The tolerance levels of big animals

A long time ago, before I began blogging, I read an article or book by an evolutionary biologist that said that dogs and wolves had evolved to have rules in their packs that gave the smallest members a great amount of latitude and that the bigger members of the pack would not be rough with them. This results in what appears to be the smaller animals ‘bullying’ the larger ones with impunity.

I have tried to find that study again but failed but have noticed that in households of pets where one of them is a big dog, they tend to be remarkably tolerant of the little ones. This does not necessarily apply in situations where the animals are strangers to one another where the rules of the pack may not hold.

Via reader Norm I got this great clip of a kitten playing with a Doberman that provides a nice example of this.


  1. says

    If you ask me, that’s because people generally train their big dogs and just let their small dogs do whatever shit they like because they’re able to physically handle them.
    It’s much like adults and children: Children don’t understand the rules yet, they are untrained. Occasionally they will lash out in their frustration and hit the adult. A properly trained adult OTOH knows that it’s wrong to hit children even if they’re a pain in the ass.
    Video’s still cute

  2. says

    I wonder if it could be an outgrowth of evolved “rules” to protect offspring. They tend to do obnoxious things before they’re fully socialized, and it’s a bad idea (evolutionarily) for the adults (at least, the closely related adults) to respond in kind as they would to another fully grown adult. Seems like a system like that could easily have a certain amount of slop in it that would provide some protection to unrelated juveniles and smaller adults as well.

  3. weaver says

    It depends very much on how old/grown the animals are when they first encounter each other, or others of the sort.

    I have a Labrador Retriever who is always somewhat scared of cats, because when she was a puppy our dominant cat taught her that dogs are the lowest form of life on the planet, far below cats (and, by cat definition, humans). Though the dog now outweighs the cats by a factor of 4-5, and though our current cats do not act aggressively toward the dog at all, she is still very subservient toward them.

  4. pipenta says

    Is it possibly because small dogs are born wired to be wolves and then they are born into guinea-piglet bodies and they freak the fuck out, wondering WHYTHEHELLAREMYLEGSSOSHORTWHATHAPPENEDTOMYMUZZLE!?!?! every ding dong day? That would make you a bit edgy, don’t you think?

  5. Anonymouse says

    I think there’s quite a bit of truth to the idea that adults see smaller animals as babies. My BIL’s dog (now sadly deceased of old age) was a huge monster of a dog, a mixed-breed rescue of unknown parentage. The dog was a young adult when my BIL got it and the dog lived his entire life as a pushover to cats, even though he could have gulped them down like popcorn. He also couldn’t be given soft squeaky toys because he interpreted the squeaking as crying, and would take the toy to his bed and snuggle it to comfort it.

    My own rescue dog (much smaller!) had never been raised with children, but instantly figured out that my then-six-year-old was a “puppy” and would instantly back away from his own toys and food to let the “puppy” have them. The six-year-old was heartbroken that the dog wouldn’t play tug-of-war with toys like he would with the spouse and me; the dog was clearly saying, “You want this toy? Here, it’s yours.”

  6. San Ban says

    I have a giant breed dog and she is the gentlest creature on earth. Heck, I had tiny ducklings that used to peck at her nose and she tolerated it. I am fond of all manner of critters, but big dogs have my heart!

  7. Francisco Bacopa says

    Kitten teeth and claws are sharp as hell. The dog in the video is putting up with some serious pain.

    I know because I am the kind of guy who thinks that kitten hand wrestling is both cute and necessary for a cat’s development. If the cat gets too rough, play dead to show the game is over. Cats learn to hold back and it seems from the video that dogs can teach this to kittens too.

    My sole remaining kitteh is 14. We still hand wrestle, but Babycat holds back now.

    Some cats have never learned. My brother’s cat of unknown origin put my dad into the hospital. She bit into the bursae of his thumb and the infection spread to the lymph nodes into his armpits. He spent two days in the hospital getting IV antibiotics. The attending physician said that dogs send more people to the ER, but cats get the same number of people admitted for treatment.

    I think this is because cats are borderline venomous animals. Cats sometimes have an autoimmune condition called eosinophilic granuloma. Cats have an immune system that prevents them from getting some of the kinds of worms dogs do, but sometimes that immune response can turn against a cat causing lip ulcers. But I think cats deliver some of these proteins with their bites, which overhypes the immune response of the victim.

    I’m pretty sure I am immune. Been chewed on by kittehs all my life and have had some serious bites while working with Alley Cat Allies. Yes, we have Kevlar gloves, but I prefer to leave one hand ungloved.

  8. F says

    Yes, I’ve seen plenty of small dogs that rule over dogs of all other sizes. I wouldn’t say that this happens with any more frequency than any other size dog, but it may be that a tolerance (possibly even turned fear) of smaller dogs is a crapshoot failsfe.

