How Best to Train Small Dogs

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Episode #72

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Last year, I did an article about small-dog stereotypes. You know–little dogs are yappy, they’re skittish, they’re big old prima donnas in tiny suits. I suggested some reasons small dogs might act this way and offered suggestions for helping them. Recently, I came across a research paper on small-dog behavior. Whether you’ve got a Chihuahua or a Great Dane, the findings have something to offer you.

How Best to Train Small Dogs

A group of scientists led by Dr. Christine Arhant of the University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna surveyed nearly 1,300 of the city’s dog owners about many aspects of both human and dog behavior. I’ll discuss just a few points here–for more, see the Notes section, below. (1) Dr. Arhant’s team asked how much the guardians trained using punishment, such as collar jerks, alpha rolls, and shaker cans, and how much they used rewards, including praise, petting, food, and play.

The guardians were asked about consistency–basically, did they set rules for the dogs and stick to them? Did they sometimes allow the dog to break the rules, or did they always respond the same way to infractions? Note that this wasn’t about whether the guardian was harsh or gentle–just about whether he or she was predictable.  

Dr. Arhant’s team also assessed the dogs’ behavior–how obedient were the dogs, and  how aggressive, excitable, or nervous were they?  

How Dog Owners Treat Their Dogs

Large-dog owners and small-dog owners reported that they used punishment and reward at about the same rates. And for both large and small dogs, the higher the proportion of reward-based training, the better the obedience, the lower the aggression and anxiety. Conversely, for both groups of dogs, punishment and aggression were related. That result fits with other studies that link punishment-based training with aggression. (2) But the relationship between punishment and aggression was stronger in small dogs, and only in small dogs was punishment related to anxiety scores.

The Viennese researchers came up with a striking idea about why punishment, aggression, and anxiety might be more strongly linked in small dogs than in big dogs. It turned out that among the people surveyed, the small-dog owners described themselves as less consistent about rules than the owners of large dogs were. People with small dogs were likelier to decide that sometimes it was okay for their dog not to follow whatever rules the people had set.


About the Author

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA

Jolanta holds professional certifications in both training and behavior counseling and belongs to the Association of Professional Dog Trainers and the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. She also volunteered with Pet Help Partners, a program of the Humane Society of the United States that works to prevent pet relinquishment. Her approach is generally behaviorist (Pavlovian, Skinnerian and post-Skinnerian learning theory) with a big helping of ethology (animal behavior as observed in non-experimental settings).


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