Today we chat about the little vs big debate when it comes to sports dogs with 3 trainers who have trained and worked with both and who offer their insights into the differences, pros and cons.
Melissa Breau: This is Melissa Breau and you're listening to the Fenzi Dog Sports Podcast brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, an online school dedicated to providing high-quality instruction for competitive dog sports using only the most current and progressive training methods.
Today we'll be talking to Amy Cook, Nancy Gagliardi Little, and Megan Foster about the ups and downs of training dogs of different sizes.
Hi all, welcome back to the podcast!
[All say hello.]
Melissa Breau: To start us out, I want to have you each just share a bit about your own big dogs versus small dogs and what you've worked on with them. Amy, do you want to start?
Amy Cook: Sure. I have sort of bigs and sort of smalls, I guess, but in the course of my lifetime I've had bigger dogs than I currently have and a smaller dog than I currently have. I've got to say, though, until getting a small dog, I would not have considered myself a small-dog person, a small-dog aficionado. I didn't go out of my way to make sure I had a small dog. And then you get one — and this is probably going to be true of most listeners and probably everybody here in this Zoom right now — once you get one, you're like, "Why didn't I do this earlier? This is great."
It's not all training challenges; it's all training opportunities. It's really fun to have something small to teach. One of my favorite parts of it is focusing on the fact that they are regular dogs. You can do all of the things, you can have all of the standards, and I loved getting exposed to that right from the get-go. I probably won't go really big again because of how much I love working with the smalls. I don't know if that's the same way you guys feel.
Melissa Breau: Do you want to share who your guys are?
Amy Cook: I have Marzipan right now. She's a Whippet and she's my big. They have a small dog vibe in the sense that they're not heavy, but she's tall, she's 20 inches tall. I have Caper, who is my little, and she's about 12 pounds or so. I've lost track of her height; she might be 13-and-a-half. She's a Chihuahua/terrier thing. She's mostly Chihuahua in her mindset, but she's got a bit of Rat Terrier in her too, for that tenacity. She's my little and she's great.
Melissa Breau: Awesome. Megan, do you want to go next?
Megan Foster: Sure. In the house currently, the sizes range from 13-inch-tall Parson Russell Terrier all the way to 21-inch-tall Border Collie. I mainly do agility with all of them at some point in their lives. Throughout my entire agility career I've trained and handled dogs smaller than 13-inch-tall Torch and also bigger than 21-inch-tall Smack.
I've had a go at the agility course with all of them and find that there's a lot more in common than maybe people want to believe or think, especially if they've only had an experience with one or the other. There's a lot of myths about handling a small dog versus a large dog, and I don't find that to be my experience as a huge difference.
Is there more you want to know about my dogs?
Melissa Breau: I totally want to know more about your dogs, but Nancy, do you want to say hi and share who your kids are?
Nancy Gagliardi Little: Hello everyone. I have always had Border Collies pretty much doing dog sports, and they're 20 inches approximately. Right now I have Lever. He's about 20-and-a-half, and Pose is his daughter. She's 20.
I, in the past, have handled and trained a Papillion through Masters. I did not own that dog. It was a student of mine in obedience and she had had an injury, so I trained the dog for her. That was my first experience with a small dog. He was not my dog, so even though he looked like he was my dog when I ran him, there were things about him that I would have changed if he was my dog.
Right now I found myself with a Chihuahua/Poodle mix. That's Differ. She's very small; she's only about 7-and-a-half pounds and maybe 11-and-a-half inches. I got her during the pandemic as a project for rescue, and I was developing a class and I thought I would do all the videos with her. Being small, it was a new thing, and fun, and I just fell in love with her, so she's here to stay.
My dogs do mostly agility. I dabble in obedience with all of them, and my Border Collies do herding as well. I agree with Megan that my experience with the smalls versus the bigs in terms of handling, my handling has not changed at all. With Differ being my dog, it might have been slightly different with a dog I didn't own, but Differ, my handling with her is very similar to the big dogs. I could go on, but we'll talk about that later.
Melissa Breau: Let's go ahead and get into it. My first question was going to be does size matter? How does it influence your training? Do you want to pick up where you left off, Nancy?
Nancy Gagliardi Little: Sure. I don't think size matters in terms of any of the basic skills. At least that's been my experience with a study of one. I pretty much only have Differ, because she's here, she's my dog. But I'll have to say that the training required on some of the small dogs is going to be slightly modified because of the size. But I find that in terms of training, it's more an issue with the temperament of the dog rather than the size. If the dog is super confident, you're going to do things slightly different, and if the dog is a little more stressy or soft, you're also going to train a little bit different.
Border Collies in general are super-soft and sensitive dogs. I actually prefer that. They really want to please, so it makes my job a little easier. Differ is not. She's a super-confident dog. She's not very sensitive, so I do things slightly different with her, but that's not based on size. It's based on her temperament.
Melissa Breau: Interesting. Megan?
Megan Foster: No, it doesn't really matter. I would say that the things that size does influence about my training is with a larger dog, in terms of timing of your cues on the agility course, you're going to have less time in-between obstacles, so you don't have as much room for error, I would say, when you're running a really long-strided dog, whereas with a small dog, you might have a little bit more time. You don't necessarily want to use that extra time for error, but you do have it.
The perception may be that it's easier to run a small dog because you have a little bit more time between the obstacles. But the flipside of that is that it may be easier to teach a larger dog to stay committed to obstacles because they don't have as long in-between them to change their minds. With a small dog, they do have more time in-between obstacles to break commitment and things like that.
So the ideas and the concepts that I think about as a handler and trainer as I'm working with these dogs are the same, but some things might be slightly more or less challenging, depending on the size of the dog. But I still want the same amount of commitment from my small dogs as I do my large dogs. I don't hold them to different standards. I train everything in the same way, but the challenges that come up might be different depending on their size.
