Sunday, July 1, 2012

Big Dog or Small Dog? Dogs Don't Care.

In a couple of my books, Spot, a Harlequin Great Dane, plays with a Toy Poodle vastly smaller than he is, always an entertaining thing to witness in real life.
Speaking of which, today I exhibited my books at an Art and Craft Festival. A gentleman stopped at my tent to see which of my books he hadn't read. Tugging on the leash in his hand was a tiny Chihuahua, a female, maybe 5 pounds, maybe less.
While we chatted, a woman strolled up with a St. Bernard. Maybe 225 pounds. Nowhere close to the largest that St. Bernards come, but a big dog by any measure. In addition to the huge size discrepancy of these two dogs, the Chihuahua had really short fur, while the “Saint” had a thick, long, coat. The Chihuahua had pointy ears, the Saint, floppy ears. And as everyone knows, the body shape of Chihuahuas and St. Bernards are as different as it comes for dogs. Chihuahua barks and growls are very different from those of a St. Bernard. In fact, these two dogs at my tent were so different that a person raised without exposure to dogs would believe they were two very different species of animal.
An illuminating example of similar animals from different species would be to compare a coyote and a wolf with a Husky or a German Shepherd, three related canine species. Their similarities are much more obvious than any similarity between the Chihuahua and the St. Bernard, but coyotes, wolves, and dogs know they are different from each other.
Just the weight difference between the Chihuahua and the Saint is astonishing, a ratio in the range of 1 to 45. And some dogs come even smaller and bigger than these two. (A similar ratio for us would produce people ranging from, say, 50 pounds up to 2250 pounds.)

But despite such major differences, these dogs didn't seem to notice it.
The two dogs sniffed and wagged, each happy to see a fellow dog, but exhibiting no unusual reactions. They could have been same-sized dogs like a Golden Retriever and a Black Lab.
How does that work? How do they know they are so close as to be like humans of different races?
By contrast, if you took a 10-pound house cat and a 120-pound Mountain Lion and introduced them to each other, they would see no family link. Their body shapes are much more similar than those of the Chihuahua and the Saint Bernard. Their fur is similar. And the weight ratio of 1 to 12 is much closer. Yet the lion would see the cat as lunch and the cat would see the lion as something to keep them hiding under the bed until long after the lion left.
How do cats and lions know they are different even though they look so similar? The Saint Bernard would never consider a Chihuahua food. And the Chihuahua had no fear of the Saint Bernard.
The probable answer is that recognition of fellow dogs is so hard-wired into a dog's DNA that it works even when the size and shape and sounds are hugely different. I think that, in our 30,000-year association with dogs, while we've shaped the evolution of the different breeds, we've also shaped and socialized their behaviors, helping them to understand that they are all dogs, regardless of size or shape or sound.
The result is impressive to watch.
Big dogs or small dogs? Dogs don't care.


  1. I totally agree with you. We had a tiny, tiny dog come into motel one day and Joey walked out to greet the customer and dog. This caused the tiny dog to run behind his owner and be fearful - Joey looked at me then slowly got down on his tummy and put his head on the floor so it would be the same size as the tiny dog. Only then did the tiny dog come over to sniff.

    1. Hi Marje!

      I often notice that big dogs are usually more relaxed than small dogs when meeting other dogs, probably because big dogs don't have to worry about it. Small dogs aren't usually afraid of big dogs, but they are aware of the potential risk, however small. Sometimes that makes them bark when they meet big dogs. It is as if they're claiming their space and their lack of fear.

      One of our Danes knew a Toy Poodle we'd sometimes visit. The poodle would be protective at first. Then our dog would do like you say and get down on the ground to reassure the small dog.

      It's always fascinating to see how dogs interact!