Why Do Some Small Dogs Have “Napoleon Syndrome”?

You know the type. The little dog that growls and barks and acts more Rottweiler than Yorkie. You laugh and say that the dog has “Napoleon syndrome” or “small dog syndrome.” But what causes small dog syndrome? Is it a laughing matter or a true concern? What should you do about it? Here’s everything you never knew about Napoleon syndrome in small breed dogs.

When a spunky personality becomes a “syndrome”

Small dogs are loved for their big personalities, but sometimes those big personalities can be a big problem. It may seem cute when a small dog growls or barks, but aggression in any dog is unacceptable.

If your neighbor had a 100-pound German Shepherd that growled, barked, and lunged at every unfamiliar dog it passed on a walk, or jumped on you in excitement whenever you came to visit, you might avoid that dog and even report that neighbor to the police. Just because a dog is small, that doesn’t make their behavior cute or acceptable.

Even though a bite from a Chihuahua probably won’t kill you, it can certainly become infected and leave a scar. And while it’s hard to pin down data on non-fatal dog bites, Chihuahuas and Dachshunds tend to top lists of dog breeds prone to biting.

According to the Center For Disease Control (CDC), approximately 4.5 million dog bites occur in the United States every year, and 900,000 of those bites become infected. There’s no way to know how many of those bites were caused by animals with small dog syndrome, but it should still concern you if you have a small dog with the tendency to growl, snap, or bite when he’s uncomfortable.

How do you know if your dog has small dog syndrome?

According to Animal Planet:

“There’s a big distinction between a typically spunky small dog and a dog with small dog syndrome. Symptoms of the syndrome include not following instructions, becoming territorial over areas of the house, toys, food or people, and even biting. A small dog with spunk is ready to play when your grandchild crawls into your lap alongside him. A little guy with small dog syndrome will probably growl menacingly and may even try to bite.”

The biggest cause of small dog syndrome? Not treating small dogs seriously. When owners let their small dogs get away with behavior that would never be tolerated from a larger dog, the small dog comes to believe that it is the leader of the pack. If they aren’t getting direction from you, they will take charge of the situation themselves and feel compelled to protect themselves by any means necessary, since they may not see you as being strong enough to defend them. Canidae clarifies:

“Small dog syndrome is when a small dog decides they are taking the lead role in a household. This might include jumping up on you or your guests, not obeying commands, marking territory inside and outside, barking constantly, chewing, and any other bad dog behavior they can get away with. And this is where the problem of small dog syndrome originates – whatever they can get away with, which is usually a lot. Small dogs compensate for their size by acting big and tough when they feel intimidated, nervous, upset, threatened or afraid.”

What should you do?

The first thing you need to do is to treat your dog like a dog and impose the same rules on him as you would a large dog. That means no jumping on you, no growling, and certainly no biting allowed. Your dog should be trained to obey basic commands like “sit” and “stay” and should understand that you are the boss, not them. Don’t give in to begging. It’s okay to spoil your dog, but you need to do it in a way that shows you are the one in control and they are getting rewarded for doing something right, and not just for being cute.

You may need to enlist the help of a professional dog trainer to help rehabilitate your dog. That may seem extreme, but what if your cute little “ankle-biter” actually bites somebody? Perhaps a child who stuck their face too close to your nervous dog. The safety of your family may be more at risk than you realize.

Can small dog syndrome be prevented?

Bite inhibition and socialization must be taught before a puppy reaches 12 weeks of age. If they aren’t taught by then that biting is unacceptable, they will always see biting as an option. Animal Planet adds:

“The same goes for other naturally dog-like behaviors, such as leash aggression, territorial behaviors, and dominance and possessiveness of areas, objects and people. If these behaviors aren’t addressed early on in life, they may persist throughout adulthood. Your small dog could turn out to be a frustrated handful.”

(H/T: Animal Planet, Canidae, Perfect Manners Dog Training)