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Size Matters! Small Dog Syndrome

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Small dogs are unevenly represented on bite statistic reports, which many attribute to the “small dog syndrome”.  Small dog syndrome is hypothesized to be interplay of genetic factors, owner handling and lack of training creating an overall reactive and uncontrollable animal. Multi-national studies have found evidence of this, particularly in the Jack Russell Terrier, Cocker Spaniel and Dachshund. The Chihuahua breed has risen to the top in the category of aggression to all targets: family, other dogs in the home and strange dogs. They have unfortunately become one of the top surrendered breeds to Humane Societies in the US, as owners discover that they cannot manage the behaviors.

Small dog syndrome is characterized by a number of exogenous and endogenous factors that interact to determine how the behavior chain will play out. Genetics and temperament are important and intractable elements in behavior, but other internal and external factors can be manipulated. We can interrupt the learning loops that encourage and effectively train the behavior , reducing the rewarding effect. Any behavior that successfully delivers a desired outcome has a greater potential to be repeated – dogs of all sizes do what works for them. When the small dog reacts aggressively and the person or animal retreats, they are rewarded for engaging in the behavior. Owners may not initially feel as threatened by a bite coming from a 10-pound dog; something that would be quickly recognized as dangerous in a German Shepherd may be tolerated far longer in a small dog.

There are many unanswered questions regarding the small dog syndrome phenomenon, including why they are so quick to escalate in their aggression. A potential factor that may significantly contribute to the maintenance and severity of the behaviors in question is owner-training methods. There is evidence that small breeds are prone to demonstrate heightened reactivity and aggressive responses when physical punishment methods are employed, which may be a result of being more vulnerable to the physical manipulation of the owner.

Dominance training encourages owner behaviors that are counterproductive to creating a calm dog, and owner induced aggression is often the result.   In a recent survey study, it was found that 31% of owners utilized the alpha role, and that a quarter of these interactions resulted in an aggressive response.  Since the small dog is easier to physically master, the alpha role is frequently employed and the incidence of aggression to familiar people escalated when these methods were used.

What can be done to avoid small dog syndrome in your pet?

Respect and treat them as a dog!  Many actions that an owner would not/could not continue with a large breed past puppyhood, are maintained with small dogs.  Small dogs are often subjected to excessive and unwanted handling, with no respect to how the dog may feel at the time. Behaviours such as:

  • Scooping the small dog up from behind, with no warning that they are being lifted, can contribute to a lack of confidence and heightened reactivity on the approach of a person.
  • Holding the small dog in your arms while forcing them into the belly up position for petting can make them feel quite vulnerable and may elicit an unwanted reaction.
  • Allowing the dog to be petted by others while trapped in the owner’s arms. This prevents them from showing fear or defensive body language, or to remove themselves from the unwanted attention. Their remaining line of defense is to their teeth.

Find suitable socialization opportunities.  This includes safe interaction with different size dogs and novel people under 16 weeks of age. Owners often do not get their small breed dog out early, fearing that it is too fragile. The fact that they continue to look like a young puppy can lead an owner to feel that they don’t need to start training in earnest until they are much older.  Early exposure will build a better understanding of what is acceptable in their world and make a significant difference in the adult behaviour.  This is especially true for breeds that have been shown to possess a heightened inclination to generalized reactivity. We want to build their confidence, so that they feel safe and not on the defensive!

Daily exercise outside is critical!  Although they may not need as much space as a larger breed, it is still crucial to let them learn how to behave in the world.  Exercise also increases the brain’s ability to deal with stress, which is so important for any breed that is prone to the shy end of the boldness spectrum.

Train them as you would a larger breed.  While a small dog misbehaving may not seem as challenging as a Golden Retriever, it can and often does escalate to more forward behaviours as they learn that they can control the actions of those around them.  The more they practice behaviours such as lap or food guarding, the more entrenched it can become, until we arrive at the small dog with an outsized attitude of entitlement! A simple matter of house guidelines for any sized dog, so that they build manners and respect is important. Set meal times, require basic manners before walks, invite them onto the furniture and practice asking them to get off on command.   Just because they are little does not mean they don’t have a high level of intelligence that needs to be directed!

Care around Children!  Small dogs are at particular risk being handled inappropriately by small children, which can escalate their perception that they need to be on guard around them. Parents need to instruct children to allow the pup to come to them, ideally while seated on the floor, precluding the need to pick up the puppy.  This will help to build improve the sense of safety for the pup, reducing anxiety and defensive displays.