Melissa Breau: Amy?
Amy Cook: I think there are ways in which it does matter, and since both Nancy and Megan covered in a lot of ways the things that don't matter, the standards we should hold to and all of that, I'll say that the parts I feel like I have to modify, or the parts of me that change with the smalls, have to deal with a little bit about what their own perceptions are, what they see of the world that is different than the bigs — what lines they can see, what in the environment is calling more of their attention than the bigs.
And also that the world is so much bigger for them, and things can be so much more overwhelming for them. I realize that's temperament, because it can be overwhelming to a large dog too, but you might have to change how you do things with them to make sure they feel essentially the same way you're trying to have your bigs feel. If you're tugging with them, if you're trying to celebrate something with them, if you're trying to move with them, realizing that your largeness and maybe the bigness of your personality or the bigness of your celebration might need to be scaled down to be the same for them that you'd want them to be for the bigs.
I think in a lot of ways a small might … every dog should force us to train the dog in front of us, but a small might bring that lesson home because there might not be a lot of wiggle room there if you don't train that dog that's in front of you who is saying, "I would party with you, but your tugs are really hard," or "You're being so much bigger than I am because you are so much bigger than I am." You can dig yourself a hole of turning them off or keeping them away from your body more because your body is being so big.
I find that being sensitive to what they're saying early can be important because it's so easy to be overwhelming to smalls. You won't maybe see it at first because they're compensating for that, but after a while they're like, "You need to tone it down a bit." So I find that, and maybe it's just me, but I've got to really watch how big I'm being when I'm working with a small and how much space they feel they do or don't need from either my personal body or from obstacles or from features of the environment.
We didn't touch on this yet, I'm sure we will, but small dogs come with the added problem that if you train with a lot of food, you have to be pretty judicious because you don't quite have the same buffer that you have with the bigs. You often can't keep going. You have to think about, "I have calories that I really have to think about throughout the day and I've got to be very smart about this." If you've got smalls who are great with toys, it's probably not the same issue, but if you're working with food, it's something you're going to be thinking about for sure.
Melissa Breau: It's funny, I went to hand one of my training buddy's dogs a cookie, and she was like, "Can you break that in half?" She has Papillions. I was like, "Oh, okay. I thought that was tiny. I guess not."
Amy Cook: Right, right. I'm going to break it again. I want four reps out of that. I want six reps out of that.
Melissa Breau: Did everybody start with medium to large dogs and then go smaller?
Megan Foster: Not exactly. It's relative, I suppose, because I got my first agility dog that was my own when I was 7, and he was an 18-inch-tall Sheltie, so relative to me, he was large. I think I've gone back and forth quite a lot in the last couple of decades.
Melissa Breau: Was it straight from Sheltie to Border Collie for you?
Megan Foster: I think so. I had the three Shelties of my own. I might have been handling for other people, other dogs, so that could be messing with my recollection of how many dogs I've owned. So Shelties, Border Collies, Parson Russell Terrier, Border Collie. I've always had a mix.
Melissa Breau: Big and smalls.
Megan Foster: Yeah.
Nancy Gagliardi Little: I had big first, so Border Collies. I've had ten of them. Not all in agility. I started in obedience. I never thought I was going to have a small dog, and I don't think that this is the beginning of small dogs for me. I like the mix. It's just fun to be challenged and to do different things and think about things differently. So I don't consider this me going to small dogs. I'm always going to have my Border Collies. I really love the breed. I'm just weird. I'm weird like them. But the small dogs, after having Differ, I'm pretty sure I'll always have one because it's not inconvenient. So I don't think I've gone to small dogs, but I really like the mix.
Amy Cook: I feel like I like the smalls. I feel like I'm probably going, I'm guessing, smaller, on the smaller end of the spectrum, especially as I age. And I did go big to smalls.
We didn't really define it, like, "What is small?" Obviously a Sheltie would be small for an adult now but not small for a 7-year-old Megan.
Megan Foster: Especially a 7-year-old Megan.
Amy Cook: Especially a 7-year-old Megan. And a big Sheltie. Everything being relative, possibly Caper, my small, could be bigger than Megan's smalls, maybe she's 14 inches, but they're not the same kind of small dog. I'm not truly splitting hairs, but I don't tend to think of Jack Russells as quite the small dog. Even though they're physically small, they're going to have the same adjustment things you might make for a dog who is 13 or 14 inches tall.
But the mentality that can come with a more Chihuahua-based or a more toy-dog-based small dog might make shifts different than the ones who are coming in with a bigger-dog mentality. I realize we're not really discussing what that is, because it's a moving target. It's hard to pin down what is a small-dog mentality, but I do think a Chihuahua type or a toy dog bred dog, a toy dog category dog, will be different from your Jack Russell-style dog.
Megan Foster: I totally agree. Like the terriers, they don't get full. When you were talking about parsing out their treats, that doesn't exist here. He eats two pounds a day, maybe, I don't know. He's a bottomless pit.
Amy Cook: It's not so much that they won't eat as much, but more like I've got think about calorie load on a 7-pound dog. I've got to think about calorie load on a 5-pound dog. I don't have that many treats.
Megan Foster: The smaller they are, the more you have to think about it.
Amy Cook: Right, and if they're running around terrier-style and eating like a large dog, it's almost like you feel you're not compensating at all — "Your height is a little lower, but you're still the same kind of dog." Whereas with some of the little toys, you're thinking about "Can you get on this teeter or are you afraid of this really large object?" Or "Are you thinking about my feet shuffling so close next to you, because you are toy dog in mentality." I'm not quite sure what I mean by that, but you guys probably know what I mean, the toy dog mentality.
