Small, White Dogs

small white dog

image: commons.wikimedia.org

At the vet with Finn, who was having his second chemotherapy treatment for lymphoma, I chatted with one of the techs, who was also a dog walker. She mentioned a client’s German Shepherd, I said how I always wanted one, but so many seem to have behavioral problems. Her reply was that for her the worst were small, white dogs, because they are ‘spoiled’.

She’d been bitten twice by small, white dogs so I could understand that she’d come to the conclusion that small, white dogs could be problematic. But because they are ‘spoiled’? I wondered how many pet owners ‘spoil’ their dogs by letting them bite people?

When I think of ‘spoiled’ dog behavior I think of the dog who gets muddy paw prints on your pants when they jump up to greet you. Or the dog who drools in your lap while you’re eating because they’ve been fed at the table. Most of the behaviors I associate with having been ‘spoiled’ may be annoying or unwanted, but they’re not necessarily dangerous, especially when performed by a small dog.

It’s not unusual to hear someone comment that their dog ‘thinks he’s a big dog’ because of the intensity and ferocity of their display of aggression, either toward people or other dogs. No doubt there are dogs who don’t do the math when they are faced with someone who outweighs them by double digits. I suspect terriers are like this by design. The others are likely well aware of the imbalance and are doing their best to make up for it.

Few people or dogs will continue to approach or attempt to interact with a large dog who is expressing their desire that they be left alone. Small dogs are not as fortunate. Videos by the hundreds can be found of small dogs snarling and lunging at people and the camera. People think it’s funny, but it’s no laughing matter. Dogs end up dead because of this behavior.

One of the behaviors associated with a fear based response is ‘freezing’. A small dog who has been overwhelmed by someone may offer no resistance. This can look like tolerance or compliance to the uneducated eye. Since the dog was ‘ok’ with being handled in the past, they are handled again in the future. If fleeing isn’t an option, and freezing didn’t get the point across, they may become aggressive. Some will bite. To ‘spoil’ the dog at this point, and move them away from what is bothering them or tossing them a few treats, might improve the situation.

When we experience aggression in dogs, whatever their size, we can feel fear and anger. If we justify our response by blaming the dog for it we step on a slippery slope, especially if that response is devoid of understanding of what might have provoked the behavior we are seeing. If a dog behaves aggressively toward you and you are inclined to blame the dog or the owner for it, take a step back, both literally and figuratively, and consider how your actions are contributing to the problem. It takes two to tango.

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13 comments so far

  1. Sam Tatters on

    I don’t think people could ‘spoil’ their dogs by letting them bite people; but I do know people can (and do!) spoil their dogs by letting them get their own way all the time. So perhaps another person, by not letting the dog do whatever he or she wishes all the time would engender frustration in the dog, and if he or she has never been frustrated before I can imagine a bite occurring in that situation.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Interesting way to think about it Sam. I’m trying to imagine in what situations a dog might ‘get its way’ all the time and therefore be inclined to bite someone should they not ‘get their way’. Resource guarding? Handling? In either of those cases I’d suggest that people are unprepared or unwilling to work with the dog to train alternative, appropriate behaviors. It might look like ‘spoiling’ the dog, but in those cases the dog is also experiencing some level of anxiety, not just frustration.

      Do you have an example for me?

      • Sam Tatters on

        I’m thinking mainly about my OH. From when Inka came home, until recently, whatever Inka wanted, Inka got. OH would lose his seat on the sofa, so just sit on the other side, or the floor; Inka would nudge him for attention, and everything else in OH’s world would stop until Inka walked away (and don’t even get me started on him trying to talk to/pet Inka any time he came within 8 feet of OH!!); at first if Inka so much as pushed a chew toy a tad under the sofa, OH would fall over himself to get up & “get it out for him” (thankfully, that was stopped quite easily!); he was babied, and tip-toed around – I frequently got told “ooh, watch is paw/tail” as I sat close to him, and so on.

