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Five Tips and Tricks for Training and Living With Your Small Breed Dog

Having a small dog has its perks. Their size makes them convenient to live with, cheaper to feed, and not to mention adorable! There are many reasons as to why someone would opt for bringing a small breed dog into their home, and they come in many variations of energy levels, personality types, and appearances. There are even several small breed variations that are purpose-bred to be working dogs or provide a service to humans! Unfortunately, sometimes smalls have an unfairly negative reputation in today’s society. Many people believe that behavior issues are inherently in their nature, they’re untrainable, and they aren’t able to do the same activities that larger dogs can. This couldn’t be further from the truth, and small dogs are actually just as trainable as any other! In this post, we’re going to cover some considerations, tips, and tricks to get the most out of living with and training your small breed dog.

Step One: Meet Their Needs!

Small dogs are convenient. Their supplies are smaller and easily stored, they generally cost less, and they’re a great size for living in more urban or confined spaces. However, it’s also very easy to equate the size of the dog to the level of daily commitment to meet their needs, which is not the case! Small dogs are still dogs, and we should make sure that even though they’re more easily controlled and easily forgotten about, they still need the same fulfillment opportunities as larger breeds.

Incorporating enrichment activities into your daily life with your dog is a great way to let them burn mental energy, express natural behavior, and reduce stress. This can be through many different avenues:

  • Food Enrichment: Kongs, lickimats, snuffle mats, treat dispensing toys, edible chews, etc.

  • Social Enrichment: This varies from dog to dog, but can include doggie play dates, playtime with their humans, meeting and socializing with new people, group walks or hikes, etc.

  • Training: Teaching new tricks, teaching manners and impulse control, dog sports, etc.

  • Sensory Enrichment: Going somewhere new, sniff-walks, nosework, listening to music, car rides, playing with toys, etc.

It’s important to make sure that your dog is still getting sufficient exercise and an appropriately balanced diet to stay healthy as well. When dogs are under-exercised, they can be prone to becoming bored, frustrated, and lethargic. These symptoms can be a recipe for health and behavior issues down the road, so it’s important to make sure that you’re getting your dog out for physical exercise daily through walks, play time, swimming, hiking, etc. If you’re not sure how much exercise your dog should be getting on a daily basis, talk with your veterinarian.

Step Two: How To Train With Food Rewards

Food is usually the easiest and most accessible reward to train with for most people. However, the smaller the size of your dog, the smaller the amount of calories you have to work with in a day before you start to over feed. Training small dogs with food rewards is very do-able, but it requires a little bit of thoughtful planning to do so and maintain your dog’s weight. When walking through the treat aisle at the pet store, look out for treats that are formulated to be low-calorie and used specifically for training, as these treats are typically made to be fed in larger amounts throughout a training session. You can also look for foods that are complete and balanced, so that if you need to skip a meal with your small dog after training with a lot of food throughout the day, they will still have eaten food that is nutritionally fulfilling. Lots of pet stores sell kibble toppers, freeze dried/air dried food, or refrigerated fresh food that is higher value for training than kibble, but still provides complete nutrition. Single-ingredient meats (like boiled chicken breast) can make good high-value rewards for small dogs as well, as they’re likely to be lower in calories than processed meats or cheeses. If you do need to use processed meats and cheeses, make sure to do so sparingly and account for those calories fed at your next mealtime.

You will need to also get in good practice with handling the smallest pieces of food that your fingers can physically hold. You can even take already-cut training treats and continue to cut them into quarters to get more repetitions of training per treat. It’s helpful to cut a bulk amount of food and treats into bite-sized pieces one day a week, then use that food throughout the week to train so you only have to spend time cutting and dicing training treats once.

Lick-able food can also be used with small breed dogs to control the amount of food they take in during a session. Invest in a few squeeze tubes, then fill them with soft food like peanut butter, cream cheese, pureed baby food, canned dog food, or anything else your dog finds valuable enough to work for. This way, when you reward your dog, you can control just how much food they’re taking in by only giving a very small squeeze, enough for just a small lick of food, per repetition.

When training with a lot of food throughout the day, it’s important to account for these calories at mealtimes. Be sure to cut back on the amount of food you normally feed when you’ve already been training with food earlier in the day.

Step Three: What to Focus On?

Small dogs can learn pretty much anything a larger breed can, so when considering what to work on or what you would like to achieve with your dog, you have tons of options! If you are wanting to put some consideration in ways to train and work with your small dog to help set them up for success in the world, here are some suggestions:

Confidence Building- If you are raising your dog from puppyhood, it’s very important to make sure that you heavily focus on socializing them while the window to do so is still open. There is a specific way to do this, and it’s important to differentiate between the facts and the myths. Check out our other blog post on Puppy Socialization 101 if you want to learn more! As an adult, you can still work with your dog to build up their confidence and help them feel safe in a world that is much bigger than they are. Using positive reinforcement methods and avoiding using corrections and punishment will help you set out on the right foot. We always want to be showing our dogs what we want them to do and rewarding them for it, over constantly correcting and punishing for the things we don’t want without giving them an alternative. Especially with small dogs that tend to be more prone to developing fearful or anxious tendencies, it’s important to avoid methods that damage their confidence and instead focus on building them up. Try to make your training about rewarding the wins!

