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Are Small Dogs Harder to Train than Big Dogs?

Are small dogs harder to train than big dogs?

I’m a professional dog walker and pet sitter with 8+ years of experience in the pet service industry. As such, I’m surrounded by dogs of different breeds and sizes on an almost daily basis. From Chihuahuas to mastiffs, I’ve seen them all!

One thing that has stuck out over the years is that smaller dogs are (usually) less trained. And as a result, small dogs tend to be more obnoxious than medium and large dogs, in my opinion.

So today, I offer advice on how to train small dogs and I’m also looking into possible reasons for this discrepancy.

I mean, are small dogs truly less trainable or is this just a stereotype? If you have a small dog, please speak up in the comments! I want to hear from you! And of course, we all know plenty of big dogs that are obnoxious and not well trained.

More than likely, smaller dogs simply get away with more mischievous behavior because it’s manageable, given their size. Do we expect different behaviors from small dogs vs large dogs? I think, generally, we do. Let me know what you think!

Are small dogs harder to train?

Training a small dog vs a large dog

Are you ready to take a peek behind the scenes with me as a dog walker? For starters, I can tell you that out of the 200+ dogs I’ve worked with over the years, about 1/3 are small dogs. Of those, only about 10% are well behaved. These 10% are the ones who live in homes with fairly well-behaved larger dogs.

Now, let’s take a look at the different behaviors I’ve most commonly experienced in small vs large dogs.

Behaviors in small dogs vs large dogs:

Common behaviors in small dogsCommon behaviors in large dogs
  • Pull and zig zag on walks. Commonly walked on retractable leashes. Training tools are never used.
  • Pull less and are usually expected to walk on one side only. If they pull, they’re walked using a tool that prevents strong pulling (training collar, head collar, no pull harness).
  • Jump on people. The behavior is usually encouraged and considered cute. 
  • Demand bark for food, treats, and attention.
  • Demand barking is not very common. If it occurs, it’s not rewarded. Food and treats typically have to be earned by performing a certain trick or behavior.
  • Poor behavior at feeding time, including snarling.
  • Feeding time is more structured. Many dogs are asked to sit before they’re allowed to eat.
  • Play on and guard furniture by growling.
  • Crated if not allowed on furniture. Guarding isn’t allowed.
  • Nip people. Sometimes considered cute as it’s seen as trying to protect their owner/handler. 
  • Nipping or biting is strongly discouraged and not common at all. 

Small adorable but unruly small dogs on a couch vs calm German shepherds on a couch.

Are big dogs easier to train?

Small dog pulling on a leash vs a well-behaved larger dog on a walk.

Are small dogs harder to train than big dogs? (Not likely!)

Judging from these behaviors, it’s easy to assume that small dogs are harder if not impossible to train than larger dogs. But what’s important to understand is that all dog training starts with us humans wanting to train our dogs.

After all, dogs come into this world essentially as a blank canvas waiting for our human input to show them what we expect of them.

And now we’re touching on one of the root causes of untrained small dogs, which is that people expect different behaviors from different dogs. I’m generalizing here, but folks typically want their small dog to be a lapdog, and their large dog to be a perfectly well-behaved pet guard dog. 

Consequently, lapdogs don’t get any obedience training. That’s exactly why they typically don’t have any boundaries and run their homes.

Now, there are small-dog owners who find some of their pups’ excessive tendencies annoying. But, they put up with it because they don’t think the behavior can be stopped.

At the same time, they also don’t go out of their way to find a solution because the problem behavior is more manageable with a smaller dog. A small dog can’t do as much damage, right?

But it’s important to understand that training standards for small dogs are actually similar to those of large dogs. That’s because both belong to the same species, have four legs and two ears and enjoy pleasing their humans, regardless of size.

Yes, you guessed it, I’m alluding to the fact that all dogs can be trained and that it’s not harder to train small dogs! 

What does the research say, are small dogs harder to train? We’d love to hear any research you have found. We found the article below that says smaller dogs are less likely to be trained, but it’s not because they are harder to train. It’s because people are less likely to train them!

Article from Psychology Today.

Small dogs can be trained just like large dogs

It can take some getting used to the concept that your small dog can be trained just like a large dog. To help you with this, you can trick your brain a little.

Here’s what you can do: Just pretend your 10 lb pup is a 60 lb Labrador, or better yet how about a 100 lb Mastiff?

