Dog on the Couch

2016-01-07 06:00

Hi Susan,

A year ago I bought a Chihuahua, Toddles, which I expected to be an easy pet. During the festive season I had family and visitors who wanted to just cuddle Toddles and yet she responded viciously to their attentions. I am worried about this because she nearly bit my grandchild.

Thanks for any help.


The usual reason for aggression towards unknown people is fear, because the dog often sees them as intruders into his or her safe territory. This is particularly so for toy-sized dogs. Often people approach the tiny dog excitedly gushing in a high-pitched falsetto voice, “Ag shame – cute, cute.” Now see this from the dog’s perspective - the tiny creature is towered over by a proportionally gigantic and potentially threatening stranger, making effusive noises, with wide-eyed smile and gaping mouth baring teeth! One stamp of the foot could squash a 2.5kg dog.

Picture yourself as the diminutive creature confronted by the fearsome figure described, possibly about to pick you up to a height approximating a two-storey building, and you might justifiably be just as defensive.

The best way to alleviate Toddles’s fear when there are visitors around is to ask the friends to ignore the dog until she approaches them, much as one would do with a cat. The dog shouldn’t be made to feel trapped. If after a time the dog approaches gingerly and sniffs a proffered hand, try to observe its body language, and gently stroke her if this seems likely to be welcomed, guardedly if necessary. Visitors can indicate that they have no minatory intent by crouching down sideways to the dog and avoiding direct eye contact.

It is important to remember that although small dogs resemble cuddly toys, they also have a need for personal space which should not be violated. Their only means of protecting themselves when feeling threatened is to yap, snap or bite. The “attempt” to bite your grandchild was a warning. If Toddles had meant to bite through skin, she almost certainly has inherited enough muscular precision to control her bite to do so.

A missed bite is intended as a final warning. It is also important for dogs to have a safe passage to retreat to when feeling crowded, overwhelmed or threatened. Snarls, growls and snaps are known as distance-increasing signals which are the dog’s way of saying, “I don’t feel comfortable with this. Allow me my space.”

We all need our space and peace at times, and the request for such should be taken seriously. There is a point at which tension build-up is difficult to contain.

It is often thought that there is no need to train or socialise small dogs because they are considered to be of manageable size. This overlooks underlying needs and canine instincts that are not size-related. Genetically there is less than one percent difference between a Chihuahua and a German Shepherd.

According to The Family Tree of Dogs, the Chihuahua can be easily linked to Rottweilers, which are known as property guard dogs. Chihuahuas are part of the toy group and are closely related to Toy Pinchers, which are in turn linked to pinchers and then common guard dogs such as the Rottweiler. As a breed, Chihuahuas are known to be overly protective, so it is important to socialise these types of dogs as soon as possible. They are also intelligent and enjoy training, so allow them the opportunity to do things and make use of their faculties.

A study published in the Journal of Applied Animal Behaviour Science found the most aggressive breed was the Dachshund. One in five had either bitten or “attempted” to bite a stranger, and one in 12 had lashed out at their owners. The Chihuahua was in second place with the Jack Russell coming third. My opinion is that, as small dogs are prone to be more easily hurt than bigger dogs, they learn to protect themselves by behaving defensively.

With the Dachshund’s vulnerable long back, which is prone to spinal problems resulting in pain, perhaps to some extent the statistics reflected self-defensive-aggression.

Children often view pets as cuddly toys and approach suddenly in a clumsy manor. Fluffy tails and paws are fun to grab hold of.

Most children do not have an anatomical knowledge of the pet’s limbs’ range of motion. Consequently, injuries may be unintentionally inflicted. It is important that children and dogs are always supervised and that all rights are respected. - Susan Henderson© (accredited animal behaviour consultant) - in

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