Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Why are small dogs the scariest? "Short man syndrome" discovered in dogs

Does your dog suffer from short man syndrome?
In veterinary medicine, just like in human medicine, we love a label, and we may just have added another to our appellation arsenal: short man syndrome (SMS). And I now have scientific data that goes some way to explaining why someone pees on my bath mat.
Also known as the Napolean complex, the SMS hypothesis holds that shorter men are more prone to bouts of aggression, showing off and keeping tabs on their partner at parties than taller guys (I didn't make this up!!! The research that these conclusions were drawn from was promoted by New Scientist. Not everyone, however, was happy). In short, forgive my pun, the theory holds that what vertically challenged men lack in height, they feel they must compensate for by dominating in other ways.
This by way of background to a recent study, from which the authors conclude that a variation of SMS applies to dogs. As the owner (nay, companion) of a 2.2kg hound whom I have occasionally quipped has "small man syndrome", I was naturally intrigued.

According to the literature, humans and animals with "Napolean complex" like to keep their significant others close.
The study backs up the experience of most vets I know, which is that certain physical traits of dogs are consistently associated with certain types of behaviour. You just know that some breeds are going to be more high-strung, or fearful than others. Of course there are exceptions, but it makes sense.
Unfortunately, the study doesn't exactly make small dogs look hot. 
"Essentially, the shorter the dogs the less controllable their behaviour is for their owners," primary author Professor Paul McGreevy said.
The study used owners' reports on the behaviour of over 8,000 dogs from across 80 breeds and related them to the shape of 960 dogs of those breeds, revealing strong relationships between height, bodyweight, skull proportions (relative width and length) and behaviour.
It discovered that thirty-three, out of thirty-six undesirable behaviours considered, were associated with height, bodyweight and skull shape.
For example, as a breed's average height decreased, the likelihood of behaviors such as mounting humans or objects, owner-directed aggression, begging for food and attention-seeking increased.
"The only behavioral trait associated with increasing height was 'trainability'. When average bodyweight decreased, excitability and hyperactivity increased," said Professor McGreevy.
In other words, "behaviour becomes more problematic as height decreases".

According Professor McGreevy, "This suggests that, in small dogs, [problematic] behaviours are tolerated more than they would be in larger dogs where such behaviours are more unwelcome and even dangerous. Equally, such behaviours in small dogs may be a result of their being overindulged and over-protected."

Overindulged and overprotected? Surely not...
Anyone who works with animals knows that it is often the smaller dogs who are more likely to have a go at you (and before it is said that I am having a go at small dogs, let it be known that I have a soft spot for working with small dogs with "issues") - and maybe we let them get away with murder because that's one thing we're pretty certain they're not capable of.

But, as the authors also suggest, maybe the world really is a big, scary place if everyone else is at least a metre taller than you. Or maybe they are primed to react a bit more? The study suggests that smaller dogs are overindulged and over-protected, but behaviours of small dogs (eg urination or defectaton when alone, separation problems, attachment and attention seeking, begging) may be interpreted as infantile, care-soliciting behaviours. Are these little canine Napoleons training us

I don't know if anyone else has this experience when they read a journal article, but I had the creepy feeling that the authors of the study had actually been camping on my loungeroom for the last six months! 

It might be all about dogs on the surface, but these kinds of studies reveal a lot about us - the kind of traits and behaviours we cultivate and reward, the relationships we have with our dogs and the power that a few kilograms of canine can wield in a household.

Behind every short dog...there has to be an owner of a short dog!!!
Back to the study. It wasn't just the smallies who performed disappointingly.

"The ratio of skull width to length was an interesting case. Long skulled dogs - such as afghans, salukis and whippets - appear to be a product of selection for hunting/chasing characteristics as they excelled on those indicators.
"According to owners' reports, they flunked on fear of strangers, barking persistently, and stealing food. Given hunting dogs have not traditionally been companion animals sharing close quarters with humans this may not be surprising."
In contrast, the results confirmed short-skulled dogs, such as pugs and boxers, the result of generations of selective breeding, retain some 'puppyish' characteristics as adults but have lost many of their hunting traits entirely.
Professor McGreevy adds that before we get all breedist, we should remember that "what is normal in terms of dog behaviour clearly depends on more than simply its breed."

Yep. No overprotecting here. No siree. 

You can read the article on PLOS One.
Reference: McGreevy PD, Georgevsky D, Carrasco J, Valenzuela M, Duffy DL, et al. (2013) Dog Behavior Co-Varies with Height, Bodyweight and Skull Shape. PLoS ONE 8(12): e80529. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0080529