Ankle Biters

The things many little dogs endure. People behaving rudely towards them. Body language and stress signals ignored as they are passed around like novelties to visitors. They are toted around like an accessory. Forced to wear clothes that may be uncomfortable. They are teased to make them growl as people think aggressive responses from little dogs are funny.  All you have to do is watch shows like America’s Funniest Videos or go to YouTube and you will see exactly what I mean.  Eventually the little ones start to react even before anything is done. Finally, they are labeled “Ankle Biters.”


Mrs. Jones loved luxurious things. She saw pictures of small, elegant dogs and felt one would complete her image. This was the extent of canine research she did: what style of dog she thought would best compliment her appearance and her museum quality home. After going through, and getting rid of, several dogs who were not what she wanted, Mrs. Jones obtained a Yorkshire Terrier.  She had seen pictures of these dogs in full show coat and paintings and…  You get the idea.  The pup was named Annabelle.


The dog renamed Annabelle for this entry. Picture (c) West Wind Dog Training

Annabelle was expected to lie quietly on cushions. Barking was forbidden. She was carried around like a toy. Annabelle was not allowed to play or get dirty. When she tried to hunt crickets and grasshoppers in the yard, Annabelle was punished. Forget digging!  That was a big no.

Annabelle was expected to tolerate Mrs. Jones’s nieces dressing her up and pushing her around in a stroller. Then the constant being hauled up and loads of kisses and silliness as Mrs. Jones got in her face.  Annabelle was learning to hate being picked up. Annabelle was not allowed to be what she was at all: a dog. Annabelle started to respond in ways Mrs. Jones did not like.  This was when her veterinarian suggested Mrs. Jones call me.

When I am working with small dogs, I ask people to step into the dog’s collar. When you are tiny, the world can be a big, scary place. I ask humans to lie on the floor with their heads at the same height as their dogs’. Have people walk around. and rush into your face as if they are going to scoop you up. Now, think about what it is like to be disturbed while you are sleeping, dressed up, treated like a stuffed animal, poked and teased to get a reaction. Behavior is a response. How would you respond? Annabelle responded by becoming an Ankle Biter.

Understand that no matter how small and cute, behaviorally these are dogs. Research the history of the type of small dog you are considering. This means understanding what the breed was designed to do. In Annabelle’s case, Yorkshire Terriers were originally bred to eradicate vermin from farms and mines. They were working terriers. Take the time for appropriate socializing. Insist all those interacting with your dog treat her with respect. Be a mindful, thoughtful owner. Annabelle wanted to do what her instinct was telling her to do as a small terrier.  She was becoming frustrated. 

I put things like being picked up on a cue.  Work is done to help the small dog associate the cue and being picked up with good things.  There is never any sudden grabbing.  I have humans get to the dog’s level with training.  Hovering over any dog is scary.  Imagine what it is like when you are tiny. We need to respect small dogs.  I outlined a program that would meet Annabelle’s needs.  With those needs met and training, Annabelle had a good chance of becoming a fun dog to live with.

After weeks of working with Mrs. Jones and Annabelle, Mrs. Jones decided Annabelle would never be what she wanted. Mrs. Jones acquired yet another small dog to focus her attention on. Annabelle was relegated to the garage where I found her one of our sessions. I asked Mrs. Jones if she would like me to help place Annabelle. A week later, I acted as an agent for a breed rescue and Annabelle was surrendered.

The days she was with us before transporting to her foster home, Annabelle got to be a dog. She interacted with respectful children and played with our dogs. She relaxed. She learned to enjoy being picked up.  She could hunt bugs. Annabelle was really a great little dog.  Had we not been at our legal limit for dogs, my husband (who is not a little dog person) said we would have applied to adopt Annabelle.

Though occasionally we do get dogs with a predisposition to concerning behaviors, most Ankle Biting behavior is a response to what is happening to the dog. When we bring in a little dog, it is our duty to be respectful. We need to do what we can to reduce the chance of Ankle Biter Syndrome beginning.


  •  This may be reproduced with credit given – West Wind Dog Training, Karen Peak
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