Smol Dogs and Psych Problems: Feature, not Bug

From Psychology Today: Why do Small Dogs have so many Psychological Problems?

The results were striking. Various combinations of height, weight, and head shape were significantly related to 90% of the negative C-BARQ behavioral traits. Further, in nearly all cases, the smaller the dogs, the more problematic behaviors their owners reported. Here are some examples.

Height – Short breeds were more prone to beg for food, have serious attachment problems, be afraid of other dogs, roll in feces, be overly sensitive to touch, defecate and urinate when left alone, and be harder to train. They also were more inclined to hump people’s legs.

So what’s up with small dogs? Let’s run through the obvious factors first:

Culling: Behavioral and psychological problems obviously get bred out of large dogs more quickly. An anxious pug is cute; an anxious doberman is a problem. A chihuahua who snaps at children is manageable; a rottweiler who snaps at children gets put down.

Training: Since behavioral problems are more problematic in larger dogs, their owners (who chose them in the first place,) are stricter from the beginning about problematic behaviors. No one cares if a corgi begs at the dinner table; a St. Bernard who thinks he’s going to eat off your plate gets unmanageable fast.

Rational behaviors: Since small dogs are small, some of the behaviors listed in the article make sense. They pee indoors by accident more often because they have tiny bladders and just need to pee more often than large dogs (and they have to drink more often). They are more fearful because being smaller than everything around them actually is frightening.

Accident of Breeding: Breeding for one trait can cause other traits to appear by accident. For example, breeding for tameness causes changes to animals’ pelt colors, for reasons we don’t yet know. Breeding for small dogs simultaneously breeds for tiny brains, and dogs with tiny brains are stupider than dogs with bigger brains. Stupider dogs are harder to train and may just have more behavioral issues. They may also attempt behaviors (guarding, hunting, herding, etc) that are now very difficult for them due to their size.

Accident of training: people get small dogs and then stick them in doggy carriages, dress them in doggy clothes, and otherwise baby them, preventing them from being properly trained. No wonder such dogs are neurotic.

And finally, That’s not a Bug, it’s a Feature: Small dogs have issues because people want them to.

Small dogs are bred to be companions to people, usually women (often lonely, older women whose children have moved out of the house and don’t call as often as they should). As such, these dogs are bred to have amusing, human-like personalities–including psychological problems.

Lonely people desire dogs that will stay by them, and so favor anxious dogs. Energetic people favor hyperactive dogs. Anti-social people who don’t want to bond emotionally with others get a snake.

There’s an analogy here with other ways people meet their emotional/psychological needs, like Real Dolls and fake babies (aka “reborns”). The “reborn” doll community contains plenty of ordinary collectors and many grieving parents whose babies died or were stillborn and some older folks with Alzheimer’s, as well as some folks who clearly take it too far and enter the creepy territory

Both puppies and babydolls are, in their way, stand-ins for the real thing (children,) but dogs are also actually alive, so people don’t feel stupid taking care of dogs. Putting your dog in a stroller or dressing it up in a cute outfit might be a bit silly, but certainly much less silly than paying thousands of dollars to do the same thing to a doll.

And unlike dolls, dogs actually respond to our emotions and have real personalities. As John Katz argues, we now use dogs, in effect, for their emotional work:

In an increasingly fragmented and disconnected society, dogs are often treated not as pets, but as family members and human surrogates. The New Work of Dogs profiles a dozen such relationships in a New Jersey town, like the story of Harry, a Welsh corgi who provides sustaining emotional strength for a woman battling terminal breast cancer; Cherokee, companion of a man who has few friends and doesn’t know how to talk to his family; the Divorced Dogs Club, whose funny, acerbic, and sometimes angry women turn to their dogs to help them rebuild their lives; and Betty Jean, the frantic founder of a tiny rescue group that has saved five hundred dogs from abuse or abandonment in recent years.

Normally we’d call this “bonding,” “loving your dog,” or “having a friend,” but we moderns have to overthink everything and give it fussy labels like “emotional work.” We’re silly, but thankfully our dogs put up with us.

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