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How to Care for Small Dog Breeds

Born and raised in the Scottish Highlands, I have a keen interest in my local history and culture.

Everything you need to know about small dog breeds

Everything you need to know about small dog breeds

Small Dog Breeds

Small dogs are those breeds which typically would have a height of fewer than 18 inches or weigh less than 20lbs.

A lot of these dogs look like cute little teddy bears, but you have to remember that they are living, breathing creatures with (often very strong) personalities who require a high standard of care if they are to thrive in your home.

In this category, among other breeds, you'll find:

  • West Highland Terriers,
  • Yorkshire Terriers,
  • Jack Russell Terriers,
  • Shih Tzu,
  • Pomeranians, and
  • Bichon Frise.


Choosing the Right Small Dog Breed

Not all dogs are created equal, and some breeds will be more suitable for your household than others. The first thing you should do once you've identified the breeds you like is to carry out a little research on their care needs, temperament and likely health issues.

Don't be scared off by potential health problems—you will find long lists of ailments which can befall particular breeds, but your dog may never suffer from any of them. Use them as a guide to what could happen in the future. Provided you are financially and emotionally capable of dealing with illness, you will be fine. If you can purchase pet insurance, do so at an early stage.

When you are certain that you want to go ahead and buy a small dog, check out breeders in your area. The American Kennel Club has a wealth of information about different breeds and lists sources for finding a reputable breeder. The Kennel Club in the UK is also a great source of information, and it even has an interactive tool to help you choose the right breed of dog based on characteristics.

Shih Tzu/Poodle cross

Shih Tzu/Poodle cross

Small Dog Training

Don't let the big brown eyes fool you! Behind those pretty faces lie active minds and manipulative streaks. Despite their size, small dogs will be quick to take advantage of a weak owner and assume control of the household. A well-trained dog that understands the rules of the house will be happier in the long run. It is important to be consistent in training. It is no use to let a dog get away with murder most of the time and then suddenly yell at it when your patience has worn thin—a dog will not understand this.

You don't have to teach your small dog a lot of different tricks, but they should at least be able to do the following on command: sit, stay, leave it, come, heel. It's important to socialise your dog which means bringing them into contact with people and other dogs at an early stage. You should also train them to walk on a leash. Even small dogs should walk on their own—they don't need to be carried everywhere!

Potty Training

Another element of training that you will want to start work on immediately is house training. This requires patience, and yelling at your dog if she accidentally soils your favorite rug will not speed up the process. If you catch your dog in the act, you can tell them off for it, but if you aren't there when the dog soils where it shouldn't, there is no point in scolding them for it as they won't associate your harsh words with the act.

Consistency is key, and a good tip is to buy puppy pads for use in the house and get the dog trained to use these. Then, if you need to leave the dog alone, it will have an established 'bathroom' to use.

Positive reinforcement will go a long way with a small dog. Let them know when you're pleased with what they have done by giving a favorite treat or lots of praise and they will soon begin to understand how to follow your rules and fit in with the household.

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Feeding a Small Dog

Again, don't be fooled by their size. Even small dogs will eat anything and everything they can get their paws on, and it's important that you choose the correct food for them and keep foods that can be harmful to your dog away from them.

Early on, you should establish a feeding schedule for your dog that fits your daily routine and the needs of your pet. When you buy or adopt your dog, ask about their feeding schedule and, if possible, stick with that. Two-three small meals a day are generally recommended. Feeding only once can cause problems for your dog's digestive system.

Choosing the Right Dog Food

There are many types of dog food on the market, and you will need to find the right one for your pet. While some dogs eat only dried food, others have a combination of dry with a little meaty food added. There are great organic products available if you prefer this. It is important to get the right nutritional balance for your small dog and to ensure they maintain their correct weight.

There are also many ingredients in dog foods which can cause upset if your little companion suffers from allergies. Your vet will be the best source of advice about providing the best nutrition for your dog. Occasional treats are fine, but don't overdo these.

