Understanding Small Dog Syndrome

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Have you been noticing that your small dog is headstrong, or even downright aggressive? If he barks an awful lot and tries to bully other dogs, it may be time to confront the possibility that he has Small Dog Syndrome. Read on the learn more about your dog and Small Dog Syndrome!

Stubborn dog; Pixabay

What Is Small Dog Syndrome?

Small Dog Syndrome (SDS) is a set of behaviors that dogs learn when they aren’t checked for their aggressiveness or failure to follow rules. With time, they start to believe they’re the alpha dog, or the ‘master’ of the house, and they become dominant and difficult to train.  It’s common among small & toy dog breeds because they’re allowed to get away with certain types of behavior simply because of their small size. (It happens in medium and large dogs too, just not so frequently).

For example, if a small dog were to display bothersome behavior to a guest in your home, such as nipping at their heels or jumping uninvited onto their lap, they’re much more likely to get away with this than a large dog would. Because of their small size, this type of behavior is seen as “cute” and non-threatening, and the owner may simply dismiss this as playfulness. A large dog is less likely to get away with this behavior; he would likely be scolded and made to stop. The large dog would learn that what he did was wrong and may not repeat it, while the small dog may learn that what he did was acceptable and continue doing it in the future.


Signs Of Small Dog Syndrome

The following are three of the common signs that point to Small Dog Syndrome. Your dog doesn’t have to exhibit all of them in order to confirm that he has SDS; one or two of the signs may be enough.

1. Difficult to train. Dogs who often get away with not following the rules will start to display willful disobedience and poor impulse control. Some common examples of this are:

  • Begging for food. While many dogs often beg for food, a dog with SDS is more aggressive about it; he may demand food by barking or jumping onto your lap while you’re eating.
  • Poor impulse control. Jumping onto the couch even when told not to, not eating at the scheduled times, pulling on his leash during walks, demanding attention or to be carried. A dog with SDS does not follow rules you’ve set despite being aware of them.

2. Poor social skills. An important way to learn how your dog sees himself is to observe how he treats other dogs. Dogs who aren’t told “NO” and are allowed to disobey the rules develop poor social skills. They see themselves as the alpha dog and they like to show it.

  • Bullying other dogs in the household. He may bark to keep them away from food bowls and toys (even ones that aren’t his), or claim certain areas of the household as his, not allowing his sibling-dogs to be in that area. (Read toys to keep your dog busy – our top 7 picks)
  • Barking at other dogs at large. Dogs with SDS commonly try to assert their dominance with dogs they don’t know, barking angrily and lunging at dogs they see on walks. This can be observed despite no show of hostility from the other dog. (Read should I use a muzzle on my dog?)

3. Aggressiveness. Dogs with SDS will also show other signs of aggression, including towards people.

  • Nipping at the heels of a guest who enters your house, or jumping onto their lap uninvited. This is how a dog with SDS may try to express his dominance over a guest in ‘his’ house.
  • Growling at anyone who tries to come near his owner, barking persistently at any noise outside the house, or urinating inside the house. This is how he protects or marks his ‘territory’.

A small dog with SDS will think himself the leader of a pack. He is the alpha dog and he sets the rules for the pack. The pack members will include all other dogs in the household, any other dogs he encounters outside of his house, and even you, the owner, and all other members of the household. For this reason, separation anxiety is commonly seen in dogs with SDS. When you (the owner) or other members of your household leave the house, your dog sees this as being left behind by members of his pack.

How To Correct Small Dog Syndrome

The simple truth is that dogs develop Small Dog Syndrome because of how their owners treat them. Owners coddle small dogs, showering unwarranted praise & treats on them, and letting them get away with terrible behavior. In other words, to correct SDS in a dog, his owner will have to correct the way he treats his dog.


The best way to treat SDS is to prevent it from happening at all. Small puppies should be given socialization training from very early on, and owners should be diligent about enforcing rules once they’ve been set. But fear not, there are ways to correct Small Dog Syndrome after a dog has developed these bad habits.

1. Be the leader of the pack. It’s your responsibility as the pack leader to correct any bad behavior in your dog. You set the rules, and you should enforce them consistently. Begging for food, growling or barking inappropriately, and any other aggressive behavior should be met with a firm “NO” until your dog stops. Over time, he will learn that what he did was unacceptable, and the bad habit will stop. Some dogs will learn more quickly than others, so don’t give up if your dog is taking a while! Other household members and visitors should be in on the plan; they should know not to let the dog jump onto their laps uninvited or slip them any scraps of food from the table.

2. Teach socialization skills. It’s important for your dog’s mental health that he learns to be comfortable around other dogs, including other doggy-members of the household and dogs he meets on walks. At the start of his sociazliation training, keep a bag of treats with you. When out on a walk, if he shows any signs of aggression towards another dog, slowly but firmly assert a “NO” until he is completely calm, only then give him a treat.

Once he is able to manage this comfortably, you can start bringing him closer to other dogs and continue the exercise of calming him down when agitated and giving him treats when he calms down. Progress this slowly over time (days to weeks), allowing him to get closer & closer, then perhaps sniff other dogs. Soon he will associate being around other dogs with treats and will cease showing aggression towards them.

3. Reward only positive behavior. Your dog should receive praise or treats only when he has done something good. Make him do a trick or follow a simple command before giving him any treats. Don’t lavish him with praise when he hasn’t done anything to deserve it. When he does something bad, ignore him until he stops and calms down. He will learn that following the rules will get him praise & treats, and acting out will get him nothing.


We know that you love your dog, and showering him with frequent praise and affection is a strong instinct. However, being a responsible dog owner, you are in charge of his mental health & training. The first few times you try to discipline him might be met with resistance (whining, barking) – that’s completely normal and expected. You must resist the urge to pick him up with apologies and kisses. Before you know it, his bad habit will have broken and you will have a mentally healthy dog who knows his place in the pack!

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