Are Small Dogs Harder To Train Than Big Dogs?

Jacques at 4 monthsA question I am often asked is, are small dogs hard to train? The simple answer is yes!

The first small dog I had was a Pomeranian. He was only two pounds when I got him and completely adorable, that is until he started biting everyone in the house.

He also decided that his favorite place to urinate was under the dining room table.

Clearly, I had a problem. Charlie, as we called him was one bad little dog!

But I was determined to train him properly and make him a good citizen. It wasn’t easy. I read all the books, (thank you Cesar Milan) and I did my best, but Charlie was one stubborn puppy.

I finally called on a professional trainer for help. He was a miracle worker to be sure. With a lot of hard work Charlie became an excellent dog. The potty training took awhile but eventually he was completely trustworthy and had run of the house. He became a very social and lovable dog.

Our sweet Charlie has since passed away. He was my introduction to toy dogs. I have now filled my life with Chihuahuas. I learned small dogs require a bit more effort to train properly.

Many people however are not willing to spend extra time and effort with an out of control little dog. Sadly this is why so many small dogs end up in shelters. As a volunteer I am so upset to see that a large number of discarded dogs are Chihuahuas. They have often been mishandled and not trained at all. Some are nippy. They need a lot of patience and love to become good pets.

But why are small dogs harder to train?

Guess what, it’s not the dog, but the human who is often to blame. We tend to coddle and carry our little pups, treating them like babies.

My first show dog was very shy. I carried her around because I was afraid she would get hurt. One day a professional handler said to me; “YOU are making that dog afraid! Put her on the ground and treat her like a dog!”

That was very good advice. Remember a small dog is still a dog!

We often don’t correct small dogs because they are so tiny and cute. We allow naughty behavior until it becomes a problem. Toy dogs are most likely carried outside to do their business. The dog has no idea how he got there. The outside world can be very intimidating to a toy pup. It’s good to get down to their level and see the world as they do. Everything takes a bit more time and tiny dogs do need to go out more often as well. A small dog may growl when held because he feels trapped or protective. The dog should greet people on the ground or floor. Little dogs are sometimes grabbed and that creates fear also.

A tiny dog requires a lot of supervision and patience!

If you want to live with a toy dog, make sure you have the time and are willing to train them properly.

The ASPCA has some excellent advice for small dog owners.


Protect but Don’t Coddle
Little dogs are more prone to being hurt by other dogs and even people, so it’s best to strike an informed balance between ensuring your dog’s safety and letting him experience the world on his own four paws. Develop your ability to interpret canine body language so that you know when an approaching dog might be aggressive or even predatory. Please see our article on Canine Body Language for detailed information and photos.

Close observation will also help you recognize the often subtle signs of stress, discomfort, fear and impending aggression in your small dog so that you can take steps to keep him comfortable. Signs of discomfort include lip licking, flattened ears, a tucked tail, crouching, looking away and trembling. Signs of imminent aggression include direct eye contact, freezing, barking, growling, piloerection (hackles up), baring teeth and snapping (biting the air). Please see our articles on Fear of People and Canine Body Language for more information about how a dog looks and behaves when he’s feeling frightened, anxious or aggressive.

