Kids & Pets
July 12, 2020
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Small dog syndrome: When predators are also prey

By: Brooke Wrisley
August 31, 2018

While Mickey is away on vacation Animal Shelter Assistant Brooke Wrisley will be covering the pet column.

How often do you hear the term “ankle-biter” when referring to a small dog? How about any of these classics when referencing a little dog’s seemingly feisty disposition: “small dog syndrome,” “little man syndrome,” or “Napoleon complex”? Am I missing any? We have a lot of creative ways to refer to the unique liveliness which often comes standard with the smaller of our canine companions; from Chihuahuas to Shih Tzu’s we understand there is something about being small that just encourages a big attitude, but how many of us really understand the reasoning behind this “little dog/big ‘tude” phenomenon? Even for savvy dog owners, the truth may surprise you.

Most of us think of dogs as predators; at the very least we acknowledge that they are the meat-eating descendants of wolves and much of our care methods, from training to nutrition, are rightfully constructed with this in mind. However, it is also not so difficult to look at a Dachshund or a Yorkie and see that they are very different from wolves in many respects that we must not ignore – namely: size. Small dogs have a very unique place in the canine world and they know it – and they’ll usually tell you all about it, too! Whether the dog is boisterous, shy, fearful, confident, or some combination thereof, a little dog’s mentality exists in a very particular overlap of predator instincts gained from their wolf ancestry and prey instincts developed overtime as a result of being smaller and therefore more vulnerable. We must not forget that while we breed teacup and miniature sized dogs oftentimes for companionship alone, these dogs experience the world from an angle which so often casts us humans of all ages as loud, looming giants.

So what does this mean for small dog owners and tiny dog enthusiasts? As with most animal interactions, it is all about empathy and learning each dog’s individual language. Not so long ago I assisted in rescuing a Chinese Crested/Chihuahua mix who had been abandoned at a horse ranch and was living feral for close to a month before we were able to capture her. As a result, her survival instincts were that much closer to the surface than might have been the case for a dog who had always lived in a home. I noticed right away the difference in her attitude as a little dog who had relied on her predator-as-prey instincts to survive; most notably I can recall her ducking between patches of tall grass whenever she was in an open field and I realized suddenly and with no small amount of shock that she knew she was “hawk bait” and was protecting herself. Never before had I thought of a dog, what’s supposed to be this wolf-descendant predator, as a prey animal who would need to think like they might become someone’s dinner if they are not careful.

What may look like bossiness or fear-aggression to us is also likely to be a survival response, asserting their right to exist. Alternatively, what looks like a kind hand from us may, for a little guy, feel like a predator coming to swoop down upon them! While these prey instincts may be particularly highlighted in rescue cases, or cases wherein a dog has had to rely on them to survive, we must understand that these instincts exist within all dogs under a certain size. Taking the time to reassess the way we treat our tiniest companions will only bring us all closer together. Take that, Napoleon!


Upcoming Events:

“Get them back home” campaign – Every lost pet should have a way to get back home. FREE pet ID tag and a back-up microchip are available to all residents of Rohnert Park and Cotati. No appointment necessary, just come by the shelter during our regular open hours: Wed. 1-6:30 p.m., Thur.-Fri.-Sat. 1-5:30 p.m. and Sun. 1-4:30 p.m.

Fix-it Clinics – Free spay and neuters for cats; and $60 dog surgeries (up to 80 lbs.) for low-income Rohnert Park and Cotati residents. Call 588-3531 for an appointment. 


Mickey Zeldes is the supervisor at the Rohnert Park Animal Shelter. She can be contacted at