Under Pressure—It’s Not Easy Being a Small Dog in a Big World

Imagine waking up daily with the pressure of existing solely to meet other people’s needs. Your body, time, and emotions are often not respected or acknowledged. When you’re angry or uncomfortable, no one takes you seriously or listens to you. But you’re so cute! You wear adorable outfits, have tiny paws and teeth, and people are eager to meet you everywhere you go. From an outsider’s perspective, your life is perfect. You ride around in purses and bags and get to spend all day attached to your human; displayed for all to see as a lovely accessory. How could you be unhappy? You’re too cute to be unhappy.

This is the life that we have fabricated for small dogs. We have made small dogs as a whole real-life stuffed animals and dolls for us to play with, abusing the term “toy dog.” Although some do enjoy the attention, some do not. For those who do not wish to subscribe to this lifestyle, they are powerless. Their endearing appearance and small stature extend an unwanted welcome to everyone, creating this unspoken narrative that every small dog wants to be cuddled, touched, and kissed.

We feel an almost innate impulse to coddle these adorable creatures because we can. A Yorkshire terrier can be swooped up and carried around a lot easier than a Great Dane. But this bears the question that has recently come to light in many aspects of our society: just because we can, does that mean we should?

Animal welfare, and more specifically dog welfare, does not always mean just making sure they are fed and loved. The over-the-top, lavish treatment some small dogs receive is usually perceived as all their needs are met and then some. But the very important pieces of welfare, a dog’s freedom of choice and their emotional well-being, are often overlooked. It’s common for people to boast about how “spoiled” their small breed is. They eat gourmet food, wear expensive outfits and collars, and sleep on the most comfortable beds. While this is all very nice, it may not hold the same weight to dogs as it does to humans. The love language of gift-giving is not easily understood, if at all, by dogs.

Fido may have all these wonderful, material things, but if they consistently have no choice, it makes it hard to enjoy this “cushy” life. A life that has already been crafted whether it fits their dog or not. Commonly, the pre-determined, pleasant temperament has already been assigned to a small dog before their human even brings them home from the shelter. Many people purposefully go to a shelter or breeder seeking out a small dog that they can snuggle with and bring along to social gatherings. That cute face comes along with the expectation that they will be social and love physical affection from everyone. Being fearful or antisocial is not in the job description of small breeds.

This ideology can lead to the argument that fearful dogs who are constantly subjected to strangers petting and holding them are not getting their needs met. The expectation of being friendly outweighs the choice of whether the dog wants to be or not. And if they try to communicate that they are uncomfortable by growling or nipping they are labeled as “bad.” The message small dogs receive from us is to let everyone invade their personal space, and bad days are not allowed. They are cartoon characters, meant to be happy at all times with zero boundaries.

An analogy we use at the academy is the “creepy guy.” If you identify as a woman, you may have had an experience at a bar where a guy won’t leave you alone and is relentlessly offering you drinks. You feel unsafe but he insists that you accept, assuming you have no boundaries. A lot of small dogs are put in this same situation (besides the bar and drinks.) We are more willing to push the limits of small dogs because they aren’t as “scary” compared to a larger breed. If they get upset the reaction is viewed as funny instead of dangerous. The all too familiar phrases, “small dog syndrome” or “Napoleon complex,” are used to excuse behavior rather than look into why they are having that reaction. We may think having friends or family repeatedly offer treats is a good solution to bridge the gap, but if they don’t want them, our friends and family turn into that “creepy guy” very quickly.

This isn’t to say all small dogs are treated this way, but a majority are. As bad as it sounds when we dissect the day-to-day these little guys experience, it does not mean we are bad people. Our actions are not malicious. It is hard to put ourselves in their tiny shoes, the ones that we all struggle to put on them in the summer. As we evolve, we become more aware, and part of that growing awareness should be the expectations that we project onto small dogs.

So what can be done? How can we move away from the widespread fad of the “purse dog” and the expectations of behavior that come along with it? Changing our mindset is the most important place to start. We need to approach small dogs the same as we would a larger dog. It is common that with larger breeds people tend to be more cautious. The inclination to ask the pet parent if they are friendly before attempting to touch them is often at times more prevalent. We need to replace the assumption that all small dogs enjoy interaction with the practice of asking their guardian if their dog enjoys it.

However, there is a large component to this that is key: advocacy. While we would hope all dogs are being advocated for by their caretakers, they oftentimes are not. The social pressure to live up to the sweet, small dog stigma can cause us to feel embarrassed when this behavior is not displayed. Sometimes feelings of embarrassment can get the best of us and we struggle to see through a dog’s optics. As caretakers, we need to take a step back and observe. Maybe we have been missing signs that our small dog doesn’t like to be cuddled as much as we thought or they just have stranger danger. It may change the lifestyle we had hoped to have with our dog, but the relationship and bond that understanding creates is unmatched.

For those looking for a toy dog, there are small dogs out there that love to be snuggled. If this is important to you this is something to express when going to find your new best friend. Shelter staff, volunteers, and breeders spend a lot of time with these dogs and get to know their personalities. They should be able to tell you which dogs would love frequent cuddle time and meeting new people. If you are unfamiliar with toy breeds, do some research before you go looking. We love the book Meet Your Dog by Kim Brophy. In this book, she breaks down breeds into different groups and describes some common behaviors that they may express. It gives great insight into the way their minds work and can help you determine what breed is right for you. Our world has put a lot of importance on looks, but when it comes to scouting out the perfect addition, we need to prioritize temperament before we fall in love with the adorable face. Size is a good thing to consider but it shouldn’t be the determining factor. Nor should it determine what their feelings should be.

Their small size should not diminish what they feel. They feel anger and all of the same emotions that their larger counterparts feel. Although it may be more difficult to read on smaller dogs, they convey how they are feeling through their body language just as big dogs do. It is our job to be aware of it and listen to what they are trying to tell us. This will take time and we are all learning together how to enhance dogs’ lives. We just need to slow down and respect them as beings with their own thoughts, feelings, and emotions. They do not exist exclusively for our amusement, comfort, or aesthetics. So the next time we get ready to dress them up and take them out on the town, we should stop and think, “Does this lifestyle fit my dog?”