How Best to Train Small Dogs

Learn how to build your small dog’s confidence and lessen the chances that she’ll be nervous and barky.

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA
6-minute read
Episode #72

In fact, along with relative inconsistency, the amount of play was the biggest difference between guardians of small dogs and guardians of larger dogs. Why should play make such a difference? The researchers don’t say, but I have a guess. When you play with your dog, you become a source of fun and satisfaction. Your dog enjoys playing with you, which means he enjoys you. You’re worth hanging around with and paying attention to. And a dog who’s paying attention is a dog who’s easier to train.

Make Your Small Dog More Confident and Friendlier

So what’s your take-home?  It looks as if those of us who have small dogs tend to be a bit less consistent with them; maybe we unconsciously think rules and training don’t matter so much when a dog is little and cute. If that sounds like you, and if your little dog is nervous and snappish, you’ve got work to do. Professional help may be in order, but at the very least you can do your dog some good by making the rules of her world clear and predictable. There’s no call to be harsh, whatever size your dog is; train with rewards, but train consistently. And, as I seem to find myself saying over and over again, make time for play. Play is so tasty, and nutritious, too!

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1. Arhant, Christine, et al. 2010. Behaviour of smaller and larger dogs: Effects of training methods, inconsistency of owner behaviour and level of engagement in activities with the dog. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 123: 131-142. The researchers found that Vienna’s dog population fell naturally into two groups – those over 20 kilos, and those under 20 kilos. Most of us would probably consider a 19-kg dog medium sized, and I wish the researchers had divided the dogs into small, medium, and large instead. But since all the dogs we think of as small do fit into the researchers’ small-dog category, I think the study remains provocative and potentially useful. I hope further research takes place.

As I mention in the main text, the survey asked about many aspects of dog and human behavior. Besides what I describe above, the researchers also asked about what they called “reward-based responses to unwanted behavior,” such as distracting a dog with food or comforting her when she aggresses. I should make clear that they weren’t talking about reward-based programs of behavior modification. Time-outs and ignoring the dog are technically punishments, but for complex analytical reasons the researchers also included them.

Finally, the questions about training, play, and other activities covered everything from agility training, to games of fetch, to petting the dog, to taking her for long walks in the park. By the way, for us living in the germ-phobic United States: one example the researchers gave of a social activity was going out to a café with the dog. Oh, if only.

2. For example: Herron, M. E., et al. 2009. Survey of the use and outcome of confrontational and non-confrontational training methods in client-owned dogs showing undesired behaviors. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 117, 47-54; Hiby, Eleanor, et al. 2004. Dog training methods: their use, effectiveness and interaction with behaviour and welfare. Animal Welfare 13, 63-69; Blackwell, E. J., et al. 2007. The relationship between training methods and the occurrence of behaviour problems in a population of domestic dogs. Proceedings of the 6th International Veterinary Behaviour Meeting and European College of Veterinary Behavioural Medicine, Riccione, Italy, June 17-20.

Anouck Haverbeke and her colleagues have published several papers related to Belgian military dog training; the military had grown concerned about the dogs’ aggressive behavior outside the context of their work. The Haverbeke team reports on the favorable results of changes in training and socialization, with moves toward more reward-based, less aversive methods. Some of the papers are Haverbeke, A., et al. 2009. Assessing undesired aggression in military working dogs. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 117: 55-62; Haverbeke, A., et al. 2010. Efficiency of working dogs undergoing a new Human Familiarization and Training Program. Journal of Veterinary Behavior 5: 112-119; Haverbeke, A., et al. 2010. Assessing efficiency of a Human Familiarisation and Training Programme on fearfulness and aggressiveness of military dogs. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 123: 143-149.

3. Arhant and her colleagues cite research showing that in pigs as well as in dogs, inconsistent handling produces avoidance responses and reluctance to allow handling.

4. Casey, R. A., et al. 2007. An investigation of the relationship between measures of consistency in owners and the occurrence of “behaviour problems” in the domestic dog. Poster presentation. Proceedings of the 6th International Veterinary Behaviour Meeting and European College of Veterinary Behavioural Medicine, Riccione, Italy, June 17-20.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock


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).