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Small dog “Napoleon complex’ is just an excuse

Elle and Baby enjoying time together. Photo by Elle Williams.

By Elle Williams, CCPDT-KA  
Pet Columnist, Canyon Lake Insider  

Have you ever heard a small dog owner say “he’s got a Napoleon complex” as their little dog barks at a big dog? Maybe you’ve watched those virtual videos of chihuahuas who snarl and snap while the owner taunts the poor dog, laughing out loud because this tiny creature is acting so tough. Sure the dog knows it’s small, but that doesn’t make a dog pick fights with other dogs, lunge at people, or bark their heads off. 

It’s the fact that it’s so easy to overlook a small dog’s threats because of their size. If you had a large breed dog growling at you, it wouldn’t be so funny.

The sad truth is many small dog owners overlook “aggressive”, fear-based behaviors just because the dog’s bite doesn’t pack a punch. How selfish of us to brush off something that’s a clear indicator the dog is in distress. Sure a chihuahua’s bite can’t rip a limb off, but the fact it feels the need to growl, snap, or bite is a clear sign the dog is stressed and insecure. 

Prolonged periods of stress or frequent occurrence of stress can take years off a dog’s life. Stress contributes to a whole host of medical problems and a loss of memory function.

During a webinar I attended, Dr. Lore Haug explained how chronic stress affects cortisol levels, resulting in Hippocampal shrinkage. The Hippocampal in the brain is in charge of memory. This can make it hard for a chronically stressed dog to learn new behaviors that could make its life less stressful. It’s a vicious circle.

I know I’m starting off with the worst-case scenario, and for good reason. Less extreme behaviors that humans see as “well it’s because he’s a small dog” can easily get out of control if not corrected early on.

Take barking for example. Barking is completely normal until it comes from a place of unreasonable fear (remember, it’s our job to build our dog’s confidence and help them overcome fear). Maybe your small dog barks at strangers while on walks. It’s easy to overlook a dog who can’t drag you across the street to get to the stranger. But what’s going on inside the dog’s brain is a real fear.

Your dog doesn’t know that person isn’t going to harm them. In their mind, that person was going to defend their territory to the death. You might think, “Well, the person didn’t hurt the dog, wouldn’t they learn trust since nothing bad happened?” In the dog’s mind, its bark made that danger go away, so the next time a person walks by, it will bark again. That’s what the dog learned.

Even potty training gets overlooked. So often I have seen potty pads laid around the house because of convenience. The dog has small poops, why teach them to go outside, “that’s a lot of work.” Yes, potty training is a lot of work. Get ready for three weeks of shadowing the dog every second of the day, crating the dog, and waiting until it relieves itself outside so you can give it praise. That’s three weeks compared to a dog’s lifetime of laying out potty pads, picking up soiled pads, and having the smell linger in the house.

So what went wrong? A major contributor is a lack of boundaries and poor communication. All dogs need boundaries. Boundaries create a sense of security and you’ll have fewer behavior problems and a happier pup. When a dog is allowed to call the shots, that’s just what they are going to do. For example, small dogs often aren’t corrected for jumping all over people while big dogs are almost always corrected due to the fact they could seriously harm someone.

What happens when that little dog, who’s allowed to jump all over people, applies that same freedom when the person sits down to have a snack? The dog may jump on them, beg, stare and decide “I want that,” and growl. It may even decide to snap it out of the person’s hands. Imagine if a powerful breed tried that? 

Boundaries are most effective when they are taught alongside basic obedience. For example, when dogs have a good time learning to sit and stay you can apply those skills to boundaries by the front door. No more jumping all over guests when a dog is sitting and staying.

Boundaries should always be taught using positive reinforcement. Yelling and applying any sort of pain will harm your relationship with the dog. Worst of all, it will make the dog less likely to listen to you in the future. 

No matter if you have a big dog or a small dog, you still have a dog, man’s best friend, who’s deeply emotionally complex. Small dogs are intelligent companions who need just as much training, boundaries, and enrichment as large dogs. They may be little in size, but they are equal in their emotional needs. 

So it’s not the dog who has a Napoleon complex, it’s the human making an excuse for their own sake. Remember, there are no bad dogs, only uneducated owners. 

Elle Williams is a local in-home dog trainer and the owner of Give a Sit Dog Training. She is certified in dog psychology, nutrition, and grooming, and specializes in basic and advanced obedience, puppy prep, and behavior adjustment training.

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