Large Dogs: Some Inconvenient Truths

I’m definitely not one to discourage large dog ownership; I love large breed dogs. My smallest dog is 65 lbs and I tend to think of him as tiny. That said, there are some inconvenient facts about large dogs that their admirers tend to gloss over, and these can sometimes result in the wrong people adopting them.

The bigger your dog, the more important it becomes that you chose your breed wisely, train well, and keep up with your responsibilities as a dog owner. Just like with large dogs, there are plenty of very small working breeds that will make everyone miserable if they’re under-exercised and under-stimulated. The difference is in the time it takes a very small dog to do the same amount of damage, and the difficulty of containing them. Large dogs are stronger, taller, and better able to escape confinement, steal stuff off your counters, chew holes in your walls or furniture, break crates, and tethers and otherwise shred everything.

Just the size of a crate for large dogs can make containing them difficult. I don’t own a vehicle that will hold a crate properly sized for either one of my hound mixes, much less all three of my dogs. When the hounds were still chewing everything not nailed down that meant that I needed another person in the car to make sure they weren’t eating it while I was distracted by driving. Bramble, my largest dog, weighs 95 lbs, and believes that driving is an excellent time to cuddle the driver. He’s broken several seatbelt tethers and popped up in the front seat with me, and he doesn’t break the gate I installed to lock him in the back seat out of kindness and a lot of rewards for staying in the back seat. I’m not currently aware of something that he just couldn’t circumvent if he was more motivated. Keeping crates sized for three large dogs in my house would take up an incredible amount of space, and crates that large are extremely expensive, which is one reason I didn’t crate train. I do use baby gates, but they’re suggested barriers my dogs mostly choose to respect, but could jump if they wanted to.

In addition to crates, everything else you need for a large dog is more expensive. From beds to chews to toys to fencing to medication it’s going to cost more and get worn out faster. If you’re considering a large breed puppy or adolescent, I encourage you to just price the chew toys you’ll need, and remember that they’ll be a consistent expense for at least two years. For dogs more than 100 lbs, you’ll need to combine heartworm and flea medication doses to get up to the correct weight range, and it’s often difficult to find leashes or other items rated for dogs that heavy. The larger your dog the harder it will be to shop sales.

Large dogs are also just flat-out strong and unwieldy. A small dog owner recently pointed out that she just picks her dog up and makes her do all the things I have to ask my dogs to do, like getting into the back of the car instead of the front seat. While I don’t usually advocate forcing your dogs to do things, the option is nice to have, especially in an emergency. I can’t easily make my dogs do much of anything, even if it’s something like a necessary vet trip, which would be better if I could just make them let me get it over faster. If my dogs don’t want to do something, I have to coax them into it. I need my husband to get Bramble on the scale at the vet’s office, which effectively means that I can’t take him by myself. I have to hope and pray no one gets injured in such a way that they can’t walk because there is a limit to how far I could carry them by myself to get them to a vehicle. You’ll find that most of the advice for handling dogs that need to be restrained, like to remove a tick that’s become painful, is geared for dogs smaller than yours and significantly less strong.

Adolescent large breeds tend to not know how strong they are or where their body begins and ends, which means that they’re probably going to knock you around, and may accidentally injure other pets and small children if they’re not carefully supervised and trained when they’re still small. If you’re in frail health, a large breed puppy is probably a bad choice for you. I don’t know anyone who’s made it all the way from puppy to adult dog with a large breed and not had some kind of fall or injury caused by normal exuberant behavior. Dogs usually believe they end at around half of their body length, and the larger the dog the more mass they’re cluelessly throwing around. Even a simple tug on the leash can be enough to knock over their owner or take them land skiing if your dog is big enough.

