The things many little dogs endure. People behaving rudely towards them. Body language and stress signals ignored as they are passed around like novelties to visitors. They are toted around like an accessory. Forced to wear clothes that may be uncomfortable.They are teased to make them growl as people think aggressive responses from little dogs are funny. Eventually the little ones start to react even before anything is done. Finally, they are labeled “Ankle Biters.”

Mrs. Jones loved luxurious things. She saw pictures of small, elegant dogs and felt one would complete her image.  This was the extent of canine research she did: what style of dog she thought would best compliment her appearance and her museum quality home. After going through, and getting rid of, several dogs who were not what she wanted, Mrs. Jones obtained a Yorkshire Terrier.

Annabelle was expected to lie quietly on cushions. Barking was forbidden. She was carried around like a toy. Annabelle was not allowed to play or get dirty. When she tried to hunt crickets and grasshoppers in the yard, Annabelle was punished. She was expected to tolerate Mrs. Jones’s nieces dressing her up and pushing her around in a stroller. Then the constant being hauled up and loads of kisses and silliness as Mrs. Jones got in her face.  Annabelle was not allowed to be what she was at all and that was a dog. Annabelle started to respond. I was called to “fix” the horrid little dog.

Look at life through the eyes of a little dog. When you are tiny, the world can be a big, scary place.  Lie on the floor with your head at the same height as your dog. Have people walk around you. Have people rush into your face as if they were trying to pick you up.  Now, think about what it is like to be disturbed while you are sleeping, dressed up, treated like a stuffed animal, poked and teased to get a reaction. Behavior is a response.  How would you respond? Annabelle responded by becoming an Ankle Biter.

It is important we work to reduce the chance of Ankle Biter Syndrome. Understand that no matter how small and cute, behaviorally these are dogs.  Research the history of the type of small dog you are considering. This means understanding what the breed was designed to do. In Annabelle’s case, Yorkshire Terriers were originally bred to eradicate vermin from farms and mines. They were working terriers. Take the time for appropriate socializing. Insist all those interacting with your dog treat her with respect. Be a mindful, thoughtful owner.

After weeks of working with Mrs. Jones and Annabelle, Mrs. Jones decided Annabelle would never be what she wanted. Mrs. Jones acquired yet another small dog to focus her attention on. Annabelle was relegated to the garage. I asked Mrs. Jones if she would like me to help place Annabelle. A week later, I acted as an agent for a breed rescue and Annabelle was surrendered. The days she was with us before transporting to her foster home, Annabelle got to be a dog.  She interacted with respectful children and played with our dogs. She relaxed. Annabelle was really a great little dog.

Though occasionally we do get dogs with a predisposition to concerning behaviors, the majority of Ankle Biting behavior is a response to what is happening to the dog. When we bring in a little dog, it is our duty to be respectful.  We need to do what we can to reduce the chance of Ankle Biter Syndrome beginning. 

Karen Peak is the developer of The Safe Kids/Safe Dogs Project and owner/operator of West Wind Dog Training in Prince William County.

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