training. Our Pet Behavior Specialist is an expert at helping small dogs become more confident around people and other pets, as well as more comfortable in a variety of settings, both at home and in public places. Whether in a behavior class, private lesson, group playtime or sport class, we have a lot of ways to help small dogs learn to live well in our big human world.
  • Always supervise play or other interactions between your dog and another dog. While these interactions can be fun and help socialize your dog, keep an eye out for behaviors that get too rough or aggressive, as this can lead to injury, especially if larger dogs are involved. While group play can be very beneficial for a small dog, bad experiences with other dogs can defeat the purpose of socialization and result in fearfulness. Our Behavior Training program focuses on positive, confidence-building interactions for both young and adult dogs. 
  • If you know one, introduce your dog to a sweet, friendly older dog. Gentle older dogs can have a special calming effect on small dogs and puppies, and show them how to behave appropriately around others. As said above, always closely supervise and intervene if things start getting rough.
  • Make sure that the entire household is onboard with your dog’s training and participates in it. This is essential for minimizing confusion and will help your dog learn cues, commands, and tone of voice more effectively.
  • Always supervise a small dog when playing with children to avoid injury to the dog or a child. Small dogs can be easily injured if stepped on or dropped, and a child may not be aware when a dog is agitated or going to bite.  
  • Set rules and boundaries for your dog, and re-enforce them as needed.
  • Be consistent, as dogs need predictable structure and routine.
  • Reward the behaviors you want, rather than punishing those you don’t want.

Keeping Them Healthy

Although all dogs can be plagued with health issues, small dogs have a particular tendency toward some that can develop into major problems if ignored. By keeping your dog current on annual or semi-annual check-ups, and maintaining a daily exercise and feeding regimen, most problems can be minimized or dealt with early on before they can become difficult to treat. Following are some potential trouble areas:

  • Dental Disease – Small dogs have the same number of adult teeth as larger dogs and, even though their teeth are smaller, they have a tendency to become crowded. This can lead to gum inflammation, infection, loss of teeth and other illnesses if oral problems are left untreated. A daily home dental care routine and keeping up with any dental cleanings recommended by your veterinarian can help prevent these problems. For additional information on dental disease and how to prevent it, check out our blogs on oral health in pets. 
  • Luxating Patella – Small dogs are particularly susceptible to luxating patellas, which means the kneecap shifts out of alignment with the groove on the femur bone. This is often referred to as a “trick knee” because it can occur randomly and cause an irregular gait, then return to normal as the patella moves back into place. Luxating patella frequently occurs in both knees, and can be permanently corrected with a surgical procedure that we perform at our facility.  
  • Heart Disease – Small dogs are particularly susceptible to disease of the valves in the heart. Called valvular disease, it is caused by a weakening of the heart’s valves, which prevents them from opening and closing properly. This results in valve leakage and strain on the heart as it tries to function properly. Over time, this can lead to heart failure.   
  • Allergies – Small dogs are close to the ground and easily exposed to common seasonal allergy triggers, including, grasses, residue from landscape chemicals, parasites, and other allergens that cause sneezing, itching, and licking. Allergens can also cause complicated dermatological problems that should be evaluated by your veterinarian. Do not ignore these symptoms if you notice them in your small dog, as they can cause extreme discomfort and become chronic or difficult to treat.
  • Sensitive Trachea – Small dogs are particularly susceptible to a weakening in the cartilage of the windpipe, which is called collapsing trachea. Since the trachea is a series of cartilaginous rings, when they are injured or collapsed, a dog will have difficulty breathing, experience chronic coughing, gagging and other respiratory problems. 

While there may be a genetic component to tracheal collapse, it is such a common injury in small dogs that we generally recommend not using neck collars; tugging on a small dog’s collar while leash-walking can, over time, exacerbate a tracheal problem. In most cases, a well-fitted harness that avoids the neck area should be used instead.

Although we usually recommend the Wonder Walker harness, which is available for purchase in our lobby retail store, there are many harness brands that come in small and extra small sizes made specifically for small dogs. Always be sure your dog’s harness is properly sized and fitted. Our Pet Behavior Specialist will be happy to assist you if you have questions or need help.

Do Small Dogs Live Longer?

It depends. We’ve seen small dogs that live well into their teens, but have also seen this in larger dogs, too. However, as a group, small dogs do tend to live longer when compared to dogs in the 50 pound and higher weight group. Why this is so is not well understood, but it may be related to a genetic component and the pace at which smaller dogs age. Regardless, longevity can be enhanced through a healthy lifestyle and regular preventive care, all components that you can help manage.   

If you want to learn more about your dog and its care, don’t hesitate to check out other topics on our blog page, or contact us and schedule an appointment. We’re always happy to help!