Why Is My Small Dog Aggressive Towards Big Dogs?

Updated on October 18, 2016
alexadry profile image

Adrienne is a former veterinary hospital assistant, certified dog trainer, behavior consultant, and author of "Brain Training for Dogs."

It's not the size of the dog in the fight, it's the size of the fight in the dog. ~Mark Twain

Small dog attacking big dogs.
Small dog attacking big dogs. | Source

It's not unheard of: owners of Rotties, great danes and Saint Bernards walk their dogs and then a team of pint-sized dogs gather together trying to attack these larger dogs who come in peace. What gives? How can these itsy-bitsy tiny dogs have the courage to attack dogs who are multiple times their size? It's a question worth pondering, as it goes against survival instinct. If supposedly we lived in primitive times, no person sound of mind would start chasing a Tyrannosaurus rex! And if he did, he better have some type of weapon that he could entirely rely in order to take down such a larger opponent!

Sadly, we all also know stories of small dogs with big attitudes who attacked a larger dog and within seconds the larger dog was able to subdue the little one often with dramatic results. All it takes is one bite and a head shake to kill the little ones. It's therefore imperative that small dog owners keep their little dog always under control if they have a tendency to attack bigger dogs. This means as well giving up retractable leashes which put the small dog in a vulnerable position ahead giving little control in case of an emergency.

So why do small dogs try to attack bigger dogs? Because we can't put ourselves in a dog's mind or interview these small, feisty fellows we can only make assumptions. In the next paragraphs we will look at some possibilities.

Raising awareness...

If your small dog is attacked by a large dog, have him see the vet,even if you do not see much visible injuries from the outside. It's like just seeing the tip of an iceberg. There are always chances for internal injuries such as brain and spinal cord injuries, and even severe damage to internal organs, according to Greenbrier Emergency Animal Hospital.

Why Are Some Small Dogs Aggressive Towards Bigger Dogs?

If you own a small dog who tries to attack larger dogs, you may be interested in learning why your pampered pooch may engage in this activity. The intent may vary from one dog and another, and and as with many other doggy behaviors, there are really no rules set in stone. These are therefore just assumptions. If your small dog is aggressive towards larger dogs, you may want to consult with a behavior professional to help you out. Don't assume that just because a dog is small, there's no need to seek for help because a small dog can only do so much damage. Consider that many small dogs are often anxious and hyper vigilant which puts them in a constant state of stress that lowers their immune system making them more prone to disease. Following are some reasons why your small dog is aggressive towards larger dogs.

The Safety of the Owner's Arms

This hypothesis comes from veterinarian Marty Becker who claims " I sometimes wonder if little dogs think they are big dogs because they’re always looking down at other dogs from the relative safety of their owners’ arms or purses." There may be some truth in this, as small dogs may gain "strength" and feel more potent when they are in their owner's arms.

Reinforcing Behavior at Play

Dogs tend to repeat behaviors that have a history of being rewarding or providing some sort of advantage. If your small dog once tried to put off a dramatically offensive display towards a bigger dog and the bigger dog retreated, the small dog will feel compelled to use the same strategy next time. As the small dog rehearses this, soon a behavior pattern establishes and eventually becomes the standard modus operandi.

A Cowardly Approach

In some cases, the other dog doesn't intentionally leave because he was intimidated by the small dog's display, he just leaves because he was just heading somewhere else. What happens here is that some small dogs take a cowardly approach by attacking other dogs from behind. These dogs do nothing when the dog is in a frontal position; rather, they stealthily wait for the big dog to pass by and once his hind quarters are in plain view, the small dog goes on attack mode. From the small dog's perspective, he has just "sent the big guy away." Mission accomplished. You can almost see them proudly patting their backs.

Breed Predisposition

This in particular applies to the small terriers. The term terrier derives from the Latin word "terra" which means "earth". This name was given to them because these dogs were often used to work in burrows to capture quarry. Terriers were selectively bred for "gameness". This led to determined dogs who would persevere despite challenges. In the case of small, working terriers this meant being blessed with courage and initiative necessary for dealing with life/death situations in their encounters with vermin. The low arousal threshold typical in these dogs, allowed them to go from completely calm to full-blown fight mode quickly and with very little provocation, explains Dawn Antoniak-Mitchell in the book "Terrier-Centric Dog Training: From Tenacious to Tremendous" She adds that terriers "have no real sense of their physical size and will tackle a larger animal in the blink of an eye, under the right circumstances." Additionally, once a working terrier is aroused and ready to chase, fight or kill, it's very difficult to get him to listen to you.

Sounds familiar? Well, this same genetic wiring that made this breed so tenacious and courageous may not exclusively apply to vermin, but larger animals as well including dogs, especially those who approach too fast. Dawn-Antoniak- Mitchell indeed explains that this gameness fad was so very popular, that in the past terriers were expected to get aroused at the sight of other dogs in the showing ring and this was the ultimate "proof" of correct terrier temperament!

Other than terriers, Chihuahuas are also known for being "tiny in size but large in spirit." Indeed, many find their behavior to be similar to terriers: spirited, confident, feisty and brave.

