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Dog training is not one-size-fits-all. Different size dog breeds have different personalities, different physical characteristics, and other traits that affect how you need to approach training.

Wondering how to approach training your dog? Here’s what you need to know about the differences in small and large dogs and how they affect your training sessions. 

Dog Personality Differences

Believe it or not, small dogs are often perceived as being more difficult to train than large dogs. Small dogs can be stubborn and territorial; many little breeds try to make up for their small stature by acting aggressive. However, many speculate that the problem may be rooted in the trainers, rather than the dogs. Small dogs might not be more difficult to train at all — people might just be less likely to try.1

Many large dog breeds have pleasant, friendly personalities. They catch on quickly and want to please you. As you might guess, this makes them easy to train. Since large dogs generally have more endurance than small dogs, they’re also able to sustain more physical activity and work through longer training sessions (although you don’t want to make your sessions too long — 15 minutes is ideal, with multiple sessions spaced throughout the day).2

Best Commands to Teach your Dog

Does a small dog need to learn different dog commands than a big one? Potentially.

For big dogs, “down” is extremely important — nobody wants a mastiff or Golden Retriever jumping up on them. 

As you begin training, make sure you don’t fall prey to “small dog syndrome.” This phrase refers to any behaviors that would not be tolerated in a big dog, but often fly under the radar with small dogs. For example:

  • Jumping up on people or climbing over them
  • Refusing to move off the couch to let someone sit down
  • Nipping 
  • Acting aggressive
  • Begging for food

If you went to your friend’s house and their sixty pound dog was jumping on you or nipping at you, that would never be acceptable. But if your friend’s ten pound dog was doing the same thing, your friend might just laugh and wave it off. That’s small dog syndrome. Small dogs shouldn’t be held to a different standard of behavior than large dogs. If you have a small dog who repeatedly misbehaves, it’s your responsibility to take steps to train your dog to act better. Just because a little dog can’t do as much damage doesn’t mean they should be allowed to behave badly. 

In the end, both large and small dogs need to learn to sit, stay, and respect other people and animals — meaning you should teach big and small dogs alike the same commands.

Training Tips

There are a few tips you can keep in mind when training both big and small dogs to help the training process go as efficiently as possible.

When you’re training a small dog, try your best to not seem intimidating or threatening. For example, stand up straight in front of your dog as you speak to them; leaning over them could be perceived as a threat.

It’s also important to not overload your little dog’s little stomach with treats during training sessions.3 Use tiny pieces of low-fat treats or chicken so your dog doesn’t get sick, or try a different form of reinforcement. Remember, smaller dogs can sometimes struggle with certain positions — like “sit” or “down.” Be patient as you work with your dog to learn new commands together.

If you’re training a bigger dog, make sure you keep treats well out of reach. Large dogs have a much bigger range of motion than little ones and could easily get into your stash of rewards! Big dogs do well with lots of positive reinforcement and praise. Most large breeds are intelligent and eager to learn, making your role as trainer easier than you might think.

There are certainly differences in training big dogs and little dogs. But at the end of the day, there are plenty of similarities, too. Have patience and go at your dog’s pace. If you feel like you need professional help, you can contact a local dog trainer. The most important thing is to build a stronger bond with your dog during every training session. That’s the best way to foster a trust-based relationship that will help dogs of any size learn to obey.

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Nothing in this article should be construed as financial, legal or veterinary advice. Please consult your own advisors for questions relating to your and your pet’s specific circumstances.

Psychology Today: Behavior differences between small and large dogs, July 23, 2015, Stanley Coren PhD., DSc, FRSC

The Spruce Pets: How to train your dog in sessions, October 7, 2019, Amy Bender

Rover: 5 key differences between training a large dog vs training a small dog, Shoshi Parks