Chihuahuas - The Breed You've Got All Wrong
I saw yet another post breed bashing the Chihuahua today and I think I finally hit my limit of eye rolls and moved into straight up annoyance.
Chihuahuas absolutely wear their emotions on their sleeves, it's true. By doing so, and in my opinion, they're probably the most excellent of all the breeds at communicating their emotional state. They are utterly and totally transparent about their feelings. How is this a bad thing?
As someone whose career is largely focused on teaching people the value of learning how dogs communicate and the importance of taking time to read and understand a dog's body language, I don't really get how others, whose careers are largely focused on teaching people the value of learning how dogs communicate and the importance of taking time to read and understand a dog's body language don't see these dogs as an absolute gem given how easy they make it for folks to understand a seemingly mystifying language -- the language of dogs. I mean, it doesn't get any easier than reading a Chihuahua, yet the post that made me get so annoyed was indeed by a fellow trainer. These are great dogs, especially for first time pet homes!
They are like reading a billboard versus reading legal jargon. Super clear, bold communicators, to the point in their messaging, very few mixed signals, little in the way of muddy language. What you see is what you get with them.
They're about as straightforward as you can get.
They are a godsend in dog to dog puppy socialization. I cannot amply express how psyched I am when there's a Chi or Chi x registered in Puppy Day School. If you could only see them, you would get it. They are on one hand the life of the party and on the other the most clear about what works AND what doesn't in social engagements with other dogs from a very young age. This is a huge asset when a fearful puppy comes along. When puppies are scared, Chihuahuas and mixed breed Chis are their friend because often with a dog showing fear, the fear is related to unknowns as a result of inexperience. A Chi puppy is not so large as to intimidate by size alone, and because they're transparent about literally everything, they don't leave a fearful puppy guessing about intent. Clear and fair in their communication is their signature at this age. As a result, this helps shy dogs come out of their shell faster thanks to their clarity.
These dogs are rock stars in playgroup, I don't know why any trainer would think otherwise.
They are also brilliant learners,truly love to train, love to cuddle, make excellent trick dogs, have serious amounts of heart, and have a great sense of humor.
If we look at the common theme when people get down on this breed, they actually get ridiculed a lot for being the communicators they are! This isn't just damaging to Chihuahuas, it's damaging to all dogs. A dog's emotional experience matters.
Some like to use Chihuahuas as a comparison when trying to prop up other breeds subjected to legislation. "My x breed is a big teddy bear, it's the little Chihuahuas / land sharks that are the biters!" but this is hypocritical. A whataboutism. Each dog is an individual. Just as the breed being defended cannot be stereotyped, neither can the Chihuahua.
With all breeds, they should be allowed emotions, allowed to set boundaries that help them feel safe, taught to follow some of our boundaries and skills that keep them and others safe, etc.
Human Issues, Not Breed Issues.
Because they're snack size, it's easy for people to steamroll their emotions. They don't take them seriously when a little dog says no. In doing so, humans play a role in contributing to escalation in behavior. A Chihuahua might think, "Barking doesn't work? I guess I need to bite if I'm to get relief from this fear I'm feeling."
Dogs need to feel safe, and if you don't listen to their early signals, you teach them to be more clear with bigger, more dangerous displays. For small dogs, their signals are overwhelmingly ignored by the general public until their communication becomes damaging (bites). Uncool. Please respect that little dog in front of you as you would any other.
Many dismiss the importance of training and socializing a small dog like they would for a larger dog. Chihuahuas are not purse pups, they are firecrackers! They love to participate in training, nosework, agility, rally, hike, go for long line walks, play with their friends, and hibernate in winter! They are super versatile companions. Their size does not hold them back one iota! They are like any other dog, they need you to teach them that your world that they've been dropped into is a safe place when they're young. So yeah, make sure you're socializing them just as you would any other breed.
"But, if they start barking, I'll just scoop them up!" Sure, you can pick up a smaller dog when the shit hits the fan, which is why I think a lot of folks skip socialization with them, but I assure you from my years working behavior cases, that isn't sustainable. They can scream profanities at perceived threats while elevated in your loving arms just the same. You can imagine how challenging it is to have the extended family over for Christmas while carrying around a screaming ball of fury for the entire day. Unfun. When people contact me about their adult Chihuahuas, it's generally related to visitors or vet visits. Sadly, so many people only start to take things more seriously when they feel the wrath of public embarrassment over the dog's behavior. I promise you, prevention is the path of least resistance, don't leave it to chance. Socialize them as baby dogs!
Speaking of, vet care comfort is something we start in the puppy socialization window.
Did you skip doing it? Or maybe you worked super hard at it, but a procedure really stressed them out and they backslid. It's never too late to start or restart building comfort.