        Anyway, the upshot is we had a behaviourist come out to see us recently for something “unrelated”, and he pointed out – quite rightly, I feel – that Inka was used to getting his way around OH, and that’s not a good thing, it wasn’t helping him to learn frustration tolerance, in fact it was removing any sort of frustration tolerance he may have had. It was making him pushy, and obnoxious, not only to OH; but he’d try it on with me too, and anyone else he could.

        Cue a few behavioural changes for OH and Inka’s behaviour has started to change (funny how OH listened to the behaviourist, but when I’d said almost the exact same things he didn’t do a thing!). If this had continued, it may not have lead to a bite for an unsuspecting vet or vet nurse etc, but who knows – I’d rather not find out.

  2. Lou on

    Ive trained (literally) thousands of dogs and certainly relate to your vet tech! I suppose little white ones may be worst because they get picked up even more frequently than others. To keep them “clean,” don’t you know. This constantly picking up little dogs (by the owners) prevents them from learning how to interact on their own with people and other dogs. Their fears are supported and enlarged by their owners picking them up whenever they perceive a threat to their “babies.” And the jumping up and lunging is exacerbated, if not encouraged, by the owners’ verbal comforting throughout. Add in, “She’s just playing,” and you have a perfect disaster waiting for the dog when it eventually meets a toddler. Fortunately, I had a lovely Irish Wolfhound mix, Joe, who was not only very patient and comforting to the little ones, but also served as a teaching tool to their owners. When they would protest that their little fear-biter “won’t hurt you” and tell them that Joe liked to jump up, too, and he wouldn’t hurt them, either. (Not that he would. He would have been appalled at bad behaviour.) Still, an excellent teaching tool, as he was, in size, to the owner as their dog was to a toddler. When a strange human – in perspective, the size a house would be to us – looms over a dog and starts interacting with it as if it’s a toy, it’s no wonder they become fearful!

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for commenting Lou! I would suggest an alternative analysis of ‘why’ the owner’s response affects the dog’s behavior as it does. Certainly owners can convey a need for concern through their actions, which dogs pick up on. But that’s different than ‘supporting’ a dog’s fear. To leave a scared dog near a trigger to learn to ‘deal with it’ often backfires.

      As far as an owner’s ‘verbal comforting’ encouraging a dog to behave inappropriately, I would not call it ‘comforting’. Comforting by definition should be calming to a dog. If it causing the dog’s arousal to escalate, it’s not ‘comforting’ at all. This is an important point (and one which causes mishandling of fearful dogs). How we label behavior, ours or our dog’s is important. Implying that ‘comforting’ a scared dog is wrong, is incorrect. Anything we can do, including comforting, which lowers the stress and anxiety a dog experiences, is helpful. Just because an owner ‘thinks’ they are ‘comforting’ doesn’t mean they are, and they should find a way to truly ‘comfort’ their dog. Or better, teach their dog an appropriate behavior and put it on cue.

      Thank you for giving me the opportunity to mention these points. They are both important components of the foundation when working with fearful dogs. And so true, humans are frequently rude to dog’s, little or big!

  3. Jen on

    So many owners that I see don’t seem to understand their dog’s body language, or look into the motives for behavior.

    As an example, there are many times I see people with small white dogs, Jack russel mixes, etc. who see Elka and go all whale eyed, barking and snarling at the ends of their leashes. To me, these dogs are clearly exhibiting fear. The owners, though, laugh and say things like “Oh, look at the size of that dog! It would eat you up!” as if they’re thinking about how much pluck their little dog has

    No matter the size or breed of a dog, lunging, barking, and snarling in these settings are not appropriate. Once a dog does that, it is the owner’s responsibility to anticipate situations, manage, redirect, and train their dogs regarding what actions are expected and what behaviors are acceptable.

    Last week, a little white dog left its porch and ran across two yards to get at Elka (you know, the Doberman) and I. I turned around, kept Elka behind me, and looked that little dog in the eyes and said “No! You go home!” and pointed. The little dog stopped right in its tracks and stopped barking. The owner picked it up and went away without apology. If my Doberman left her porch and ran across two yards at somebody? The police would have been called.

