Let me begin with full disclosure: I have my own answer to the question above. I don’t begin to treat Tootsie, my King Charles Cavalier, like I treat Willie the Border Collie. Not just because she was a mill dog, and not just because she is spaniel instead of a Border Collie. But simply because she is small and adorable and docile, and I can spoil her all I want without it causing the slightest problem.
Not so Willie. He, as many of you know, is one of the loves of my life, but he arrived as a pup with a myriad of problems, and even at the age of seven he sometimes needs managing because his reactivity and lack of emotional control can get the best of him. The only result of Tootsie’s occasional lack of emotional control is that she sometimes begins to whine piteously while I’m fixing her dinner. If that happens I just stop what I’m doing and freeze, after which she gets quiet and I continue. Otherwise, she is a remarkably docile and friendly dog, and I consider it a win-win that I can give her all the privileges she wants. It makes us both very happy. I call her my “oxytocin pump,” and I absolutely love that I can have a small, docile dog who I can spoil to my heart’s content.
But oh, (and you know there’s another side to the story coming here….), isn’t giving her “small dog privileges” the road to trouble? We all know the stories, perhaps you’ve lived through one yourself, of someone’s benevolent Golden or Aussie or Newfoundland being attacked by some tiny, little monster dog whose owner thought it was all so very funny, because their little dog was well, so little, that one couldn’t take it seriously? All except the poor dog being attacked (those little teeth can do LOTS of damage after all) and the larger dog’s owner who is stuck trying to defend their dog while the other owner chortles in amusement? Or the tiny dog who barks and barks and barks until even the most dedicated dog lover begins to look for an escape hatch. Or a weapon?
Those cases illustrate why I would argue, that to some extent, size doesn’t matter. Yes, of course a large dog with the same motivation and intent as a small dog can do more damage, but little dogs can bite and bully and it’s not so much fun on the other end of it when they do. What matters most, I would argue, is behavior rather than size. I can coddle Tootsie, and even talk baby talk to her (don’t tell anyone) not because she is small, but because she is as sweet and docile a dog as ever lived. And the fact is, like many other small dog owners, part of what I love about having a small dog is that I CAN get away with treating her differently. I’m not alone in this; lots of sheepdog trainers and handlers have a small lap dog that they bring to competitions simply because it is a joy to not have to always be “on” as a trainer. If their Pom or their Chihuahua jumps up onto a handler who is walking across the field with a cup of hot coffee, no one cares, because they hardly notice.
Don’t get me wrong, this doesn’t mean that Willie doesn’t get his own set of privileges. Willie gets cuddling and belly rubs every night, and he and I share more joy together than I can express. He and I just took a long walk in the deep snow, a project as good for me as for him, but one I never would have initiated if he didn’t need the exercise. I love his responsiveness, his brilliance and the mental and emotional connection that he and I have. My relationship with Tootsie is very different in that all she really wants is food and safety and a really warm lap. My lap needs her too, and it works out very nicely for all of us.
Here’s my question to you: What do you think about “small dog privileges”? Always troublesome? (As some I’ve talked to have suggested.) Do you agree it depends on the dog? Do you find yourself treating small dogs differently than others, in part because of their size? I’m all ears…
MEANWHILE, back on the farm: Last Saturday Tootsie and I made our first visit to American Family Children’s Hospital as part of the UW Vet School’s Pet Pals program. This program takes carefully screened dogs to the hospital two times a week to brighten the days of the patients, as well as their parents and siblings. It is not “therapy” in the strict sense of the word, given that there is no structured program or evaluation of progress, but few doubt that it is good for everyone involved. Participants have some compelling stories to tell, like the little boy who told his mother he could only bear going back to the hospital if his friend the huge, white dog was there. (He was, bless him.) The hospital’s Volunteer Coordinator told me about a child who had not spoken or smiled in years until someone wrapped her hand around a fistful of fur and her face broke out into a huge smile. Tears ensued all around.
The dogs in this program are carefully screened for the obvious (good with other dogs, friendly, docile, stable, etc.) but unlike in many other settings, a premium is put on dogs who are quiet and slow moving. About half of the patients we saw on our first visit had IVs attached to poles, and the slightest bit of over enthusiasm could wreak havoc. That is why Tootsie is such a perfect dog in one sense: she is docile and friendly and passive. However, as should always be the case, my attention was split on ensuring the patient’s safety and good experience with my responsibility to my dog. Every minute I asked myself: How is Tootsie doing? Is she enjoying herself? Is she frightened?
The answers were clear: First, Tootsie was 100% appropriate. She trotted down the hospital corridor with enthusiasm, she never once threatened to knock anything over or disconnect an IV, she greeted the other dogs cheerfully, and she allowed the children to pet and cuddle her. On the other hand: Did she love it? No. No tongue flicking or yawning, or even turning her head away, but she looked in my direction far more than she looked at the kids. She was clearly a tad bit uncomfortable in the laps of unfamiliar children, and I worked hard to find ways for them to pet her while she still felt secure. Overall, I was especially aware that this was her first time in such an environment, and that it will take her some time and conditioning to feel comfortable. But I was pleased that she enjoyed parts of it and only slightly uncomfortable at other times.
One veteran of Pet Pals said it always took her dogs about 6 visits to settle in, and that sounds like a good time frame to see how she does. We go again next Saturday, I’ll give you a report. Meanwhile, we’ve had quite a bit of company here at the farm and since it is a treat friendly zone, Tootsie has been in innumerable laps and gotten vast quantities of treats while being there. (You can read more about this kind of conditioning in the booklet Cautious Canine.)
Here are Tootsie and I in our Pet Pals outfits. I put part of this photo on Facebook last Friday and got lots of comments about how grumpy she looked. One person said she looked mean. Poor Tootsie. It is true that she is not completely comfortable being held up in the air (no child will ever be allowed to do that at the hospital, needless to say), and I wouldn’t describe her as overwhelmed with joy in this photo, but the poor thing’s facial expression is overwhelmed by her Andy Rooney-like eyebrows. Remember that this is the dog that no one would adopt, we think because the set of her eyebrows made her look grumpy. (Cover up her eyebrows and see the difference in her face!) I am considering getting her her own “Grumpy Dog” website and Facebook page. But no, poor Toots, she is the about the sweetest dog you have ever met in your life, and although no dog is virtue personified, I just can’t attach the word “grumpy” to her. Maybe I should get eyebrow extensions to match and we can go viral together as the Grumpy Girls?