Megan Foster: Yeah, we see the really tiny dogs not want to come close to the handler's feet, either because they have been stepped on accidentally or fear of being stepped on. So that for sure matters.
Amy Cook: Right. It can be the size of the shoe.
Megan Foster: Right, right.
Melissa Breau: It goes back to what Nancy was saying earlier about it being about the dog's personality more than about the size in that case. Is that what we're all getting at?
Megan Foster: Yeah, I think so.
Amy Cook: Yeah, it's personality, because any dog can be a little shy of those kinds of things. But we're going to see those trends happen more in the smalls, and I think if you're not ready for that, if you've always had bigs and you get your first small, and they're not just a small version of your big dog, but they are now a little different because of the breed they brought in, maybe it's not just their height but the fact that they're in the toy category and maybe more bred for sport.
You're not talking about a sport. You're talking about living with a smaller dog, and there are some handler shifts you sometimes have to make for the dog that thinks they're more fragile in the world than a dog who's 45 pounds. They often don't think that the world is that unsafe for them. They might mentally, but physically they're not necessarily as scared of that. A 7-pound dog is going to think twice about putting their feet up on an x-pen, because it shifts, and so they've got to think about that kind of stuff.
Melissa Breau: Is there anything that surprised you the first time you shifted from big to small, or in Megan's case even going in the other direction? Amy, do you want to start this one?
Amy Cook: I think I might have come in with more of a bias that I haven't necessarily articulated about what you can do with them. I think I might have subconsciously assumed that there was more adjusting that needed doing, only to realize that no, you hold exactly the same standard for behavior, you can get all the same stuff, they are the same dog.
I think just in doing that, I realized I had some subconscious ideas about it, because I would have said up front, "No, no, it's all the same," but then when you're working with them, I found I'm making these compensations I didn't need to make. You can do all the things, and you should be expected to do all the things. So that was nice. I like training them as if they're big dogs.
But I found I loved things in management. I like them. I could pick up the dog and change their picture. I like that. I do. I like that I can avoid certain problems by managing them differently than I have to manage a large dog. I like that they can see so much of a house as a great obstacle course. There's so much you can do inside a house with a small dog because you have so much more real estate than with my 45-pound dogs.
There's only so much running around in the house that I want to see happen, but I can use a lot of stuff in my house for a lot of fun for a small, and that helps the rainy days, it helps the inconvenient days. The logistics of a small can be a guilty pleasure in a way. You're like, "I can use everything in here and you're going to get tired. That's convenient right now."
It's a lighthearted answer, but I find that it impacts my day a little bit more than when I have a whole pack of large dogs. They've got to get out to really big places to make that work, and it changes some of your logistics. Don't you guys feel a little bit of that? At least Nancy with Differ. She's so small.
Nancy Gagliardi Little: Yeah, absolutely. I totally agree with Amy with the indoors being so much … I didn't realize how much of an advantage it is to have a small dog in the house. She gets a lot more exercise than my big dogs. I live in Minnesota, so right now is probably the worst time of year. The big dogs don't really get outside, and she doesn't really want to go out anyway, so indoors it's like an obstacle course for her. She can run around with the cat, and I don't worry about her slamming into things. It's pretty nice.
One of the things … I'll go back to what surprised me about a small dog is I had no idea how crazy-difficult it was for those to deal with the front feet on the ground. I don't worry about that with the big dogs. But any training I have to do, especially if it's very precise, those front feet … like pivots, holy cow. That I had no clue on how difficult that was. That's always part of my training right now is considering that.
The other thing is I understand now with small dogs you can get kind of lazy about avoiding some training in terms of just making it really easy. Like Amy was talking about management, you just pick the dog up, and that's great. I love that aspect of it. But it can also get in the way of training, I think, with the small dogs. Especially we're indoors here, not outdoors a lot, so it's very nice to be able to pick up a small dog and get through a crowded area.
But, on the other hand, I feel very strongly about the toy small dogs is they also need to be on the ground to learn how to exist. So setting that up so that they are on the ground, learning about their environment, is really important. Walking on a loose leash instead of dragging you, it's much easier to pick those little guys up and say, "We're not dealing with this," and not train it.
I work really hard on that, and probably the most frustrating thing for me is working on loose leash walking with the big dogs, but I do it because I have to. And with the littles, you don't have to, but I really tried hard to work that. So that's another thing that sort of surprised me.
One other thing that I was surprised at — and this is just a little bit different slant — is I really thought — and again, this is a study of one for me, because this is the first small dog I've lived with — but I was really surprised at how much easier it was for her to learn some of the big-dog foundation skills. I call it glue skills, but just the duration down, the station work, and even commitment.
I've been working really hard on commitment with her because I think it's much easier to get speed on a dog if the dog can commit, and then you just get out of there in agility. She is probably better right now than the Border Collies. She's really got some good commitment and that came easy to her, which surprised me. The same thing with lead-outs and the start lines. You see so many toy or small-dog people struggle with that. They're quick and they slip away from you, but that came pretty easy to her. So all of those things sort of surprised me.
Melissa Breau: You think part of that was … I know you talked about personality earlier. Was it just a natural tendency toward less handler focus, or do you think it's more attributable to her size?
Nancy Gagliardi Little: Which part?
Melissa Breau: The commitment.
Nancy Gagliardi Little: Oh, the commitment. She's small. She didn't start out that way, but that became one of the things. That's something I work on all my dogs, so I worked just as hard with her as I work with my Border Collies to be able to send them and get out of there so you don't have to babysit any of the obstacles.
