Toy Breed Dogs: What You Need To Know

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A small dark terrier with a long beard sits on the bed of a young boy. The dog has large dark eyes and a blue collar

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It seems that small dogs have been a favourite companion of ours for a very long time, with remains of small dogs found to go back as far as 12,000 years. In more recent centuries, having a small dog that wasn’t needed as a hunting dog was considered a status symbol to set the affluent apart from the working classes. It was in Victorian times that toy versions of these small dogs became popular and were almost considered a fashion accessory for many Victorian women.

Small dogs came about by simply taking the smaller of the medium-sized dogs and breeding them together. Do this for several generations and you get a small dog. If you take the smaller of the small dogs and breed them together, you get today’s toy dogs. Sadly, people have taken this to the ‘teacup’ extreme, and now these dogs can be very fragile and sickly, so breeding them should definitely be avoided.

What are the toy dog breeds and are they different?

Which breeds are considered toy breeds varies a little by country, but in general it’s breeds such as Maltese, pug, Chihuahua, Pomeranian, papillon, Yorkshire terrier, Shih tzu, cavalier and so on. They are perhaps mostly what we’d call lapdogs.

Toy breeds differ physically from larger breeds, especially in terms of dietary needs. They have a faster metabolism due to their small size, so they need more calories per kilo of body weight, and they have smaller mouths, so they need different kibble sizes and toys. Toy breeds also feel the cold more than bigger dogs due to their larger surface area relative to their size. And the smaller a dog is, the more fragile and vulnerable to injuries they may be, e.g. from falling or being accidentally trodden on.

Because they’ve been selected as companion dogs, some toy breeds tend to be very bonded to their owners. On the other hand, some of them were originally bred to listen out for intruders and wake the bigger guard dogs. For this reason, some of the breeds can be a little reluctant to welcome strangers and may bark much more than some owners would like.

The other knock-on effect of being bred to be someone’s best friend and nothing else is that some toy dogs can have big issues with separation anxiety. Ideally, no dogs should be left alone for long periods of time, but toy breeds may struggle even with short periods of separation.

In our article on small dog syndrome, we look at some of the other reasons that small and toy breeds may be different from bigger dogs from a mental as well as physical point of view. Small dogs tend to be allowed to get away with more things that a bigger dog wouldn’t, for example, such as jumping up at people or lunging. Owners may pick them up when a dog approaches, which can reinforce fear of other dogs or cause pre-emptive aggression. When you’re very little, the world can be very daunting. Humans and other animals, even cats, can seem large and scary. It’s easy for toy dogs, if not socialised and habituated from a young age, to be more likely to experience stress than some of the larger breeds.

Is a toy breed dog right for you?

There are pros and cons to all dog breeds. Thousands of years of selection for certain traits has ingrained some behaviour into our breeds. If you want a small, loyal companion and you have lots of time at home or a workplace that welcomes dogs, then a toy dog could be a great fit. If you’re wanting to walk for miles though, think again as most toy dogs physically won’t manage. Always do your research, as you may not want a dog that yaps all the time! All dogs need time, energy, and a lot of money, and are a huge commitment. Smaller breeds tend to live longer, so you could well be looking at a 16-year relationship – something not to be entered into lightly. On the flip side, if you’re sure a toy breed is right for you and you can provide for all their needs, you have a high chance of having a gloriously long friendship.

Reviewed by Dr. Hein Meyer, DVM, PhD, Dipl-ECVIM-CA