    Dog/cat anecdote: My brother’s very mellow and very large dog was not tolerant of the vicious psychopath cat. If the cat happened to be somewhere the dog didn’t like, he would pick him up in his mouth and drop him off somewhere else. The cat didn’t even bother fighting after a while.

    In other news: Amish beard-cutting maniacs are going to trial. I have to urk over the victims’ claims of mental anguish from embarrassment and shame so terrific, they couldn’t go out in public. Poisoned by religion, is what that is. (Either that, or some prosecutorial scheme.)

  9. jamessweet says

    Anecdotally, when we are walking our dogs, if we pass a dog that is similar in size to them or larger, we have to be really careful, as they have a tendency to fly off the handle and start barking at the stranger. On the other hand, if we pass a little dog, even if the little bastard is barking his damn head off, our dogs pretty much just totally ignore it. They might look over in the small dog’s direction to see what the noise is, but they seem completely uninterested. FWIW.

  10. jamessweet says

    If you ask me, that’s because people generally train their big dogs and just let their small dogs do whatever shit they like because they’re able to physically handle them.

    I think there’s is some truth to this, though I think it’s only part of the story. It is definitely true that, despite the stereotype of little dogs being yappy little monsters, I have met some very well-behaved little critters. This would be consistent with your hypothesis: The stereotype exists because most little dogs are poorly trained, but when trained they are just as well-behaved as their bigger counterparts.

    However, there are some breeds of little yappers where I’ve just never met one that wasn’t incredibly irritating. Maybe that’s just anecdotal experience, or maybe it’s just the people who choose to own those breeds 🙂 But in any case, it makes me wonder if it’s a combination between your hypothesis and their general nature.

  11. Mano Singham says

    I have never had a cat as a pet but am surprised that they are so prone to cause injuries.

  12. Jared A says

    Meh. I hear this “little dogs are so aggressive because they aren’t well trained!” a lot but I am not sure how accurate it is.

    For example, I have met mostly all-around benign chihuahuas, despite their reputation. I also have known plenty of small dogs that get all feisty around bigger dogs and adults, but are calm and patient around children and even-smaller dogs. So this fits well into the point about it being a relative size issue.

    I think there is some absolute scale in there. According to Temple Grandin, gracile bodied dogs tend to be more prone to falling back to the fight-or-flight response (which is what the yapping often indicates) than their more robust cousins. This is why small but beefy dogs like bulldogs are so much more mild than terriers.

    There’s probably a major temperament component, too. A lot of small dogs (including chihuahuas) have what is acalled a terrier-type temperament. Terriers are the only breed I know of that were specifically breed to ruthlessly kill something (pests) on sight, unlike hunting dogs which are more for tracking and/or retrieval. Terriers are breed to be aggressive.

    I think that it is less that they are usually poorly trained, and more that they are breed differently. Yes, very good training helps, but it is not so easy to get a terrier to act like a golden retriever.

  13. Nepenthe says

    It’s mostly because dog bites are open wounds, whereas cat bites are punctures and get infected very easily. Dog bites look nasty, but cat bites are the ones that make your limbs rot off.

    *glares at cat with hypodermic needle teeth and claws*

  14. NinetyEight says

    A year after acquiring our middle-aged, male Bouvier (80 lbs.) we got a very young, female Spitz mix about half his size and a third of his weight. She was forever playfully pulling on his ears and beard while he would just sigh and give us long-suffering looks.
    Then one day we had a visiting dog half our small dog’s size with which she began to play a bit too roughly for the Bouvier’s liking. He went over to the wee bully he had been tolerating and with mouth fully opened into a giant ring of teeth roared at her. For the first time she saw herself as a snack, left off pestering the guest dog, and did not go near the Bouvier for a week.

  15. lorn says

    Seems to me that this is pretty much a form of social contract. The big guys don’t get to beat up on the little guys. Now if we could just get humans to adopt a similar social norm …

  16. says

    I’d love to see that study myself – what benefit to the pack is letting the smaller, beta animals get away with so much? I can’t imagine it’s the humour factor – or is it? Middle wolves seeing beta play with alpha could both have doggie-laughter while respecting beta enough to not drive it out of the pack. Someone has to be bottom dog, after all.

    I have had one big dog and several cats (a changing cast of both) and I train my dog to have me as pack leader, and after me, the cats. My husband and the dog can fight it out for themselves (he’s above the current dog, barely, but was clearly beta in the mind of our last dog, who challenged me for leadership every now and again). Good thing hubby doesn’t mind much, because I have to be alpha! Heh. Oh, and the big boy who wanted my spot in the pack? We took him to a pub and a Jack Russell – also male – kept trying to mate him. I got long suffering look after look, and kept telling him ‘you don’t have to put up with that, get him!’ until he did – a fast spin and the loudest single WOOF! Little jack didn’t try it again and I think my boy carried his tail higher the rest of the night. But, he still needed my permission 🙂

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