Unsolved Behavior Problems

When small dogs develop behavioral problems these problems are often overlooked for the simple fact that there's belief that they're not capable of causing harm. Small dog owners often fail to socialize their small dogs enough and they may be over protective, picking their dogs up the moment a big dog approaches. These under socialized dogs therefore turn to be good candidates for fear aggression directed towards other dogs. It's important once again to seek help for any form of aggression/reactivity whether displayed by a small dog, medium dog or large dog.

As seen, whether it's genetics, poor socialization or a case of "small dog syndrome", small dogs are vulnerable if they are not under control and have a tendency to want to pick up fights with the larger fellows. If you own a small dog, keep him safe. That means always leashed on walks (avoid retractable leashes) and at home in a well-fenced property he cannot escape.

Is your small dog aggressive towards bigger dogs?

See results


    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    • profile image

      ... 7 months ago

      We have a cairn terrier who will more than happily start fights with dogs four times his size. Despite this, he's great with people and would never harm a person, or a dog nearer or smaller to his size. They're confusing creatures...

    • profile image

      Sweet Big Dog Mama 10 months ago

      I am so sorry MurphysMum. I just had a similar incident happen with a loose aggressive Chihuahua. My 2 big dogs do not go around looking for fights either. WE were charged and I yelled to stop the little dog and it did not listen at all. I don't think my dog even knew what was happening! So scary and my dogs were on leashes in a heal.

    • profile image

      MurphysMum 17 months ago

      My retired neighbor walks my wolfhound cross three times a week for 2-3 hours on the days that I am at work. Last Wednesday when they were walking, a Chihuahua came suddenly running out of a front yard at my large dog. My dog is not that keen on meeting other dogs on the go, prefers the one-on-one meeting at home with me or other people he knows. So my neighbor and I always cross the road or get out of the way of dogs he doesn't know to avoid problems. My dog was on a leash walking with my neighbor on a public foothpath when the Chihuahua stupidly attacked my dog. Now the Chihuahua's owner is going around telling people my dog attacked his dog, he's put up a shrine outside his house for his dog that had to be euthanized (which is really sad but unprovoked by my dog, my neighbor or me). On top of that, the owner has come to my house twice. I listened to his story, was sympathetic when I first found out until he said he wished my dog was dead. I told him that if he were to speak like that he should leave. He carried on a bit more before he left only to come back the next day when I was at work. He entered my backyard and went into my master bedroom. He and his wife were irresponsible letting their dog run around without restraint, my privacy has been invaded, the couple are bad-mouthing my family and my dog will have to wear a muzzle, just in case other dog-owners conduct the same irresponsible behavior. My dog shared a house with 8 guinea pigs for 16 months. They are outside now in a big aviary kind of thing. We also have a chicken (Guardian of the guinea pigs) that my dog doesn't touch. I just wish people would take responsibility for the care of their animals. The fact that I typed in "small dogs attacking larger dogs" and an article mentioning specifically a Chihuahua comes up, makes my feelings of guilt and 'what could I have done to prevent this' a little easier. Two sleepless nights, not focusing at work, $65 on two muzzles, my caring loving dog now branded a criminal for being big, black and not keen on unknown yappy dogs, a visit to the police station to stop the owner from coming onto my property.... How I wish it was still Tuesday....

    • Joyfulcrown profile image

      Joyfulcrown 3 years ago

      You can see from my profile that I have a small dog, a Maltese. He is always aggressive to one particular dog. He just doesn't like that one dog for some reason. Thanks for the article. It was helpful.

    • Vista15 profile image

      Tiana Dreymor 4 years ago from Columbus, OH

      It was, because I had been raised with big dogs and I never dreamed that would happen to my Honey.

    • alexadry profile image

      Adrienne Janet Farricelli 4 years ago from USA

      Sorry to hear that Vista15. That must have been devastating.

    • Vista15 profile image

      Tiana Dreymor 4 years ago from Columbus, OH

      I wish I had known... I had a Pom killed by a German Shepherd.

    • alexadry profile image

      Adrienne Janet Farricelli 4 years ago from USA

      Hello Faith, thanks for voting, pinning and tweeting. Your Jack Russell seems to match the profile of the typical working terrier depicted by Dawn Antoniak-Mitchell in her book " "Terrier-Centric Dog Training: From Tenacious to Tremendous"

    • alexadry profile image

      Adrienne Janet Farricelli 4 years ago from USA

      Thanks for stopping by Edward, you're very welcome. Generally, unfortunately this type of behavior tends to not get better with time as it's self-reinforcing , you may be interested in the Look at that Dog method: https://hubpages.com/animals/Changing-Dog-Behavior...

    • Faith Reaper profile image

      Faith Reaper 4 years ago from southern USA

      We had a Jack Russell terrier who thought she was a big dog, I guess, and was fearless of the large dogs, and she would become aggressive towards them. Interesting and useful article.

      Up and more, pinning and tweeting

    • Edward J. Palumbo profile image

      Ed Palumbo 4 years ago from Tualatin, OR

      Despite its docile and affectionate behavior in the home, my rat terrier mix consistently exhibits aggression toward larger dogs. We adopted her a year ago from a refuge; she's happy in our home and has blended in well, playful and gentle with our dachshund and cat, but she's difficult when we walk and strains at the leash to engage other dogs (especially males). I hope that wears off with time and familiarity with environment, but I am concerned. Thank you for this article. I enjoyed it!