It's so important if you want to stay ahead. And I'm not one who likes to do rear crosses. I like to do the fronts and the blinds, and so it's really important for me to get out and get ahead. So I worked just as hard with her, but it came very easy to her. She sees me pulling away as I've cued an obstacle and she continues to go, which I love. But that was very easy for her and it surprised me.
Melissa Breau: What surprised you, Megan?
Megan Foster: A little bit at first living with them. Torch probably was the smallest puppy I've ever brought home. Even Shrek, who I wouldn't consider him a small dog by any of the measures we've discussed today, he's very big for a terrier, he's big in personality, but even when I brought him home as a puppy, he was already ten pounds, eleven pounds. He's that kind of massive dog and that is Torch full grown.
Torch was only five or six pounds when I brought him home, and what surprised me was my anxiety about having him in my house with all of these other not small dogs. I had to be really careful, and he's not actually mine, so extra anxiety. But just making sure that he was raised to not be suspicious of other dogs, or having to be worried about other dogs trampling him or pushing him over or rolling him over, things like that. So that was the biggest thing that surprised me.
I had an idea when I was asked to take him on, but when I actually got my hands on him, it was like, "Oh, you're small. You're tiny." That was the biggest thing. Now I see it all the time and I wonder how those dynamics work when there is a really tiny dog and one or two or many large dogs. That I think about a lot now.
Amy Cook: I can definitely speak to that because my small … I'm always surprised at how big physically she is, because she's small in mentality and small in all the ways I feel I have to protect her. She's slight-boned and light-bodied and fragile-seeming.
Like what you said, Megan, there's this sense of, "I have to actively keep you safe." I have to think about it actively, whereas I didn't think that much about it for any other dog. Even with my Whippet, who I do think about keeping safe because of being light-boned, or no skin lacerations or whatever, but keeping this little one safe and thinking about the world from that perspective is a real shift.
In this house, when I brought her here, she was six pounds, I think. I have a Whippet, she's always been great with dogs, she doesn't do anything, but I respect that that could shift at any point. I have had to institute and maintain a lot of self-control around everybody's arousal and make sure that certain games are not played when only these two are here, if I don't have a friend over or whatever.
I was really careful about who had yard time when, and how they felt, not much arousal in the yard at the same time. For at least the first year they were not both out together if they were not just going to go pee and come right back in, if there was going to be any play or if I thought there would be squirrels.
It wasn't because I saw anything happening. It was because my mantra is "Predict and prevent." I was going to make sure I never had a problem with it, so there was a hundred percent rules around, "If you're feeling aroused, you guys are not going to socially interact," because I wanted to make sure there was never any room for mistake.
It lasts to this day, because if I set aside time, like we're going to do some training, it's Caper's turn, I get the stuff out for her and start interacting with Caper, immediately my Whippet goes, "Where's my treat ball?" and she goes and find it. Even if I intended to have her next on deck, she's like, "No, I know what to do. When you work the little, I busy myself with something else."
No matter what, she goes off and does stuff, because I over-trained the idea of … because when I was training Caper as a little, I was doing toy play and I was doing chasing. I was doing lots of stuff where she was running around like a little rabbit, and I wanted my Whippet to be very, very engaged with something else.
And so I think that living with smalls and bigs, depending on how big of a difference you have, and how much chasing you might be likely to have in your big, or how much pawing, if there's going to be a lot of play bowing, and that paw is coming on your six-pound Iggy-style dog, you're going to really think about it. So I did a lot of separation. I don't know if that comes up with the terriers, but certainly anything under ten pounds is at risk of an injury.
Megan Foster: Yes. I had to, because Torch has made best friends with the oldest dogs, which is the cutest thing ever. Both the 13-year-old and the 12-year-old think Torch is the greatest thing on the planet, which is really sweet, but Smack is 40 pounds, and when I brought Torch home, he was five or six pounds and he could get his whole body inside Smack's mouth.
So, like you said, the play that was allowed between the biggest and the smallest in the beginning was very soft, quiet, everyone is in a down, maybe a little bit of bitey-face. And then, as he got bigger, and bigger in personality as well, I can allow a little bit more. But it would be no fault of the large dogs if they played in the wrong way and ended up hurting a smaller dog.
Amy Cook: Absolutely, and they can do that just because their play styles are incompatible. My Whippet doesn't put her mouth on dogs, but she chases and wants to do all that rough and tumble. I'm like, we now have a rule of there will never be any chasing of this tiny dog, ever, under any circumstances. The tightest behavior I've ever trained on her is calling off being interested in looking at what running behavior the little one is doing, because it just cannot happen. It's off the table.
You make a good point about playing from a down. I don't think a lot of people understand that you can really shape that. You can say that all play will happen with the big lying on the ground and the little dancing around and doing whatever they want to do. You can institute rules like that and actually shape play behavior. People don't know that you can, but you can. If you're out there listening and you don't think it's possible, it's possible. You can do it.
Megan Foster: Yeah, a hundred percent. That's been Smack's rule from day one, because he really likes puppies, but he's big compared to almost all puppies. He likes to be paws-y and likes to use his mouth, so if you want to play with puppies, you have to do it from a down. That lasts until the puppy starts trying to climb on his butt, and at that point they're no longer getting a puppy pass and playtime is over.
Amy Cook: Does Differ play with the bigs, Nancy?
Nancy Gagliardi Little: I do not let them play. Also, my husband has a Toller, and he is much bigger than the Border Collies. I didn't mention that. He's not allowed to be with her, because he's a very sweet boy, but he just doesn't understand. Border Collies and herding dogs don't like to touch anyway when they play, so he does, and he doesn't know his strength.
So with the dogs, I just don't allow the play. I never have. I try to stop it in the house anyway, because that's always, for the bigs, for my Border Collies, I have had injuries happen in the house more than [I would like], so I have never allowed that. When they're puppies I let them play by themselves and run by themselves, but not together. So they totally understand that.