You don’t want him to jump on your guests and pull your arms out of your sockets while out on a walk, right? You also won’t pick him up and carry him around in your arms when he starts barking.

What it comes down to is that you don’t want to allow any behavior in your small dog that you wouldn’t accept in a large dog. 

Next, make a list of behaviors and goals you would want your large dog to exhibit, then transfer them onto your small dog.

The first few items on your list might consist of obedience commands like “sit,” “down,” “stay,” and “come.” Next up could be polite greeting of people who come to your home, no jumping or leg humping, and polite leash manners. 

This little guy below is Normie, a Shih-Tzu who’s half blind but still happy to perform a sit pretty trick in exchange for a treat!

Normie lives with his big German shorthaired brother Tab, which is a reason why he’s a well-behaved little fellow. Their owner has the same training standards for both dogs. The dogs are stretching in sync in the picture below.

Are small dogs harder to train

   Now let’s take a look at how to check the training items off your list!

Resources for training a small dog:

  1. First of all, pick up a dog training book or ebook like Lindsay’s 50 Dog Training Tips – Your Training Problems Solved Now. She provides tons of down-to-earth dog training tips and guidance on your journey to a well-behaved dog. Use code MP20Mutt for 20% off.
  2. Additionally, sign up for a basic obedience class at a local dog training facility. The benefits of taking a class are the socialization aspect, instructions and supervision from a professional dog trainer, and the financial commitment you make. It’ll keep you motivated towards your goal of finishing the class and keeping up with your weekly homework training assignments. 
  3. Basic dog training tools are another good investment. Tools that come to mind are training treats, a treat bag, a non-retractable, 4-6 foot standard leash, and potentially a crate if you wish to crate-train your pup. 

Why dog training tools are helpful

Simply put, dog training tools make your life easier!

A treat bag is so much more convenient than digging into your pockets for treats. It holds your high-value treats like cut up chicken or hot dog, or anything fishy or smelly like green tripe treats. The smellier, the better because your dog will want to get to that smelly goodness!

Just make sure to hand out TINY food rewards because small dogs fill up fast. You also don’t want them spending too much time eating the treat. Get Mighty Paw’s treat bag HERE.

The only time I recommend a retractable leash is for recall training purposes, meaning when you teach your dog to come when called. For other activities like walks, hikes, and trips to the vet, groomer, or pet-friendly stores, I recommend using a standard leash that won’t get you or your dog tangled or hurt. 

The reason why I’m suggesting these approaches is because they’re exactly what I did when I first started learning about dog training.

I bought several dog training books, armed myself with above listed dog training tools, AND signed up for a basic obedience class. My boxer-mix pups turned out to be very well-behaved, so it was money well spent!

Reasons to train your small dog

Much like training standards, the benefits of training small dogs are the same as those of training large dogs:

  • Polite behavior. This is the most obvious benefit. Everyone appreciates a well-behaved dog, regardless of size. 
  • Bonding. Spend quality training time with your dog and you’ll create a stronger relationship with him as he looks to you for direction and guidance. You’ll be able to effectively communicate with your pup!
  • Mental exercise. Your dog exercises his brain when he concentrates on figuring out what you’re asking of him. This contributes to a more balanced state of mind and allowing him to relax calmly. Dogs who aren’t asked to exercise their brain are more imbalanced and have pent-up energy as a result. 
  • Safety. You can literally save your dog’s life with a solid recall and the ability to sit or lie down on command. For example, it can keep him from running into a busy street or picking a fight with the neighbor’s dog.

Now we’d like to hear from you!

Now that I’ve shared my thoughts on why a lapdog can be a well-behaved lapdog, we’d like to hear from you!

Have you successfully trained a small dog? Also, please ask us any questions you might have in the comment section!

But first, let’s do a quick recap:

  • All dogs benefit from obedience training, regardless of size. 
  • Small dogs can and want to be trained, just like big dogs.
  • Dog training is easier with the right support system.
  • Use books, dog training classes and tools in your favor.
  • Trick your brain into thinking of your small dog as a big one.

Happy training!

Barbara Rivers writes regularly for That Mutt. She is certified in raw dog food nutrition from Dogs Naturally Magazine and the author of three ebooks about balanced raw dog food. She is a blogger at K9s Over Coffee.

