Big Dog, Little Dog

Can big dogs and small dogs live together?

Common sense dictates that you have to be choose carefully if you want dogs of different sizes to live together under one roof. We frequently get applications from people with small dogs who have had a big dog or want to add a big dog to their pack for the first time. We go through the usual assessment of the application, doing a vet check, phone interview and home visit. But when it’s time to select a dog who fits in with littler ones, that’s where the work begins.

Interestingly, Pyrs may have a leg (or paw up) when it comes to getting along with smaller dogs. Their history as a working dog includes partnering with a herding dog, the Pyrenean Shepherd (right). This small dog, weighing 20-25 pounds, is also a native to the Pyrenees mountains in southern France and northern Spain. Like the Great Pyrenees, Pyrenean Shepherds have been bred since medieval times or longer. They work with Pyrs (whose role is flock guardian) herding livestock, especially sheep. Interestingly, Pyrenean Shepherds have never been as popular as Pyrs in this country and are comparatively hard to find.

In some ways, there are correlations between size and breed characteristics. Many small dogs are terriers who have been deliberately developed to be tenacious and curious as well as to dig and explore. If dogs are bred for those characteristics, this behavior will have far more to do with genetic influences on behavior than with size. For the same reason, some will discourage placing working dogs with smaller dogs believing working dogs can pose a threat to a smaller dog because their prey drive is too high. But when a working dog like a Pyr works in tandem with a smaller dog, that heritage might predispose them to getting along better with smaller dogs.

Frequently the code of conduct for large and small dogs is often different. Small dogs are more likely to be allowed in our beds and on our laps. Little dogs can be encouraged to jump up on people and get on the furniture, but big dogs are rarely invited to do this. Jumping up isn’t the only thing that’s treated differently. Behavior that is considered a nuisance in a small dog may be deemed antisocial in a large dog. Even aggression and other serious behavioral issues are more likely to be tolerated in small dogs. Large dogs are more likely to be euthanized for aggression though some studies report that the average “biter” tends to be a smaller dog. It’s possible that greater tolerance for this behavior in small dogs allows genetic tendencies toward it to persist.

Interestingly, research has pointed to a single gene variant that is most responsible for the difference in size of dog breeds. It produces different variations of an insulin-like growth factor, the hormone that influences cell growth. Large breeds are more likely to have the usual variant and smaller breeds are more likely to have the small variant.

Whatever their size, dogs will be dogs and we know it’s possible for all sizes of dogs to live together. Here are some key points to follow to ensure that the bigger dogs in your household will get along with the smaller dogs:

  • Have the dog tested for compatibility with around smaller breeds to determine if the big dog tolerates smaller animals.
  • Avoid big dogs who are overly playful as the little guys could possibly get hurt.
  • Choose an animal from the opposite sex because if the dogs are of different sexes (and spayed/neutered), this goes a long way to ensuring they will get along.
  • Consider age compatibility. If there’s too large a gap in the dog’s ages, the younger dog could pester the older dog, who may just want to be left alone.
  • Introduce the new dog slowly and give lots of attention to your resident dog(s) as well.
  • Supervise carefully; having dogs trail a leash ensures you can intervene if necessary.
  • Do not underestimate the little guy, as small dogs often tend to be more aggressive than their larger counterparts. It isn’t unusual for a small dog to bully a larger dog who won’t fight back.
  • Stay calm. If you are patient enough, prepare well and exert your authority as pack leader, small dogs and big dogs can get along.  As we would advise anyone getting a new dog, review the tips and techniques starting on p. 5 of NGPR’s “Your New Rescue Dog” PDF.