Little dogs are big again
By Sarah Casey Newman
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
Saturday, Sep. 16 2006
Being a lap dog today is not always as easy as it looks.
Thanks to Paris Hilton and other toy-dog-toting celebrities, pint-sized pooches
have become important fashion accessories. Decked out in frilly little skirts
and designer jackets, accented with the latest in barrettes, bows, berets and
assorted doggie bling, these portable pooches accompany their glamorous people
here, there and everywhere.
At one time, lap dogs were used to warm the laps and feet of Europe's rich and
fashionable. The Chinese also warmed up to the little lie-abouts. They
reportedly bred the Pekingese specifically to fit inside the sleeves of the
robes worn by members of the royal court.
Yet, no matter how hectic or laid-back its lifestyle, every little dog faces
big challenges, according to Darlene Arden, author of "Small Dogs, Big Hearts:
A Guide to Caring for Your Little Dog" (Howell, 240 pages, $19.99, softcover).
"Little dogs view the world from the area of your ankles," Arden said in a
phone interview from her home near Boston. "Everything looks gigantic to them.
And that affects them in a lot of ways."
Arden's book is "an updated, revised, expanded version" of "The Irrepressible
Toy Dog" (Howell), which Arden wrote when she saw the popularity of small dogs
starting to rise a decade ago. But even she didn't expect the downsizing of
dogs to become as big as it has.
In "Small Dogs, Big Hearts," Arden focuses on all dogs under 20 pounds,
regardless of their group classification or even their registry. She also
includes the mixes.
Big-dog people often consider small dogs "little mutants" or "barking bedroom
slippers," Arden says. "But if they'd live with one, they'd realize how wrong
they are. Little dogs are all dog. They just come in small packages."
Very special packages, in fact.
One of the things that makes them special is the way they bond with people,
Arden says. Little dogs bond differently from big dogs, and it's largely
because of their size.
"They're on your lap and in your face, so they have an up-close view of you.
And because they can be with you almost everywhere, even in places that larger
dogs aren't allowed, they're more constant companions than big dogs."
The behavior problems that have given small dogs reputations as "neurotic
little wimps" and "miniature terrorists" also relate to their small stature.
Little dogs need to be protected from big, bad dogs and rowdy and overzealous
children. "Children tend to swoop down on dogs and scream a lot. No dog
appreciates that, especially little dogs," Arden said.
She also believes that "little children should not be allowed to pick up little
dogs. Anything a child can pick up, a child can drop."
Small dogs also "need gentle, positive obedience training." A trainer as well
as an award-winning pet writer, Arden is "a firm believer in clicker training"
because, she said, it's easy, and it works.
"I believe in starting training on the floor with your dog, or someplace where
you can work at the dog's level," she said. "Bending over a dog is considered a
dominance stance," and to a small dog it may be perceived as threatening.
"Never pat a small dog on the head," she said. Imagine what it's like to see a
hand as big as you are coming toward you and landing on top of the head. "I
don't think even big dogs care much for that," she said.
One of the biggest problems with little dogs is that they're cute. This makes
them easy to love - and easy to spoil.
Unfortunately, what some people think of as spoiling their little dog is, in
fact, a failure to set limits, Arden says. Untrained dogs such as these either
don't know who's in charge or, worse, they think they are. And that can be a
big problem, says Arden, who points out that nipping and other aggressiveness
toward strangers is fairly common in toy dogs.
"Small dogs aren't as dangerous as big ones, so people often put up with
behaviors they'd never put up with in larger dogs," Arden says.
That's also why "housetraining is the No. 1 behavior problem associated with
small dogs. People don't take it seriously, because the dog is so small. If it
were an Irish wolfhound, it would be a whole different situation."
Biology plays a part, as well. "It can take a year or more to house-train a
small dog," Arden said. Little dogs tend to live longer than big dogs, so they
develop more slowly. "Some of the bichon breeds, including the bichon frise,
the Maltese, the Havanese and the coton de Tulear, may never be reliably
house-trained," she said.
Diminutive dogs also have different medical and dietary needs from their larger
"In general, across the board, virtually all small dogs have collapsing
tracheas, or windpipes, or they're predisposed to them. So if you try to train
them with a choke collar, you're going to collapse the trachea. And when it
collapses, it doesn't go back to the same shape. It keeps getting progressively
worse," she said.
That's one of the reasons positive, gentle, reward-based training methods, not
harsh, corrective techniques, are imperative for small dogs, Arden says.
Another general health problem in small dogs is the luxating patella, which is
the canine equivalent of a trick knee. "This is something that probably can be
bred away, but people need to get serious about it," Arden said.
That means that anyone planning to purchase a small purebred should do the
research, find out which health problems are specific to the breed and ask the
breeder what's being done to eliminate the problem from his or her breeding
program, Arden said. "If a breeder tells you his dogs have no health risks, I'd
be wary. No breed is free of potential health problems."
Yorkies, for example, are predisposed to pancreatitis, Arden said.
* Shih Tzus are "notorious for inherited kidney problems."
* Pugs come with any number of respiratory, eye and dental problems associated
with the brachycephalic, or flat-faced, breeds.
* Miniature dachshunds are prone to disc disorders.
* Cavalier King Charles spaniels can suffer from retinal dysplasia and a newly
recognized hereditary neurological problem called syringomyelia, or neck
* Chihuahuas can be born with cleft palates and harelips.
Although Arden includes profiles of 30 small breeds in her new book, teacup
varieties are not among them.
"There's no such thing," she said of these smallest of the small. "Teacup is a
marketing term. These dogs are anomalies that show up in litters from time to
time, but they should never be bred. Reputable breeders either keep them
themselves, because they're afraid they'll die, or they give them to someone
they know who is willing to take on the vet bills. Some may go on to live a
good full life; some don't. You never know. It's like having a premature baby
that stays that way," Arden said.
People looking for little dogs should "look for a dog that is bred for
soundness," Arden advises. They should also:
- Look for a breeder whose puppies are socialized and who won't release a dog
too early. "A responsible, ethical breeder will not let a small dog go before
it's 12 weeks old," she says.
- Look for a vet who is skilled at working with the little breeds.
- Look in their local shelter, where even purebreds can be found, and where
little mixed breeds are often just like the designer dogs some people pay big
bucks for - except that the pound pooches are older, are often housebroken and
cost a whole lot less.
"Small Dogs, Big Hearts" covers the big topic of little dogs from how to
determine which kind of petite pooch, if any, is perfect for your family to how
to bond with it, feed it, socialize it, train it, medicate it and, of course,
pamper it. It's available in bookstores, as well as from on-line booksellers.
Pint sized pup facts
Nearly 40 percent of the dogs in the U.S. today fall into the small-dog
category (under 25 pounds), according to the American Kennel Club. Based on AKC
registrations for 2005, the four small dogs on the Top 10 list nationally are
the Yorkshire terrier (third), the dachshund (sixth), the Shih Tzu (ninth) and
the miniature schnauzer (10th).
In St. Louis, Yorkies are still the favorite, at No. 5, followed by Shih Tzus
(seventh), pugs (ninth) and Chihuahuas (10th). That's not counting all the
little mixes - some of which are sold as expensive designer "breeds."