Imagine you have a close encounter with a dog.
It glares at you and growls. Despite the owner's attempts at restraining the dog, it lunges, barking and snapping. Before you are able to get out of reach, it bites you, hard.
What is your frame of mind at this point? Anger? Fear?
Now, imagine the dog is a 4-pound Chihuahua.
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Why is it that the above behavior coming from a tiny dog isn't taken seriously? We laugh at how cute the dog is, what an attitude she has, and we try to make friends by venturing out a hand to pet the tiny ball of fury.
We know better than to hang around a large dog displaying this behavior. We expect the owner of the larger dog to address the problem, use the proper training equipment or keep the dog away from people. But the tiny-dog owner holds the dog against her chest, adjusts her pink tutu and continues on, unfazed.
Aside from the obvious -- a bite from a larger dog might send you to the hospital, whereas a bite from a tiny dog might propel you to the medicine cabinet for a Band-Aid -- there are reasons to take the behavior of the tiny dog just as seriously as one would of a larger dog.
When a dog of any size displays this kind of behavior, she is communicating. Most often, this is fearful behavior. Dogs growl, stare down and even lunge and snap at things -- or people -- that make them uncomfortable. Leash corrections, punishing the dog or clutching her close do nothing to address the reason for the behavior.
Rather than addressing the reaction, it's best to treat the cause of the outburst. If the dog learns to trust people and enjoy the company of strangers, then the fearful behavior goes away.
Addressing this goes way beyond how the dog behaves around other people; it's a quality-of-life issue. It's obvious that the fearful dog doesn't enjoy the same quality of life that the confident, relaxed dog does. Friendly dogs get to accompany their owners to more places, enjoy more activities and benefit from the enrichment those new places and experiences provide.
The fearful dog often gets left at home, which is usually the only place she is relaxed and comfortable.
This is another reason why early and continuous people socialization is so important when dogs are just young puppies, of any size. Exposure to people at this impressionable age should always be positive, so the dog grows up to be relaxed, friendly and used to situations involving people in general, and strangers in particular.
If you have an older dog that was not properly socialized and becomes reactive around people, you can still modify that behavior. This is where a professional is needed, to guide you down the path of altering your dog's behavior and transforming your scared, reactive dog into a more relaxed, confident dog who is comfortable in public.
Lisa Moore's pet-behavior column appears once a month on the Weekly Pet Page. Write to her in care of LifeStyles, The Modesto Bee, P.O. Box 5256, Modesto 95352.