It is also vital that your dog has easy access to fresh, clean water at all times. A dog can dehydrate and become seriously ill very quickly.

A peaceful Westie puppy

A peaceful Westie puppy

Grooming Small Breed Dogs

Some small dog breeds require a great deal of grooming, while others, especially those with wiry coats, may need less frequent attention. A friend of mine owns a Pomeranian and spends one hour per day brushing and prettying up her pooch.

Of course, this is a show dog, so she needs a little extra attention, but even if your small dog is not going to be entered into competitions, it may require daily brushing to avoid the hair becoming matted (if matting gets out of control it can become uncomfortable and even painful for the dog).

You will need to buy a good brush and possibly small scissors for clipping stray hairs. For major haircuts, however, I would recommend taking your small dog to a professional.

Maintaining Your Dog's Hygiene

There will be occasions when your dog will need a bath. This can be frightening for your dog, and you may find it stressful trying to prevent a soaking wet dog from bolting. Try to give your dog plenty of reassurance and make bath time fun by providing a waterproof squeaky toy for them to play with.

Be sure to get the water to a temperature that is neither too hot nor too cold, and use a shampoo that is formulated for dogs. You will also need to clip your dog's nails occasionally (ask a professional groomer to do this if you're unsure) and brush their teeth regularly. Try to approach grooming in a relaxed manner as dogs are very sensitive to human feelings, and if you seem apprehensive about a task, you'll make your dog nervous.

If you don't have time to groom on a daily basis, choose a breed such as the Boston terrier or miniature pinscher which require very little grooming.

Health and Small Dog Breeds

Often small dogs have a longer life expectancy than some of the larger breeds. There are, however, certain medical conditions which they may be prone to. Hip dysplasia is not uncommon amongst small dogs, and some are liable to suffer problems with a slipped patella (kneecap). There are also skin afflictions which can blight your dog's life and some small breeds like the pug, who have been bred to have squashed up noses can suffer breathing problems which may lead to snuffling that can drive you round the bend.

It is important to register with a vet as soon as you obtain your small dog and to make regular visits for vaccination boosters. You will want to keep a check on your dog's weight, and it is important to be aware of the dog's general state of health and fitness. If your dog is usually very active and appears lethargic, you should seek help.

Warning signs that something may really be wrong are extreme lethargy, appearance of being in pain (often a dog will have a strange 'grin' on its face) or refusal to eat. Maintain a good relationship with your vet and don't be afraid to ask for advice if you're worried. A dog can't tell you if it feels ill, so you have to be able to spot any changes in its demeanour.

An Indoor Exercise Toy

How to Exercise Your Dog

People often make the mistake of thinking that a small dog will not need any exercise. Taking your dog for a walk is not just good physical exercise; it provides mental stimulation as well. Your dog will enjoy seeing and smelling new things, and you should take your small dog for regular walks, trying to find interesting places for outdoor play.

If you have a garden, you should allow your dog to go out and explore as much as possible. If you don't have any outdoor space, then buy some indoor toys that the dog can use to exercise. You can get information about the amount of exercise your particular small dog requires by researching on the Kennel Club websites. It is important to find a balance as over-exercising can also lead to health issues and aches and pains in your dog's joints.

Provide plenty of mental stimulation through play. Most dogs love to play fetch or to run around like little maniacs with squeaky toys. If you need to be out at work all day, why not consider using a dog walking service so you don't need to worry about your pet not getting her daily exercise.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.


Mmargie1966 from Gainesville, GA on April 10, 2012:

Nice job, alliemacb! I especially loved all the cute pictures.

Voted up and interesting.

David from Idaho on April 10, 2012:

We have a small dog (Chihuahua) and a big dog (lab) so I agree that there are different methods to care for the two of them. The little dog is our little instigator while the big dog could care less if someone knocks on our door. Great information!

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