Small dogs can accomplish anything and everything a large breed dog can do, but we do need to be respectful of their greater vulnerability due to size. Look at things from their (very low) point of view!

Exercise benefits for Anxious Dogs

Exercise and the high anxiety dog

 Lucinda Glenny MSc Animal Welfare, HBSc Psychology, CPDT-KA

Anxiety is a feeling of unease or fear of occurring events. It can cause panic attacks, which make     the body seize up and activate the peripheral nervous system’s “fight or flight” mode. This causes increased heart rate, sweating, rapid breath, tension in the chest, increased blood pressure, and ultimately fear. When in this state, animals are not able to think or act clearly and cannot process information appropriately.

How does exercise help alleviate these symptoms? There is often an odd sense of happiness that occurs after exercise, which is primarily caused by endorphins. Endorphins act on the same neurological centers as opioids, which improve our tolerance to stress and pain. In addition to endorphins,   the brain stimulates the production of serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine, all of which play a key role in making us feel better.

Many studies have found the positive correlation of increased exercise for human and animal subjects and  a reduction in outward signs of anxiety.

Exercise stimulates neurogenesis in the hippocampus, the main center for the control of mood, by a chemical called Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF). Studies have shown that the hippocampus in depressed women is 15% smaller than in those without depression. Therefore, by stimulating the growth of the hippocampus, the symptoms of depression and anxiety should, theoretically be diminished.

When people or animals first start to exercise, the brain experiences a rush of stress hormones, called glucocorticoids. Why would that be good for stress levels? In the long run, exercise trains the brains to better deal with stress. In studies, animals who exercise are less anxious in stressful situations, are more likely to find a solution to a problem, such as running a maze, and are less likely to lose track of the goal.

Exercise makes us smarter and improves ability to cope with stress!

Walking three hours a week for only three months generates so many new neurons that you can measure the difference in brain size. That’s because exercise increases the level of neurotrophins, chemicals that promote the creation of new brain cells. Exercising regularly also enhances memory and the ability to learn new tasks, whereas stress impairs neurogenesis and can impede the ability to learn.

Anyone that has been through a divorce or lost a loved one can tell you how hard it is to remember or learn new things during a stressful period. It’s believed that a combination of the reduction in neurogenesis, cell loss and changes in remaining cells can disrupt the thought processes. Of course, this takes time to happen, so usually it’s only prolonged stress that has major effects on the brain. Luckily, regular exercise can combat these negative effects, boost brainpower and reduce stress levels. In reference to anxious dogs, these same factors can aide in leading your dog to remain in a calmer and more confident state.

For most dogs we generally recommend a long walk to help tire them out – but for the HA dog, this can actually increase the problem. Try to find ways to physically tire your dog before walking them – ball tossing in the yard, tag in the house, fetch up carpeted stairs are all ways to use up some of that excess energy. It’s not surprising that the breed types that we see many difficulties with are ones who have a lot of energy.

By tiring your dog prior to subjecting them to the triggers, they will be more able to manage the situations appropriately.

In order to obtain the best results, animals should be exercised vigorously, on a regular basis. Also, combine it with a proper diet and positive encouragement. The most substantial improvements in mental health are made with a combination of exercise, medication and behavioural therapy.

Sensitive Learning Stages in Puppies

An excerpt from a full research study: Effects of Early Social Stimuli on Adult Temperament in Dogs (Canis familiaris)

There have been numerous studies on a variety of species investigating the positive affect of early socialization and exposure to novel stimuli, and their impact on development (Hebb, 2003; Hubrecht, 1995; Fox, 1971).  In dogs, this highly sensitive social learning stage has been found to fall between the ages of 7-14 weeks  (Battaglia, 2009).   Pups that remain in the breeder’s facility during this stage need to be actively socialized with other breeds of dogs and places.   This period also coincides with the age when many pups are moved to their new homes, raising the potential for behavioral issues if not handled appropriately.   Classes and educational materials delivered during this period from the breeder, Veterinarians and professionals can help ease this transition (Gazzano, 2008).

The predisposition to a particular temperament type in dogs is considered to be inborn, (Slabbert, 1999; Svartberg & Bjorn, 2002), which can run the spectrum from a confident and pro-social attitude to one predominated by anxiety and neurosis (Coren, 1999).   Research supports the concept that there is a strong inter-relation of disposition, environment and learning stages that work to produce the mature animal.  In the case of dogs, an anxious temperament may manifest itself in acts of aggression towards people or animals, which increases the risk of surrender.   Working with a young, developing puppy with gentle exposure to many different experiences in the period of 5- 14 weeks has been shown to be an effective and pro-active method to prevent behavioural problems.   Positive early experiences can have a protective effect on the adult animal.   It is not possible to fully recreate this important effect after 16 weeks of age.