Differ tried to entice them to play, but they already know not to, so she wasn't reinforced for it. She plays with the cat, and the cat is bigger than her. When she came into this house, she was five pounds, four-and-a-half, under five pounds. She's tiny. So yeah, safety is a big concern. We have steps, a full height of steps downstairs to let them out. We have a ramp there, so I have to be really careful and I really trained that, so that Differ goes down and stops a few steps while the Border Collies go ahead, because the Border Collies will run over her if I'm not careful.
So there's a bit of training there, and I agree with Megan and Amy that that was a bit of a surprise for me. I knew that it's an issue with bigger dogs in the house, but it does create a lot of anxiety in me, because all it takes is one mistake and you've got an injury.
Melissa Breau: And with a little dog, it's going to be a more serious injury, right?
Nancy Gagliari Little: Very serious.
Amy Cook: You can splat them into a psoas injury so easily, and psoas is such a hard one to come back from. You don't want that.
Melissa Breau: Would any of you say that one or the other, either your big dogs or your smaller dogs, have been harder to train for any particular reason? Go for it, Amy.
Amy Cook: I think that because they're such personal examples, they're likely to be n's of one or whatever …
Melissa Breau: That's why there's three of you here.
Amy Cook: Right. Personalities aside, if I think of it as the kind of dogs they are — because Whippets aren't always the easiest; you have to modify a decent amount — a thing that I really enjoy that comes a little more, so far in my experience, pre-installed in some of the smalls, is that if you're talking about a toy dog, you might be engaging with a dog who doesn't have a long breed history of having some other job other than you.
If we're talking about a toy dog who was not bred to rat, if we're talking about a toy dog who was not bred to guard the house or whatever, a lot of times the entire reason they were bred and chosen is because they doted on you or they liked you. They found you relevant. I find a lot of the smalls I work with, and this one, my own in particular, has more of an orientation toward finding me more interesting, finding me more fascinating than some of the other things.
It's not like she doesn't also love to chase the other things or do other things or whatever, but she came out of the box with a lot more "People are really relevant, and what people do are really relevant." I like that I wasn't having to work against "I also want to circle those things up," or "I also want to make sure I kill that," or "I also want to make sure … whatever … boundaries are maintained." Other things that we bred dogs to do is not a thing I had to work with and work against to build more handler focus. She came out with, "People are great," and "What you're doing is awesome," and "Tell me more about this thing you're doing." That's a real boon.
So people out there who are thinking about whether they want to go smalls, it's not quite just the fact that some of these dogs are smaller in size, but that some of their lineage, some of the point of them, was just to be with you and do stuff with you, and that can rocket your training into a different direction. You're not having to go against rat killing or whatever it is, I don't know. It's not the same thing as with a terrier, because a terrier had a job, and it's not that you can't work with that. But a toy dog's job was to look at you and warm you and follow you around. It can be helpful in training. I really like it.
Megan Foster: That's a great point, Amy. That's a really good point.
Amy Cook: I was really surprised by it. At 12 weeks she was like, "You are the most fascinating thing I've ever seen." That really helps me. I don't have to train focus there. If I'm walking around the house and dogs are sleeping and don't find me interesting, you look for the little and she's like, "Are you about to do something cool?" I know that comes in some of the bigs too. For sure it comes in bigs. But it's just been nice not to have to work against breed-specific challenges. They kind of came with that. I don't know. I like it. I'm sold.
Melissa Breau: Do you want to defend your terriers at all, Megan?
Amy Cook: I love terriers! Defend them, Megan, defend them.
Megan Foster: I don't need to defend that point. I will say it's so difficult to really know, because my most recent, the last ten years, it was Border Collie, Border Collie, terrier, terrier. But some things have come easier for the smalls. I don't know if it's because they're small, or if it's because the breed choices are smarter, or if I'm a better trainer, but as far as that initial … yeah, I'm fighting against their instinct and what they're bred to do.
Both the Border Collies and the terriers really rate, when you're thinking about Border Collies, they're bred to move away from you more and not be so close on the handlers, and the terriers are not coming out of the womb seeking your eye contact. But once you get it, I feel like it's so very intense and they do it super-hard. They're all in. So I don't think it's necessarily a small versus big thing there. It's more the breed that they are. But it was way easier getting eye contact from the terriers than it is with the Border Collies, in my opinion.
Melissa Breau: Do you want to weigh in, Nancy?
Nancy Gagliardi Little: What was the question again? I follow the conversation, but I forget. Was it are the small dogs easier or harder?
Melissa Breau: Yeah, whether you found either your big dogs or your little dogs harder or easier. Has there been something that feels more difficult or significant?
Nancy Gagliari Little: Training-wise, right?
Melissa Breau: Yeah.
Nancy Gagliardi Little: There's a lot of things for the smaller dogs in terms of training, because I think the living together has been talked about quite a bit. I've been training running contacts, and that is so much easier with a smaller dog.
Amy Cook: That's really true. They just take them right down.
Nancy Gagliardi Little: I can't tell you how many times I was going to quit with the bigger dogs, but then all of a sudden it gets better. And so there's not that up and down so much with the small dogs.
Also my fear with the big dogs on very fast teeter and dog walk entry, the smalls can get on that at such an angle and still be safe, so I don't have as much anxiety there as well. So that's another one that's much easier. The other thing is collection and tight turns on jumps are so much easier.
What's harder is that they're also very efficient and they might just back jump too. So you've got to teach them to go around the wing instead of just pinging over the jump and back.
Megan already talked about this, but how much time you have between obstacles is really different. It's easier in one sense with the small dogs because you do have time to save things — not that you should be saving it, that's a handler thing — but you do have more time.
