Small Dog Syndrome: Loving Tiny Dogs With Mighty Challenges

Help your dog get from mini mayhem to tiny and tranquil. Check out the reasons most dogs display small dog syndrome and some simple ways to return to calm.

Published October 23, 2023
two women cuddle a chihuahua

Have you ever been hanging out with friends or family who have a small dog and heard them casually drop “Oh yeah, she’s definitely got small dog syndrome?” It’s something I heard often during my 10+ years as a canine behaviorist. But looking at your tiny dog’s world from their point of view, and helping them feel more secure can go a long way in alleviating this “condition.”

What Is Small Dog Syndrome?

“Small dog syndrome” isn’t a medical condition. It’s not something that’s going to harm your pup physically. It’s a collection of behaviors that are less than desirable in your canine companion, and sometimes dangerous, often seen in smaller dogs. Does your small dog do any of the following? 

Declaring Bosshood

Despite their size, they strut around like they own the place, trying to control other dogs, big or small.

Barking Non-Stop

Oh boy, do they love to bark. Whether it's at other animals, the doorbell, or just a leaf falling outside, they've got something to say about it.

Protecting Their Person

These dogs can get pretty possessive and territorial, especially around their favorite human. That's their person and, if they think they're at risk, you're about to get an earful.

Aggressively on Defense

They might snap, lunge, or growl if they feel threatened, even if you don't perceive any threat.

Guarding Everything

These little guys can be fiercely protective of their toys, food, or space. 

Big Reactions to Small Issues

A slight push or touch from another dog or even just tripping when they're playing can lead to a full-blown barking/screaming/snapping episode.

Selective Hearing

Some dogs will act like you're invisible and won't follow any commands — at all. They can hear the food bowl, but anything you say? It's like talking to yourself.

Look At the World From Your Dog's POV

Portrait of little dog howling with mouth open

To understand the cause of small dog syndrome, put yourself in your tiny dog's shoes for a moment. Imagine being that small in a world so big! Think about how everything would appear from their perspective.


To us, their bold demeanor might seem like a big bold personality, but for them, it’s their way of navigating a world that feels much bigger than they are. They might appear fearless when confronting bigger dogs or towering humans, but deep down, they might feel overwhelmed. 

Fear and Insecurity

Think of it — how are they supposed to ward off predators being so small? I mean, their size doesn’t exactly scream “stay away, I'm dangerous” to potential threats. It's kind of more like "I'm tiny and defenseless."

Without a huge personality to back them up, they've got nothin'. That's why some little doggies pump up the volume on their personality — to show that they can be intimidating. 

It's Not Forever

If your dog is displaying these behaviors, don't worry. It doesn't have to be forever. Work with them to address the underlying issues and, given some time, they'll be all over those snuggles — they really can't resist them. It just might take a bit of patience before they feel completely at ease.

Quick Tip

Get down to their level — how does the world look to you? What do you see?

Helping Your Dog Feel At Ease: Prevention and Improvement

Dedicate some quality time with your little pooch to brush up on their manners. Then, after their renewed training, show them unknown places and expose them to unfamiliar sounds and smells. Show them the world again like they’ve never seen it before.

Create a Common Language

Many owners give small dogs a free pass on learning the basics. But many don't realize that basic training gives dogs a serious confidence boost. It builds the connection and language between you both. Making you happy is your dog’s primary mission and they’ll learn that following your lead does just that. 

Even if they're already champs at the basic commands, why not reinforce those skills? It doesn't hurt, right? Maybe you can also teach them a new trick or two to give them even more confidence.

Help Them Relate to Others

Socialization is important for pups with small dog syndrome. Think about it. If you were cooped up at home 24/7, how would your social skills be? I can tell you from experience, you get a little rusty. Then you get back into the world again and, after a while, you're back to being a social butterfly. Our dogs are the same way.

Brush off those dusty skills and get them back to being a part of the dog world. Consider buddying them up with other dogs of all sizes. It's kind of like you're teaching them how to make friends with dogs that aren't exactly like them, and then those dogs can teach them better skills.

Quick Tip

Helping your small dog learn the basics does more than teach commands — it creates a common language and helps your dog feel more secure.

Small Dog Syndrome and Aggression

Chihuahua dog

It's important to note the aggressive side of small dog syndrome. I've seen a lot of owners shrug off these behaviors as a small dog with a small bite.

But here's the catch: When we shrug off or even chuckle at these behaviors, we might accidentally be giving our pup a thumbs-up to keep going. And before we know it, these tiny tantrums could turn into full-blown episodes. It's not that they're being naughty on purpose. It's more like they're scared, trying to defend their turf, or maybe they just don't know they shouldn't act that way. Consider that these are signs your dog is scared, and you can do things to help them feel happier and safer in the world. 

Quick Tip

Train small dogs the same as you would big dogs — set clear expectations and practice regularly.

Learning Your Dog

It’s all about getting into your dog’s mind and understanding the world from their point of view. Imagine being a little dog in such a big, bustling world! Our job is to make them feel like they’ve got a haven with us. Addressing this whole small dog syndrome thing isn’t just a win for our pups, but it helps the entire household stay peaceful. By laying down some ground rules, dedicating some time for training now and then, and making sure we’re not accidentally giving thumbs up to those not grand behaviors, we can help our small dogs build a happy life.

Small Dog Syndrome: Loving Tiny Dogs With Mighty Challenges