Research completed by Fox (2010) suggests that the early learning period is a crucial factor in the development of brain architecture, which provides for proper processing of novel stimuli and a reduction of stress behaviours.  Without this exposure, the dog does not have the opportunity to build sufficient coping mechanisms, which can translate to fear or aggression in the adult animal.  Animals that receive formal socialization classes during this stage have the opportunity to build a wide range of positive associations (Seskel, 1997) and thus are far more prepared to confidently handle real world situations.

Since 2008, the AVSAB has approved of the outside socialization of young pups from as early as 10 days after receiving their first set of shots and going to their new home. The maternal antibodies present and the effect of the first shots provide sufficient protection for such experiences as going out for a walk, or going to puppy socialization classes in accredited facilities.   Research demonstrates that under-socialized animals experience difficulty in accepting novel stimuli with confidence, with potentially long-term effects on their interpretation of common world experiences, such as strangers, bikes, trucks and other dogs (McMillan, Duffy, Serpell, 2011; Battaglia, 2009).

Studies support the concept that through class participation, a reduction of aggression in dogs and increased retention in the home can be achieved (Casey, Loftus, Bolster, Richards & Blackwell, 2014; Duxbury, Jackson, Line & Anderson 2003).  There is a great deal of scientific evidence supporting the idea that social exposure in sensitive stages translates to minimized unwanted behavioural issues, particularly anxiety induced ones.  Introduction of a heightened program of early socialization during the fear onset stage of 7 – 14 weeks has been shown to promote improved interaction skills with both people and other dogs (Duxbury et al (2003).

While formal training classes are generally deemed a positive experience (Duxbury et al, 2003), all classes are not based on the same learning principles, or quality of instruction.  Classes that are overcrowded, or employ aversive techniques can potentially have a highly negative affect on an animal’s perception of social arenas.   Owners need to fully investigate local training facilities to determine their methods in advance.  A well-versed owner can also provide their pet the same level of exposure and positive training methods, while not enrolling in a formal class.

It is so important for breeders to start the exposure process while the pups are still with them, from as early as 3 weeks of age.  Information on gentle exposure should be provided new owners, in order to help with important transition period.  Reducing stress of the move can also be achieved through the use of Adaptil collars in the first month in the new home, and by sending home an item with the familiar scent of the litter.

 

Dogs on the bed!

What better way to spend quality time with  your dog than to share your bed with them?  Dogs love comfort just as much as humans do and being close to their human is as good as it gets.  There has been significant research done surrounding the concept that sleeping in the bed causes aggression and the general conclusion is that it does not.  Most dogs will continue to be happily part of a family bed and it will not cause any issues.  BUT, while most dogs will not experience any issues, the problem lies in the ones that may have a tendency to what’s referred to as resource guarding.  This tendency often does not show up in the first year of life, but may become more apparent as the dog reaches a state of maturity around 18-24  months of age, when they are more likely to attempt to assert themselves.

Resource guarding is defined as an animal’s effort to prevent access to their highly valued items, including  beds, laps, bones and toys through aggressive displays.   This is the number one cause of aggression towards family members and may be demonstrated through growling, lip lifting, air snaps or actual contact.  The key point here is that sleeping on the bed does not cause the aggressive display, but simply provides one more high value element to protect, and one that will necessarily include contact with a family member.

So if sleeping on the bed doesn’t cause aggression, why be concerned about it?  Many dog owners may not recognize the slow increase in protective behaviour that happens as their dog matures, until it has reached the point of a full challenge.  This challenge may never in fact happen, but if it does the long term impact on the relationship is a negative one.  For this reason, I highly recommend that dogs not be allowed to sleep on a regular basis on the bed for the first year, although inviting them up for a cuddle is great and a good first experience to teach them that this is a privilege to be earned and enjoyed.

Teaching dogs to wait for an invitation onto the bed helps them understand clearly that they should look for direction from their human when accessing high value resources.  It will also be important that the dog is taught a consistent ‘off’ command, so that at any given time they understand that maybe they’ll be on their dog bed tonight.  By practicing the protocol of getting the dog off the bed with no issues, the likelihood that they will feel entitled to protect the space is greatly diminished.

The key take away here is that your dog sleeping on the bed with you is wonderful, but that rules of use need to be introduced early on and followed through on, so that the dog that may just have a tendency to guard doesn’t feel that it is even remotely an issue in this situation.