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Wednesday 15th of April 2020

I have a small dog (poodle, shih tzu, maltese mix) from a shelter that is very well trained (thanks to me!) and highly intelligent. I had no idea so many people assumed smaller dogs were untrainable or less intelligent than larger dogs. I think the issue is that, yes, many small dog owners let their dogs get away with certain behaviors, but also that there is this weird stigma attached to smaller dogs. I don't think small dogs should be viewed as less intelligent simply because of the failings of dog owners themselves. My dog is trick titled, knows advanced obedience, walks great on the leash, and is working his way up in agility. He isn't "special" because of this in comparison to other small dogs. It just means his owner put in the work and because of the bond I've built with him it hasn't been any more difficult than training a larger dog. Just means I have to bend down a bit more or use a variation of training tools to remedy the height difference. I wish more people could see how versatile, smart, and fun small dogs are!

Lindsay Stordahl

Wednesday 15th of April 2020

Aww, what a lucky dog!


Thursday 5th of March 2020

Reading at the comment gives me an idea wither I choose small or big dogs to be my pet, thanks for your blog.


Sunday 1st of March 2020

I have thought about this a lot myself as it happens. Personally, I do think that its easier to train a larger dog. I have a few reasons for this. Firstly, if you search for the most intelligent dog breeds, you will find that the top 10 are all larger dogs. With the exception of the Papillon breed that is, which are not tiny like a Chihuahua, just a bit on the smaller side. Secondly, if you take notice of all the dogs used for police work, service dogs and hunting dogs, you can see that they are all medium to large dogs. I also have read somewhere that bigger dogs are naturally more intelligent. I think it was at this site here which is actually about the age of dogs, but I'm sure there's a section in there that talks about dogs intelligence in correlation with their size.


Monday 17th of February 2020

Thankfully my border terrier doesn't do 99% of the behaviours from your list (However, I will put my hands up, she does jump on people...and does get away with it!). I had my border terrier first and always took training very seriously. She actually made a cameo in Lindsays post about dog back-packs :) My second dog was a border collie. The fact she was a collie, she was immediately easier to train . Both pulled so I have always used training tools for my two (no pull harness for the terrier and head collar for the collie). My collie was always more focused on me and more willing to learn than the terrier anyway. This is a breed thing and not a size thing mind you.

The only thing I found different in training my two dogs was that on walks, it was harder to train the terrier. As Lindsay said above, the terrier is much lower to the ground so when I was treating her for good behaviour, I couldn't always get there on time to treat the correct behaviour. Teaching her to heel was hard because I had to bend right over to use any sort of hand signals. The terrier used to be very leash reactive. Body blocking was a lot harder to do with the smaller dog as she was able to go in between my legs and around them etc. Body blocking the bigger one was easier as her head was at my waist so easier to block. All training is still doable but certain aspects is easier with a big dog.

I don't believe that being a small dog is an excuse for an obnoxious dog! :)

Lindsay Stordahl

Monday 17th of February 2020

So interesting! Yes, that's exactly what I meant with smaller dogs being shorter to the ground!


Friday 14th of February 2020

I found that the small dog I had as a child was not as easily taught new skills as the large dog I have as an adult (I trained them both), but the confounding factor is likely that the small dog was a breed near the bottom of the list for intelligence, while my large breed dog (GSD) is near the top. It wasn’t for lack of effort on the part of my small dog. She wanted to learn but most things didn’t stick. My GSD usually picks up new things in 2-5 reps.

In the sense that my small dog understood boundaries pretty well and didn’t exhibit any problem behaviors, she was easy. My large dog pushed more as a puppy. Both were/are very nice dogs, but the training challenges were different. I spent more time on structure with my GSD and less on teaching skills because she picks things up so quickly. The small dog really didn’t need much in terms of teaching boundaries or manners, but the only two skills she ever really got down were “sit” and “beg.” Everything else was iffy her entire life even though I practiced with the dedication that only a dog-obsessed ten year old who secretly wanted a herding breed instead can muster.

Lindsay Stordahl

Friday 14th of February 2020

They are all so different.

One thing not mentioned in the article is that small dogs are just lower to the ground and, in my case anyway, I have a harder time communicating with them. Like, a big dog's nose is just right there near my hand and I can easily lure with a treat for things like heel, sit, etc. With a small dog, I'm not able to do that as easily.