Training some of the simplest things, such as not counter surfing or jumping on people, are much more difficult with a dog that can easily see everything on your counters and reach your face, and out-muscle you. Jumping dogs want your attention, but what they really really want is to reach your face. If they can do that successfully by jumping, and they’re heavy enough to knock you off-balance and keep you from spinning around and reacting properly to avoid reinforcing the behavior, it’s going to take time and effort to make them stop. We learned our lesson the hard way the first time around so Bramble was absolutely never reinforced for jumping up from 6 weeks old, when I began fostering his litter. He never jumped up as a puppy, but part of adolescence is experimenting with behaviors. At 9 months old he was large enough to easily reach my face, and keep his balance to keep licking me. Even trying to put my hands or knee out to block him just gave him a place to put his legs. He’s strong enough to out-muscle me if I don’t have good leverage, so even getting up and leaving the room can be a challenge if he’s decided I need to be licked to death. Biscotti is smaller, but he’s got enough Border Collie in him to easily jump up and lick your face without otherwise touching you. I had to learn to be constantly on my guard and spin around before they jumped to extinguish the behavior.  Bramble is tall enough to see anything I thoughtlessly set down on my counters, and it’s no effort at all for him to get up there. I know plenty of small dogs that have learned to use furniture to get up and steal things off the counters, but they’re in the minority and much easier to stop. I have to consistently remember not to leave anything tempting on the counters unsupervised for even a second, because if Bramble gets something he’s being rewarded. Quadruple that for anything potentially dangerous.

Potty training is often easier with large breed dogs because they tend to be able to go longer than a small breed without a bathroom break and their size as puppies encourages better hygiene before they leave their mom, but every dog will have some sort of stomach bug during their life and go inside. Their accidents are bigger, and if they become incontinent as they age it will be much worse to clean up after than a dog 60 lbs smaller. While there are options for smaller dogs who need to use the bathroom indoors, I’ve never seen an indoor doggy toilet that I thought would work for a dog that essentially has human sized excrement. In addition to the mess stomach upset might make, sometimes even well-trained adult dogs will chew to try to alleviate severe stomach upset, which can result in a lot of damage in a very short time if the dog is big.

While I don’t believe in letting your small dog terrorize everyone, it’s a fact that they have much more behavior leeway in public than a large dog. I’ve seen people completely charmed by a 20 lb dog aggressively barking at every other dog she sees in the pet store, which is something I would be asked to leave if any of my dogs did. My dogs absolutely can’t behave aggressively, jump up on strangers, or bark in public because they’ll scare people and could easily hurt someone. They have to tolerate small dogs being incredibly rude, at least for long enough for me to get them out of there, because they’re big and inherently scary. They’re too big for me to just pick up, so I can’t keep them out of reach of other dogs behaving badly and they have to keep themselves under control in those situations. Their faces are at about the same height as young children, and only one of them is solid enough that I’ll take him into a crowded area because children that size tend to do things like stick their food-covered hands in dogs’ mouths on their way past.

Because my dogs are also big enough that I’ll have trouble dragging them out if they don’t come by themselves, it’s imperative that I make sure they’re not overwhelmed enough in public to become a problem.  With Bramble’s social anxiety that can make working on his socialization a much bigger challenge than it would be if he were half his size, because he can’t be allowed to make mistakes in public, and I’ll have a harder time with crisis management. At 95 lbs, many people are afraid of him just sitting silently and focusing on me, he cannot be put into a situation where he’s overstimulated because even with obviously friendly playful body language, any noise is interpreted as aggression by the public. If he were to scare a smaller dog into attacking him, even a mild response on his part could result in injury to a small dog.

Large dogs definitely have their advantages, and I wouldn’t trade my big guys in for smaller dogs. The signature big dog leans and giant cuddles are wonderful. The absolute requirement of better handling makes me a better dog owner and improves our relationship. We have coyotes and lots of issues with roaming dogs in my area, and I like that my dogs are large enough to deter problems and avoid serious injury if the worst did happen. The two that like children are sturdy enough to enjoy rough play and while I monitor their interactions carefully, I’m not concerned about a child grabbing them and preventing them from getting away or causing a serious injury, which can be an issue with toy and small dogs. My dad’s toy poodle actually broke his leg during supervised play with another toy dog, and I definitely don’t worry about that.  Though they’re actually terrible watch dogs, just having large dogs is a great theft deterrent and makes me feel much safer living in an isolated house when my husband is out-of-town.  Walking them in public as a woman is like performing a magic trick, because their presence completely eliminates cat calling and street harassment. That’s a bad reason to pick a dog, but still a great side benefit. Many large breeds are actually quite low energy and make better apartment dogs than smaller but more active breeds. Just like with any dog, it’s important to match the level of owner commitment, experience, and lifestyle with the breed and size should be a major consideration.

By Laura-C

Hopes to someday train her dogs not to be douchebags.