I've found that also you're running a lot more. Even if you train distance skills and commitment, you still, as a handler, run more yardage with a small dog. I don't care how much training you do; that's going to probably happen.
One thing for me that's been really nice about having a small dog, and again just focusing on the training piece, is tunnels. Oh my God, I don't have to put a bazillion tunnel bags down on the tunnels. It doesn't have to be weighted as much, so that helps me.
One other thing that is super-convenient with the little dogs is I can keep my training really clean. Whether it's a seminar or just training, between reps, if I want to go from one point to another and redo, I can just pick her up. With the big dogs, you're not able to do that. It's not as convenient.
Those are the things that are easier in terms of training. I think the others have covered the living with them aspect. I really like Amy's point about always — and I agree, I hadn't thought of that either — is in terms of living or training them, I agree completely that the little dogs just watch you and have natural focus. At least that's the way it was with Differ. I'm her world, basically.
Border Collies are very good about that, too, but they have other things. Movement will excite them, and that distracts them from me. With Differ, that's just not a thing. She's totally focused on me, which is really, really cool.
Amy Cook: It's really cool. How I conceive of it is there's a sense of it's self-reinforcing. I'm self-reinforcing by my existence, and it's not as tightly tied to the fact that I could produce a cookie or might produce a ball. And I sometimes feel with the larger working dogs it can be colored with — nothing is all or nothing — but colored with a sense of, "You might make fun happen outside," "You might open a door," "You might throw a ball," "You might do a thing," and it's because of what reinforcement objects I might bring, and from there we train more focus.
Somehow with a lot of these littles, there's a sense of "It's self-reinforcing to be around you, human." I'll find her laying on my lap, gazing at my face, for no good reason. I'm like, "You're already coming halfway to this training relationship."
With some of my bigs — certainly with the Whippet, but other bigs — if they're on off time in the yard, they find the yard fascinating. When my little is on off time in the yard, even if I'm just cleaning the yard or doing something really boring, she wants to see what that's about and she finds that inherently more interesting.
I think people who are newish trainings or hobby trainers or coming from, "I just want to do some pet stuff and also some sporty stuff," having a dog who is already meeting you in the game of, "Well, I just want to anyway," and I'm not calculating exactly how clean every piece of your mechanics are, or whether you're going to go against what else I want to do, they can be good beginner … not always, but good beginner dogs, even though you're making adjustments, because they're going to reinforce you a little bit more easily than some of the ones whose genetics you're working against to be able to do your sports.
Megan Foster: It's okay. You can say Shrek. You can call him by his name.
Amy Cook: I wasn't even thinking of that! But honestly, because I come from this like you guys, like you Megan, I'm working against the Whippet's ideas, and she has many ideas of what she wants to do with her brain, and many of them do not include people, do not include me. To the extent that she's able to do all the things that she's able to do, it's because I make it worth her while. I train her that these things are going to pay off and these things are really interesting.
I never had to do any of that with my small. She's like, "Food or not, I like what we're doing." And I'm like, wow. Food is a big bonus and it gets more from her. But with the Whippet it's always, when she's done, when we're done, she's like, "Great, now I would love to go deal with the environment. I want to go see what else has changed." When I turn the Chihuahua on to her free time, she's like, "Okay, but are you going to do something with our free time?" It's like, wow. It makes training have this extra ease to it so that I'm not always having to work quite so hard.
I know that's not everybody's story, but people shy away from some of the toy dogs because they're thinking they can't really do anything. But they stare at you a lot, and it's not because you have a tennis ball in your hand. So you know, 6 of 1.
Melissa Breau: I wanted to talk … I know we've done a little of this already, but some more of the pros and cons of each. Both big dogs and small dogs definitely have good things and bad things. Off the top of my head, I'd think bending down for a little dog can stink. They're little, they're close to the floor. Even with Levi, who is a more medium dog, pulling on leash suddenly becomes a lot less of a big deal. Like Nancy was saying earlier, you can either pick them up, or even purely the force with which they're able to pull on leash is less versus a German Shepherd like mine, who wants to pull me across the parking lot. Can you each talk about the pros and cons that you've observed, because you've all had the experience of training now both littles and bigs? Nancy, do you want to start this one?
Nancy Gagliari Little: Sure. Bending down, definitely. There's been times when I've had to take breaks from training.
I think we covered this as cons: the small pieces of food. Oh my God, they drive me crazy. Do I break them up ahead of time? I found a few places that have them in small pieces, which is great. Differ is really good with her toys, so I do mix up a toy and food, but there's times where you use a lot of food and it's just crazy. So that's really one of the biggest for a really small dog, the food.
They're closer to the ground, they notice more things there, so that's an issue. In agility, if they hit a bar, it really hurts. That's happened to Differ a couple of times, and that's a big deal to a small dog, so that's a negative. They get underfoot. We've talked about that before, but in terms of agility, oh my God. I do a lot of blind crosses, but I lose her, "Where are you?" When I do the blind cross, you're looking to reconnect, and I can't find her. That's an issue, huge.
The one thing I'll talk about, too, a little bit more specific to being here and living in Minnesota is the winters here are really awful, and they're a little more sensitive to the cold, so that becomes an issue. Wind can be an issue if you're outside with the little dogs. If it's blowing a lot, if they're on the contacts, it's really unsafe doing that.
The other thing in my area, out in the country, we have a lot of coyotes and owls, so that's a huge issue for me is keeping her safe when she goes out. And training her, I let Lever run around while I train her out in the field because he's really good, he stays out of the way, it's not affecting his training because he's pretty good about that. What I really like that's happened is because of that, she's become very focused on me. She always is, but it's helped her in terms of distractions.
