I didn’t always consider myself a “dog person.” In fact, until a few years ago, if you’d asked me, I would have told you that cats were more my style. Self-sufficient, independent, stand-offish – these were qualities that I thought I admired in cats.
Three or so years ago, though, after much discussion, Elizabeth and I got our first dog, a Chihuahua named Cody. And it didn’t take long for me to become a full-blown dog person, and now I’ve taken to calling myself a small dog ambassador.
If you do consider yourself a dog person, then you probably have some preconceived notions about small breeds. “They’re really finicky; they bark a lot.” “They’re always poorly behaved.” “They’re less intelligent than other breeds.”
While all of these things can be true, they can be true of all dog breeds (and, like people, there’s a lot of variation between individual dogs even within a breed!), and chances are you simply haven’t had a chance to really interact with small breeds that much. Elizabeth and I have been blown away by the number of times we’ve had friends or family meet our dogs (both Chihuahuas) and say, “I never really liked small dogs, but your dogs are really awesome!” We are not some crazy-skilled dog whisperers or something. Rather, there are two fundamental things that we keep in mind when we’re relating to our dogs.
First, a small dog is still a dog. The biggest problem small dogs have is that they’re simply not treated like dogs, so they either get away with poor behavior because they’re small and it’s “cute,” or they’re treated like fashion accessories rather than animal companions. By treating small breeds like you would a larger breed – especially when they’re young – they wind up being much happier, and so will you.
How exactly should this manifest? Well, a simple example is jumping up on people. If you have a 6'5” mastiff, you’re probably going to educate him not to jump up on Aunt Martha – all five feet two inches of her – when she comes over for a visit. Likewise, you need to teach your three pound chihuahua the same thing. You might not mind the behavior as much, but you need to let them know that you determine what behavior is appropriate or not, that you’re in charge, and that they need to listen to you. All of these things require training, and larger breeds benefit from this training more naturally because we’re compelled to break them of bad behavior. Small breeds can get a free pass on some things – for example, ours are allowed on our bed, which many dog owners consider a big no no, and for a Great Dane it would be for us too – but they still need to learn the behavioral rules, and you must be vigilant in educating them. As usual, it’s easiest when they’re young, but you can still do it when they’re older.
The next thing that Elizabeth and I keep in mind is the specific role that our dogs play in our lives. Dogs have a rich history – breeds have been bred for specific roles over thousands of years. You’re probably familiar with some working breeds, such as the Australian Shepherd (bred for herding sheep and other livestock) or the Dachshund (bred for hunting small burrowing animals like badgers). But many breeds were bred for specific purposes, and you owe it to your animal and yourself to think about their breeding when interacting with them.
For example, do you know why Dalmatians are so closely associated with fire trucks? Well, they were used as “dogs of war” in ancient times, but more recently they were used to nip at the heels of horses drawing fire carriages and to clear crowds of people from the street to make a path for the carriage.
Now, they’re one of the most popular family breeds in the US, but you should be aware that their breeding still impacts the way they behave. They make excellent guard dogs because they are loyal (a trait most breeds share) but also very protective. If that is what you are looking for in a dog, then a Dalmatian might be a great fit for you. But you should be aware of the specific traits the breed has and know as much as you can about what to expect.
For my part, when we were looking at dogs we started looking at mid-sized breeds originally. We knew we wanted a breed that was relatively low energy because neither Elizabeth nor I have the energy to take a dog out for a six-mile run every day. We also knew that we needed a breed that would be comfortable in smaller dwellings like an apartment. We’re in a house now, but at the time we weren’t sure how long we’d end up in apartments. But the biggest thing we were looking for was companionship, especially for Elizabeth.
Believe it or not, I was the one who suggested Chihuahuas – on a whim – but as we researched them we realized they were a great fit. They can be high energy (our second dog, Charlie, can be pretty intense!), but their size means they can get suitable amounts of exercise even just running around the room a lot. They’re happy when they’re just hanging out with us – sitting on our lap, curled up next to our feet when we’re working at a desk, etc. They’re perfect companion dogs. Also, since Elizabeth suffers from chronic anxiety and some other mental health issues, the dogs are a dramatic help to her.
They’re incredibly accurate little alarms. When we hear a noise and the dogs don’t seem worried, we know it’s nothing to check out. We do get more false positives than we’d like – mostly from Charlie, who’s only a year old – but Cody in particular is incredibly good at discerning random scary noises from actual danger. How cool is that? For someone with a chronic anxiety problem, seeing a dog just chilling out when you’re freaked out about something is a big help.
Anyway, all of this is to say that I have a request of you this holiday season: you may be going to a friend’s house who has a small dog, or perhaps you’re braving the wintery winds to go visit Great Aunt Martha and her Terrible Terrier. If you find yourself in such a situation, I ask you to remember one simple thing: a small dog is a dog.
And should you find yourself in the Seattle area and you’d like to meet two sweet Chihuahuas who would love to educate you on why their breed is the best breed, drop me a line and let me know! We’d love to have you over so you can be properly introduced to the smaller side of canine companionship!
I’m going to be posting a bit more about the dogs in the coming weeks, because there’s some information I think people should know – especially about vaccines for small breeds and the importance of quality food. My apologies if you’re not a dog person (are you really that much of a curmudgeon?).