9 replies on “Large Dogs: Some Inconvenient Truths”

Gershwin had to have abdominal surgery (jerk ate a something and it got stuck) and our vet didn’t have the type of overnight care he needed. The overnight vet wasn’t able to take care of him during the day (the overnight place basically rented from a regular daytime vet). So we had to get our 90 pound, groggy, in-pain Basset from the vet, into a Civic, out of the Civic and into the other vet’s. It was not a fun time…for anyone.

Another time, same 90 pound Basset ran, at full speed, bonehead-first into my shin. Giant bruise. Thankful that I saw him coming in enough time to unlock my knees.

He’s also stolen homemade apple pies from the back of the counter and steak from the sink. He has FOUR INCH LEGS!

When we replaced a recliner, we replaced it with a reclining chair-and-a-half. The couch got replaced by a reclining couch. We sleep in a king-sized bed and we still end up with no room. Their dog beds take up SO MUCH SPACE. And their toe nails make the heavy duty clippers WEEP for mercy.

On the other hand, they both routinely manage to fall UP the stairs, which never stops being hilarious!

You’ve touched on something really important, which is that if you are getting a big dog, you need to look carefully at your age and future. You need to figure out what you are going to be like in a decade, because hopefully your big moose will still be in need of walks and exercise, albeit not as much.

I took care of a 65 pound, 2 year old plott hound at my last place for rent discount (housemate worked long hours and I’m a Dog Person), and she absolutely did not know her strength/size and on top of that is extremely gregarious. It would be fine for my housemate, who is a normal sized man, but I’m 5 foot 1/90 pounds so there was a lot of “okay baby gate needs to be up if I’m in bed so she doesn’t try to jump on top of me at 7:00 in the morning when Taylor gets up because she wants to cuddle.”

When I (or he) would walk her, I’d need to be very careful to cross the street if I saw another dog because she’d try to go and make friends… but likes to play rough and wouldn’t process the other dog was half her size. It’d be tough because she’d whine up a storm across the street and I’d practically have to drag her by her harness, but noooo sorry you can’t play with that dog.

I don’t particularly want to have to have to walk a hound again (have to keep them beside you/behind you, can’t let them lead, which is HARD when they pretty much weigh as much as you do), but it was definitely a great experience to know that I can in fact handle a larger dog, as someone who grew up fostering poodles but definitely prefers dogs over 50/60 pounds.

I love my 90 lb German Shepherd mix, but I am so glad she was trained before we got her. She’s incredibly well-behaved and does things I wouldn’t even know how to train a dog to do (like wait patiently in the car until I have her leash in my hand). But it’s definitely a good thing that I’m strong enough to manhandle her somewhat, or at least hold her still (mostly by enveloping her in a bear hug) when I need to. My mother-in-law can’t, and I worry about how much longer we’ll be able to use her as a dogsitter.

She’s also our best Halloween decoration. We leave the solid front door open and close our glass door. Whenever kids ring the doorbell, she comes running out to see who it is and the little ones get a good scare before we pull her back to give out candy.

My family has great big labs, and I see a lot of this. We’ve lost god knows how many remote controls/phones/tupperware containers from leaving them carelessly on the counters. Loki walks up and takes it like it’s no big thing. If he doesn’t want to do something, he doesn’t do it. He takes two heartworm pills a month, because they don’t make doses that big. We have two big Kong beds in the living room, one for each dog. Because they’re allowed on the furniture, furniture is bought to be “labrador-sized.” In other words, it has to fit two people AND a dog. Otherwise, we would never get to sit in our own house.

I wanted a big, goofy dog, and ended up with something totally different. (Of course, it’s nice to know that in an emergency, I can just grab her without having to worry about it.) I think our next one is going to be a big hound or lab. I love being able to pet a dog absentmindedly while still standing. Takes a lot of the work out.

You’re describing my house! We only put the futon into the up position when we’re having company so more dogs will fit, a huge amount of floor space is devoted to dog beds, and everything is selected for it’s clean ability.
I honestly didn’t realize how unwieldy big dogs could be until I got Bramble, who combines a less biddable breed, with extreme reactions to being overwhelmed and just big emotional responses in general. Hounds are the best, except for when they’re being the worst. :)

You get used to walking over them, too. Little breeds tend to jump out of the way for fear of being stepped on. Large breeds are all, I was here first. Big dogs don’t necessarily need big houses, but they do need big kitchens. (Ore REALLY well-trained dogs. Impossible with chowhound breeds.) That’s a terrible place to have to “avoid” a dog! “Thor, I’m going to break a hip before we’re through!” is an oft-used phrase.

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