In terms of the pros, boy, portability is a big deal. I really like the portability of the little dog. Amy covered that a little bit more, but I'm thinking in terms of my dogs always have to fly in cargo, the big dogs. If I want to go to Nationals, I usually drive there. With her, if we're doing well enough, she can fly with me, which is awesome.
The other thing I never thought about, but the pros is if she bites me accidentally, she's little, its not gonna break my skin. The Border Collies, if they hit my hand, holy cow, I've got a big cut there. And they live longer. Generally they live longer and they compete longer than the big dogs.
One other thing that's really important to me is, oh my God, poop.
Amy Cook: So tiny.
Nancy Gagliardi Little: Oh my God, tiny. I guess that's a pro, but then it could be a con if you were traveling and you're trying to pick it up, too. Anyway, that covers a lot. Feeding …
Amy Cook: So much less food. They're cheaper.
Nancy Gagliardi Little: My goodness, yes. There's a lot of pros and cons.
Melissa Breau: Do you find it difficult with the smaller pieces to, for example, throw the treat and have the dog be able to find it?
Nancy Gagliardi Little: I do not throw food in the grass. When I'm outside I try to use toys as much as possible, or she's being fed on a station or directly to her mouth. I rarely anymore, unless it's a reset, I'll do that inside.
I'm really careful about that because they find crumbs, little teeny tiny crumbs that the Border Collies don't even see. She's scavenging everywhere. It's like, "Where did you find that?" The big dogs don't even notice it. It can be right near them. They're going to find tiny pieces of things. So I generally, with her, do not throw as much. I try to set it up a little different.
Megan Foster: I'm thinking of the dog's perspective of an agility course. The first thing that comes to mind is a teeter. Is the amount of drop of the teeter perceived to be more when you're tiny, and it takes a little bit longer, and it's a little bit more like the tower of terror? Is it more of the tower of terror type thing, like, "When is this going to fall?" We don't know for sure. We can make guesses based on the dog's behavior and reactions to it.
Other things that come to mind are the feet of the jump. They'll often have to jump over the feet of the jump or wrapping or really tight turns, because they'll land closer to the bar. Or they have to change the way they're jumping so that they do land beyond the foot of the jump. Or having to wrap an obstacle that also has the timing equipment on it. It makes the jump so much bigger than it would be for a large dog that would land beyond it. A small dog might use the feet of the weave pole bases more than a large dog might.
Nancy Gagliardi Little: That's a thing around here when you show indoors, if the feet lined up as well and the dog isn't driving ahead. And boy, I've learned a lot about training small dogs based on that.
Megan Foster: The other thing I was thinking about was just placement of rewards, period. If we're rewarding from our hands, it's so easy to reward with a small dog's head up, so that could be damaging to your weave pole performance or to your stopped contact performance or anything, really, just because it's so much easier to let the dog jump on you and grab the cookie from up, dancing on your legs, where we wouldn't do that with a large dog. We have an easier time keeping their heads lower because they don't have to bend as low. So those types of things, I don't know if it's easier or harder, or pro or con, just something you have to be aware of with placement of rewards. Even though you're maybe trying to do the exact same thing, it's a different body movement from the handler.
Nancy Gagliardi Little: It definitely affects the smaller dog more than the bigger dog. You can sort of get away with it with a big dog, but it's still not good.
Megan Foster: That's because the amount of their head coming up is so much more, if they're super small. If you reward with a large dog's head up, it's not the same amount of up as it would be with a small dog. Those are the things I think of as far as training that Nancy didn't already cover. All good thoughts.
Amy Cook: Those are all great thoughts. I was sitting here just listening to the podcast. Great list.
Trying not to cover things you said, but I'm sure I will, but the things on my list tend to be more manage-y, like I really think much more about our safety than I ever had to. I really think about maintaining that there's no interaction between dogs I don't know, no interaction between dogs I don't know on leash, not even a quick sniff, not even if I think it will be okay, because of how much risk we're talking about.
The food thing, yay, they're cheaper, and yay, the poop is smaller, but also there's only so much. When we're talking about living with, and pet dog training stuff, and crate training, and putting them up in pens, and giving them things to do, a lot of that is food puzzle, a lot of that is a topple, a lot of that is a frozen Kong, and I don't have unlimited calorie budget for that kind of thing.
If you have any kind of behavior problem and you need to use food for this, you're in sometimes a little bit of a bind, so there's that. Although I would take a well-behaved obese dog that I can take the weight off of later, but I'm just saying I can't always put her up with a frozen Kong, because now I have given her twice as much food for the day, so there's that.
I love that I can pick them up, I love that you can fly them, I love that they're forgiven more stuff. I live in a dog-friendly area, and many stores are dog friendly or dog flexible. If you can have her in your arms, you can come in real quick and make a quick purchase. Super handy. Often they're not noticed in a car. A small crate in a car isn't as seen by a passer-by who wants to insert themselves, even on a cold day, that your dog shouldn't be in a car. They're not as seen.
They are often more universally liked by the public, which is good and bad. You get a lot of, "Oh my God, look at that thing!" On the other hand, you're not walking a big, black, blockheaded dog that someone doesn't want to say hi to. So pros and cons. Maybe easier moving, renting, those kinds of things. Not that we're doing that, but for listeners, that can help.