Defensive Tips for Small Dogs in an Oversized World

  • Carry tiny, tasty treats with you when you and your dog are out together, and teach him to associate people with pleasant things by giving him treats whenever they approach.
  • If your dog is in your arms and people approach to greet the two of you, put your dog down whenever possible, and give him enough leash to move away if he likes. When someone wants to greet your dog, give the person several of your treats and invite her to reward your dog for a Sit or some cute trick you’ve taught him—like Wave a Paw or Sit Pretty. This ritual serves multiple purposes. It gives your dog a chance to focus on doing something you like, it teaches him that interacting with people is fun, and it avoids a potentially overwhelming greeting from the person.
  • If you can’t put your dog down, you can still take control of a greeting. Turn sideways to the approaching person, holding your dog on the far side, away from the person. Then you can politely explain that your dog is very shy. After asking the person to proceed slowly and gently, you can hand her a treat and invite her to offer it to your dog in a flat palm.
  • It’s okay to tell people they can’t approach or pet your dog. He relies on you to make him feel safe. Don’t be afraid to speak up on his behalf. If words don’t deter enthusiastic dog lovers, try using clear body language. An outstretched hand in a “stop” position can be particularly effective, even for people who seem intent on greeting every dog they meet!
  • Teach your dog to come to you immediately when you call (please see our article on Teaching Your Dog to Come When Called for details) and to jump on your legs as you crouch when you say “Hup!” or “Up!” That way, whenever you see potential danger ahead, you can call your dog to you and get him into your arms quickly. If the danger is a large dog who’s overeager or aggressive, be aware that holding your dog in your arms may further arouse the other dog’s interest. Keep turning away if the larger dog attempts to jump on you, and discourage him by saying “Go away!” in a loud, firm voice. It may help to hold your little dog under your jacket or shirt so that the big dog can’t see him. If possible, enlist the cooperation of the big dog’s pet parent, or ask anyone nearby to help you.
  • It can be a relief to some small dogs to be able to tell you when they need help getting out of a scary situation. Teach your dog that when he puts his paws on your leg, you’ll pick him up. If he learns that this behavior works, he’ll have an alternative to aggressive reactions when he’s afraid of something or someone.
  • If your little dog is a good candidate for off-leash dog parks (please see our article on Dog Parks for guidelines), be sure to stay in the separate section for little dogs if one is available. If one is not available, it’s not advisable to use an off-leash dog park, especially if your dog is quite small (20 pounds or less). In the exciting environment of a busy dog park, larger dogs or distracted people can easily cause accidental injury to a little dog. The risk of predatory behavior is also a concern. Although it doesn’t happen often, larger dogs, especially when aroused by intense group activity or a small dog’s piercing yelp, may view small dogs as prey and attack them.
  • Toy breeds and other small dogs can get injured from jumping off of furniture, leaping out of your arms, playing with children or larger dogs, and getting stepped on. Don’t treat your small dog like a baby, but do realistically assess his risk of injury in a particular situation, and take steps to prevent accidents. For example, you can teach your small dog to use a stool or steps to get onto and off of couches and beds.

Many small-dog behavior issues can be effectively managed, reduced or prevented altogether through reward-based training that focuses on fun and motivation. Most small dogs are eager to learn simple obedience and tricks for tasty treats.

You and your dog will benefit from training that teaches you how to clearly communicate with him and teaches him how to listen to you. For example, with some basic training, you can learn to move your dog around as you need to without physical force. Start by training him while sitting or kneeling on the ground, or lift him onto your coffee table for initial training. (Place a rubber-backed mat on the table so that he can comfortably move around without slipping.) Offer lots of treats and praise in the beginning. If you make training a game, your little dog will look forward to every session. Once he’s gained confidence, you can gradually stand up to train or put him on the ground.

Training Ideas

  • Teach your dog to leap into your lap on cue (command)—whether you’re sitting or standing semi-crouched.
  • Teach your dog to get off of furniture, off your lap and out of cars when you say “Off!”
  • Teach your dog to come when called. This skill can save his life if he ever gets loose. Please see our article on Teaching Your Dog to Come When Called for help with training.
  • Teach your dog to target your outstretched palm with his nose when you say “Touch.” You can use this cue for getting your dog to move left or right on the sofa or bed, to hide behind you when someone’s approaching, or to greet a stranger when she holds out her hand. Please see our articles on Teaching Your Dog to Hand Target and Teaching Your Shy Dog to “Say Hello” for detailed training instructions.
  • Teach your dog a verbal signal that tells him you’re about to pick him up or put him down. As long as he knows what’s coming, being picked up or put down won’t take him by surprise by abruptly lurching him off his feet, and he’ll be able to prepare his body for the movement. For example, use “Pick up” for “I’m going to pick you up now” and “There you go” for “I’m going to put you on the ground now.” These little cues that give your dog advance notice go a long way toward making him feel safer and more comfortable with being handled.

For more information, visit the following resources:


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