Part of caring for an animal is tending to their mental health. Mental health is interwoven with physical health. The less healthy the mind, the less healthy the body. They are two wings of the same bird. Second, there's nothing abnormal about a dog fearing the vet if they've never learned to have positive feelings about it or have had a negative experience previously. Abnormal is our minimizing their extreme stress! Every time it happens and we don't intervene, we're making it worse. When they're expressive about their fear and discomfort, they're using the tools they have to communicate it with us -- which at first is inconvenient and embarrassing, but if we don't address it, it can become dangerous and a liability.
Imagine if you will, you were abducted by aliens. They start doing procedures on you of the Fire In The Sky variety. Would you not flip the F out at the aliens? Would you not try to escape and get to safety? Hide and then fight if you had to? Have you ever seen literally any sci-fi movie? This is what going to the vet is like for dogs! I mean, some people even feel this way about human doctors. But less so, because we were raised around them with great frequency in visits and lollipops and goodies after visits. For most, we tolerate it even if we don't like it. We can usually get them to a point of tolerance and resilience with vet procedures if we start at prevention. Again, Puppy Socialization.
Newsflash for vets: Some of you are commonly the barrier to young puppies getting proper socialization, citing vaccine schedules. If you think dealing with under-socialized Chihuahuas for vet exams is awful, maybe rethink that stance.
Early socialization is stress inoculation. I assure you stress is a much more prevalent threat than any disease. If you don't give puppies the opportunity to be become inoculated against everyday stressors, it is plainly malpractice. Stress cuts lives short too -- either when behavior unravels to the point of dangerous, or via long term health complications occurring as a result of it. G.I. issues, skin issues, lick granulomas, pain sensitivity -- they all correlate with stress in high prevalence. Like humans, highly stressed dogs live shorter lives. If that's not a medical issue, I don't know what is. Stop telling people to keep them at home until they're fully vaccinated. Thanks for coming to my TED Talk.
I cannot tell you how often popular memes about the "devil" that is the Chihuahua are in groomer and vet tech circles. If you are an animal professional who regularly gets bit, you might wanna read up on muzzles. It's not hard to ask during scheduling if the dog may be fearful or stressed. If they answer yes, have a muzzle fitting guide and training handout or video at the ready to send over so the family can create comfort with muzzling pre-appointment. Yes, some people will hide their dog's discomfort. Others simply do not know. This is humanity. Account for it. Adding a clause to your treatment consent form allows you to use them in an emergency. Think that's cruel? What's cruel is having a dog endure stressor after stressor, until they can't take it anymore, none of their signals bringing them relief, and finally going to bite as a last resort to which you recoil from and as you recoil having the dog learn biting works like a charm to stop things they find scary, thus playing a hand in adding that behavior as first line defense to their repertoire and proceeding to hand them back to the family now with an accompanying bite history.
Always prevent bites!
Yes, I muzzle my Chihuahua for invasive procedures at the vet and for nail trims -- for her safety and for theirs. I didn't have her as a puppy, her fear was there by the time she came to me. My job now is to ease her stress as far as I can while keeping everyone safe. And yes, you can do everything right, and still get fear. If you think there's an even slim possibility of a bite, muzzle train. It's aces to have them prepared to wear them before they're needed. It's not ideal to have the muzzle be an added stressor at an already stressful appointment, but do what you have to do to avoid teaching them biting works.
Finding humor in the torment of little dogs is a weird phenomenon on social media. Why do so many people like to watch videos of people causing small dogs to bare teeth or growl or snap? If this was a circus causing a bear to attempt an attack on their handler over and over, would you find that funny? No! You'd report them! Don't give likes to animal abusers whether this is in the form of physical or emotional abuse.
All of these issues negatively contribute to the misunderstanding of this breed. I think it's sad.
I totally love Chihuahuas and any mix of them. As part of my work and as part of my love for them, I want them to be better understood. I want people to understand what a gift they are, how you can have true dialogue with a Chihuahua, how wonderful of teachers they are, how loving and feisty and fun they are. Big on personality, small on size.
Here's my Chihuahua Midge. When I get home she runs up on my bed and kisses my face while I take my shoes and socks off, and after that we take a couple minutes to reconnect with touch. When she's excited, there's absolutely no hiding it. When she feels joy, the world feels it with her. It radiates from her entire being. When I go to sleep at night, we sleep back to back. When I get her leash out she lights up like Christmas morning. She scream sings the entire drive to the park. Sometimes I sing with her. It is her happy song.
I love her spiciness. I love her expressiveness. She is an excellent communicator as her breed is known for. I'm not going to get down on her for showing full range. It is her superpower as a Chihuahua and I love that about her.
Please, if you love this breed, or breed mix, do right by them. If you love dogs in general, treat them as individuals. And last, if you work in any animal related field, do your part as a professional and stop contributing to the mischaracterization of any dog!
Midge, Stella (R.I.P.) and I thank you.