Also I take less impact for things like feet on my body in play. I do a calculation for teaching that to a larger dog: How much feet on me do I want, and what is the experience when you put your feet on me. The bigger the dog, obviously, the harder that can be. I didn't calculate that with her. It's like, "Sure, put your feet on whatever you want to put it on. Drive into me. You can slam right into my body and I won't even notice. It's fun for you, kind of like fly ball, turn off my body." The calculation isn't as tight. I can say, "That's fine." As long as it's not a behavior problem in some other realm, it's easy to do, whereas a non-behavior problem punching of me with a large dog, I'm like, "I've got to take it off the list," even if it's fun for both of us, because it's not fun for both of us. It hurts my stomach. So letting her feel her body, letting her feel her power on me, doesn't cost me as much. I don't have to do as much thinking about it, and that's really handy.
I love being able to pick them up for a sense of … like, if I have to talk to the instructor,
which I'm often overly deferential about and disconnect from my dog around, and I'm always telling myself I have to be better about those things. Instead of having to put her in a down and train all that, I can ask her to come to me, ask her to be picked up, pick her up, and I can be feeding her right in my arms while I'm talking, and it's not as hard for me to multitask that, so that's great.
I find it easier to teach them loose leash walking, but you're not as motivated to, so you have to remind yourself that those things are important. It's maybe for some harder to do housetraining, but for me, it's the same procedure, so I don't find it harder. But for a big dog you're going to be much more motivated to do it because your mistakes are much more costly, so people tend to really get on housetraining on the bigs. You've got to get on it, but people sometimes think the smalls are harder to do. Their bladders are smaller and their timeline is smaller, so you have to get on top of it, but it's the same for that.
Lastly, some of them bark a little more than others. Again, not all of them, I know that, but some of the ones in the toy dog category. I used to have a "no barking" rule in my house. I'm not saying everybody should, but you can decide that you're going to have that, and then some dogs will challenge you on how much is achievable in that regard. But the dogs in my life so far, I have been able to say "We have a 'no barking' rule. you're going to have to keep that to a minimum." Her minimum is a different line than my other dogs' achievable minimum, and I've had to be more flexible about what I will have come under the "no barking" rule. For some people that's going to matter, for other people they don't care — cough cough Sheltie cough cough — so it's okay.
For me, I love the advantages they bring, and I think I'll always stick with having at least some dog in my house who's got not just a small stature, but a different mentality, a little bit of toy dog thought to them, because I like what it brings. You have to tamp down some of the hyper-sociality. Everybody wants to pet your dog, so you don't get the benefit of people avoiding you with a large dog, but on the other hand, you have this potential little ambassador who changes your social life a little bit. So it's all pros and cons. You're always making an adjustment on both sides. But I love having the littles and I hopefully will have one forever. I think it's been great.
Nancy Gagliardi Little: I thought about one thing. We talked a lot about agility, and I thought about a couple of things for obedience people. The heeling is so much more difficult with a little dog because of the issue with the pressure of the handler and keeping a dog in position. I used to judge obedience for many years, and I know that it's much easier as a judge to see the deviations on a little dog, a little smooth dog. It's very easy to see any deviation there. And also one of the things in terms of heeling is the handler has to be so much more precise about turns and being compact, turning around on about turns. If you step into their space at all, it's a huge, huge issue.
One other thing in obedience is any kind of examination stand is very, very difficult for a small dog, because lots of judges don't know how to examine them, and they treat them like something that's going to break, and their approach scares the dog. So I think they've got to learn things a little more differently than the big dogs. Big dogs don't have to go through that looming over that the small dogs do.
Melissa Breau: Nancy, I know we had talked in advance about the idea of something you've learned. I wasn't going to ask, but I know you have something special you wanted to share. I wanted to know if you snuck it in there or if you want to share.
Nancy Gagliardi Little: You didn't have to, but yes, I thought about this because I knew that this was a question that was going to be asked. This applies to me, and when I was training a little dog, is just believe in your dog, If you believe in your dog, and you have a vision about your dog and what you want from them, I think you can do just about anything. I think a lot of times we end up trapping ourselves and thinking, "They can't do this. Nobody else does." You just believe that they can, and expect failures, and continue to move on, and make plans, and continue to think about it. But the most important thing for me is just keep believing in them.
I think in this day and age we stop believing our dogs can do — and this applies to big dogs too — we stop believing in our dogs and then things just continue to fail. It's the same way with kids, too. If you don't believe in them, they're going to end up becoming who you think they should be. So that was my thought.
Amy Cook: That's a very nice sentiment, Nancy. I'm glad you contributed it, because it made me think just now that we have to both cut our little dogs slack and also not cut our little dogs slack. We have to hold them to a standard. They are dogs, and they can achieve all of the training all the other dogs can achieve. People cut them too much slack and don't ask them to stick to a standard.
On the other hand, you have to understand that their perspectives are different, their fears are going to be a little different or could be, and if you're not willing to cut your little dog a little more slack for the challenges of life, you're going to not be training the dog in front of you. So cut them slack, but also don't cut them so much slack. They can do stuff, and you can show them the respect that training really can give them.
Nancy Gagliardi Little: I think a lot of times we generalize ourselves and we look at how other dogs are doing out there. Maybe they can't do the things that you want to do, and that doesn't mean that your dog can't do it.
Amy Cook: Right, right.
Megan Foster: For sure. Each team, each dog, it brings a new perspective to the training process. We're constantly being reminded that just because we've done it one way for "x" amount of years, or dogs, or everyone else has been doing it this way, sometimes we have to make those adjustments, regardless of the size or the breed. Just take on the new perspective and embrace it and move forward on it.
Nancy Gagliardi Little: Absolutely.
Melissa Breau: Awesome. I think that's a perfect note to end on. Thank you all for coming on. I really appreciate it.
Nancy Gagliardi Little: It was fun.
Amy Cook: Yay, it was fun.
Megan Foster: Thank you for having us, Melissa.
Nancy Gagliardi Little: What a great topic.
Melissa Breau: Awesome. Thank you, guys. And thank you to our listeners for tuning in!
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