  4. Frances on

    I have two toy dogs – a Papillon and a Toy Poodle. I think good socialising is absolutely essential for small pups if they are to grow up into well balanced adults, but that it is very difficult for their owners to get it right. Too protective – snatching the diminutive puppy away from every possible danger – and you remove her from opportunities to learn and may teach her to be more afraid. Insufficiently protective, and you risk her learning to snarl and snap to protect herself – or worse, injury or death. I was fortunate to have the help of an excellent trainer/behaviourist when raising mine, and so far all is well, even with Poppy, my Poodle, whose puppy fearfulness originally brought me to this blog. But I think there is a lack of good information and good training classes designed specifically for the needs of owners of small dogs. I have left several classes in the past because of the risks posed by large, exuberant, bouncy adolescents insufficiently controlled by their humans – toy pups need to know how to interact safely with big dogs, but will learn this more safely from kind, self handicapping adults than from other pups and adolescents.

    Toy dogs are first and foremost dogs – but their signals and messages are inevitably written in smaller letters than those of big dogs. Perhaps that is part of the reason they too often learn that they have to exaggerate and shout to get their message across.

    • Debbie Jacobs on

      Well said.

    • KellyK on

      Perhaps that is part of the reason they too often learn that they have to exaggerate and shout to get their message across.

      I think that makes tons of sense. People are much less likely to take a little dog’s nervous body language or requests for space seriously. Plus, the same behavior from a person looks very different to a little dog than it does to a big dog. Like Lou said, to a toy poodle, a human is the size of a house. So they’re more likely to find a situation scary, and more likely to have their fears ignored.

      Good point about classes, too. Separating puppy classes by size might be a really good thing.

      • fearfuldogs on

        A well run puppy class should not have to separate by size for the class itself. Trainers should be aware of who is playing appropriately, who is not and when pups need to be redirected. Puppy class is one time when a dog has the chance to be exposed to both bigger and smaller dogs and learn to feel confident and safe with them and be appropriate in their physical interactions. Trainers who throw dogs together and expect that they will learn to deal or work it out with each other may be creating more problems than they are solving. The problem is with the supervision, not the size of the dogs.

  5. engineer chic on

    Our smallish white dog is around 32 pounds and, sadly, adorable. Sadly because he is terrified of kids, but they think he is adorable. I would wager that most small, white dogs are targeted as “so cute I have to pet it now!”

    I don’t encourage our dog to growl, but I don’t “correct” the behavior, either. Some days I wish he was black because he’d look more dangerous and people would be less likely to approach without asking. But hey, my own reflexes and skills at body-blocking people wouldn’t be as sharp if he was a more intimidating color/size 😉

  6. Frances on

    I absolutely agree that a well run puppy class is safe for all sizes of pups – but I am less and less sure that it is the best way to socialise pups to dogs in general. In a puppy class they are all young, all learning, all liable to be excited and occasionally silly – a bit like children in kindergarten. Human children learn manners from adults – their parents, relatives, teachers, friends. I believe puppies learn more from adult dogs with good social skills than from other puppies. Puppy classes are wonderful, not least as an opportunity to train new puppy owners, and every puppy should attend at least one course, but I really do think that having plenty of opportunities to interact with adult dogs is equally – if not more – essential for puppies.

    • Debbie Jacobs on

      Having appropriate role models is important and I do agree with you on that. One challenge is that few people have the opportunity to expose their dog to other dogs in what should be a safe way. The alternative for many would be a dog park, and we know how dicey that can be. Puppies can do rude, silly things that might hurt or scare another pup, but in a well managed class that can help a dog learn tolerance and resiliency, not necessarily fear or bad habits.

      In a perfect world dogs would have a variety of experiences with dogs of all ages. They would learn appropriate rough and tumble play. They’d learn how to take no for an answer and how to inhibit their own responses. They would learn to deal with frustration. They’d learn how to share their toys. They’d learn how to shake off and move on.


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