Playing it Safe- Because of their size, you will need to be a little extra careful with your small dog when training out and about in the world. They are more vulnerable to being picked up by predators when out in nature, more easily susceptible to injury when asking them to do physically exerting tasks like jumping on and off of tall surfaces, or to being injured if in an altercation with a larger dog. It’s very important to still give your dog opportunities to go out in the world, but it’s also important to be vigilant and aware of any potential risks so that you can play it safe. Try using a long line over letting your dog off leash if you’re concerned about the wildlife in the surrounding area, avoid greetings (especially on-leash) with larger dogs that you don’t know, and being mindful of the risks of injury when your dog is physically exerting themselves or jumping on various surfaces of varying heights.

Cooperative Care- The world is very big, and our small dogs are very, well, small. That makes more invasive procedures like grooming, nail trims, dental care, and vet exams all the more stressful to a small dog. When a small breed dog reacts or becomes defensive during these handling procedures, it is a demonstration of fear and extreme stress, although sometimes people may mistakenly write this behavior off as “how they are” or their dog just being “dramatic.” In reality, your dog feels very real fear, and continuously being in these situations without helping them change their negative emotions can end up damaging your relationship and their confidence in the long run. Working on teaching your dog cooperative care routines can help them feel safer and more comfortable during these procedures, and will make your life easier in the long run. There are various methods of incorporating cooperative care into your dog’s grooming and medical care routine, the key is always that you are moving at a pace that the dog is comfortable with, even if this means starting out in very small increments.

Remember They’re Still Dogs!- Little dogs are just as capable of doing the same activities and training as a large breed dog. While energy levels, drive, and personality traits vary among breeds, all dogs no matter their size benefit from training to help them navigate our unfamiliar human world and have outlets to use mental and physical energy. They benefit from manners training, learning impulse control, being taught more appropriate alternative behaviors when problem behaviors arise, and how to feel comfortable in the world around things and scenarios that may be stressful. Anything that you think a larger breed dog should know to help them navigate our human world, a small breed should have the chance to learn too!

Step Four: Be Mindful of Your Body Language!

When just about everyone in the world around you is 10 times your size, it’s very easy to be quickly intimidated or stressed by scenarios that may otherwise be harmless. For that reason, it’s important to “put yourself in your dog’s shoes” when considering how you should behave around them. The ways in which humans communicate to each other tend to be a bit unnatural for dogs, so you should be mindful to learn their language and adjust your body language to accurately convey your intention to your small dog. Some things humans commonly do that dogs actually find to be pretty unpleasant are:

  • Direct eye contact/staring at a dog head-on

  • Standing and towering directly over a dog

  • Talking loudly or making sudden loud noises/unexpected movements

  • Reaching for a dog’s face or going to pet them directly over their head

Make sure that you soften your body language, respond to your dog’s communications to you, and are mindful of your volume/tone when speaking to and interacting with your small dog. They will be far more comfortable around and working with you when they don’t feel like you are trying to be threatening with your body language, whether you’re aware of it or not!

Step Five: Allow Your Small Dog to Say “No”

This concept sounds very easy on paper, but can be difficult to execute in practice. However, it is vital to having a healthy relationship with your small dog to respect their boundaries when they set them. A lot of “problem” behaviors with reactivity and aggression with small breed dogs stem from a chronic lack of respecting their boundaries and stress signals when they have had enough. Small dogs are frequently scooped up into the air, shoved out of their sleeping spot on the couch, not listened to when they are subtly communicating that they are becoming stressed, or have their space invaded by well-intentioned people trying to give snuggles and kisses. When they aren’t given a say for long enough, or their more subtle communications aren’t being readily picked up on, they will sometimes start to escalate to more extreme matters of getting their “leave me alone” message across like growling, lunging, and biting. To prevent your relationship with your small dog from deteriorating to this point, it’s first very important to brush up on your skills of how to read more subtle canine body language stress and discomfort cues. Some more common signals include:

  • Tight, scrunched up muzzle, lip licks

  • Whale eye (seeing the whites of a dog’s eyes)

  • Freezing, body going very still

  • Ears pulled back tightly

  • Tucked tail

  • Out-of-context yawning

  • Refusing to make eye contact/looking away from you

  • Panting when they have not had any recent physical exertion

If you see any or a combination of these signals in your dog, make note of what you’re doing, what’s going on around them, or what led up to this stress demonstration to try and figure out what made your dog uncomfortable so you can adjust in the future. It’s also important to interpret any demonstration of these cues as your dog’s way of saying “no thank you” in the best way that they know how. We don’t want to make them feel that the only way to be listened to is to scream, yell, and try to bite us. Try to pick up on their discomfort beforehand.

Some good ways to ask for consent from your small dogs can also include inviting them into your lap or onto the furniture rather than grabbing them and putting them there, and respecting if the answer is “not right now.” You can also teach your small dog a cue (like “Up!”) so that they are able to anticipate you picking them up rather than being surprised by it. From there they can either allow it to happen, or move away if they don’t want to be carried. As a rule of thumb in any interaction with your small dog, try your best to always allow them to initiate the interaction or come to you, as opposed to you going to them and forcing yourself onto them when they may not be in the mood to snuggle or be kissed in the face. The more often that you respect when your dog says “no thank you,” you’ll likely find the better your relationship and the more comfortable your small dog will feel interacting with you, because they know they have the option to opt out over feeling forced and like they have no way out. Adopting this mindset through life with your small dog will work wonders on your day to day interactions and overall relationship!

Small dogs can be amazing companions, loyal partners, and incredibly versatile whether you live an active or laid back lifestyle. They definitely don’t deserve the bad reputation they can get these days, and generally are incredibly under-rated. If you make sure to meet your small dog’s needs, work on building their confidence and training them with rewards-based methods, and learn how to communicate with them in a way they understand, you’re on the right track for having a wonderful small breed dog to share many aspects of your life with. They’ll be so quick to steal your heart!


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