Positive Reinforcement and Dog Training IV: Little Dogs vs Big Dogs

In this week’s edition of the series on positive reinforcement and dog training, I investigate whether small dogs are treated differently than large dogs.

By Zazie Todd, PhD

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People often wonder if little dogs behave differently because people let them get away with more due to their size, but is it true? The answer comes from a large-scale study by Christine Arhant and colleagues in Vienna.

Since Viennese dogs must be registered with the city, they posted a questionnaire to a random sample of registered dog-owners. They received 1276 responses from owners of pet dogs that lived in the home with them. For the purposes of this study, 20kg was the cut-off for small dogs; any dog that weighed more than 20kg was considered a large dog. The questionnaire asked about training techniques and dog behaviour, as well as characteristics of the dog. 
A cute girl dances with her dog; dog training research shows the importance of rewards and consistency
Photo: OLJ Studio/Shutterstock

One of the nice things about this study is the impressively large sample size. Whereas the previous studies separated out owners who used only positive reinforcement, this study instead looks at the frequency of positive reinforcement and punishment.  

There was a third category which the researchers called ‘reward-based responses to unwanted behaviour’ which included comforting, distracting, and time-outs.

About 80% of the owners used punishment, usually in the form of a leash jerk, scolding, or holding the dog’s muzzle. Slapping the dog, an alpha roll, or shaking a can to make an unpleasant noise were used less often. Nonetheless, around 10% of small dog owners and 13% of large dog owners used a scruff shake or alpha roll sometimes, often or very often. Reward-based training was very common, with 90% of owners using rewards often or very often. 

One great thing about this study is that they asked about consistency. Many of the owners admitted they were not consistent in their behaviour, with about one third of the owners saying they sometimes allowed their dog to do things that were supposedly forbidden. 

There were differences between small and large dogs. Owners of small dogs were significantly more inconsistent than owners of large dogs. Owners of large dogs engaged more often in training and play activities with their dogs. Small dogs were also taken for walks less often than large dogs. Smaller dogs were rated as more aggressive, more anxious and more fearful.


For both small and large dogs, a greater frequency of punishment was associated with more aggression and more exciteability. This relationship was stronger for small dogs. 

Although the study did not look at the use of only rewards in training, it did find that a higher frequency of rewards was linked to higher scores for obedience, and lower scores for aggression and anxiousness. Not surprisingly, inconsistency of the owner was linked to lower obedience scores.

This study shows that the owners of smaller dogs are less consistent in training, put less emphasis on training and engage in fewer activities with the dog, than the owners of large dogs. Also, smaller dogs are less obedient and more aggressive. It’s possible that small dogs are seen as more like a ‘baby’ and treated differently because they are cute. It’s also possible that small dogs react more badly to negative interactions; because of their size, they might find things threatening that would not trouble a larger dog.

With both small and large dogs, it seems that a greater use of rewards is linked to a more obedient dog, and higher frequency of punishment is linked to problems with aggression and excitability.

What size is your dog? Do you ever let them do something that they are not meant to?   

If you liked this post, check out my book Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy. Modern Dog magazine calls it "the must-have guide to improving your dog's life."

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Zazie Todd, PhD, is the award-winning author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy and Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy. She is the creator of the popular blog, Companion Animal Psychology, and also has a column at Psychology Today. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband, one dog, and two cats. 

Arhant, C., Bubna-Littitz, H., Bartels, A., Futschik, A., and Troxler, J. (2010). Behaviour of smaller and larger dogs: effects of training methods, inconsistency of owner behaviour and level of engagement in activities with the dog. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 123(3-4), 131-142. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2010.01.003

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