The Biggest Myth You Need to Know about Protective Dogs

Revolutionise Your Dog Training

The Biggest Myth You Need to Know about Protective Dogs

August 29, 2022 Uncategorised 0

‘I was coming home from a walk with my and my neighbour was outside his house. We started chatting but my dog was barking and lunging at him. When he tried to move away, my dog grabbed his trousers! I’m so embarrased! Is my dog protecting me?’

‘I’ve got a really embarrassing problem… Every time my husband tries to get into bed, our dog tries to bite him and refuses to let him get in. My husband’s been sleeping in the spare room for the last six weeks!’

If these client tales sound remarkably familiar, maybe you have wondered if your dog is protecting you?

Unlike territorial behaviour, which dog guardians do not always identify in their reactive dog, protective behaviour is often over-diagnosed. In this article, you’ll find out whether your dog is really protecting you. You’ll also find out what else could be going on.

This post is the sixth in a series of ten looking at reactive behaviour in dogs.

So far we have looked at:

Fearful behaviour

Anxious behaviour

Frustrated behaviour

Impulsive behaviour

Territorial behaviour

What is protective behaviour?

Protective behaviour is any behaviour where your dog acts to protect you or another individual from what they perceive to be a threat. They are not fearful for their own safety, but for that of another individual.

They may protect dogs in their family group. You would need to rule out whether their behaviour is just about exclusive access to a resource, such as play. It is not uncommon for dogs who live in groups to enjoy playing with one particular friend, and for them to growl or snap if another dog tries to engage with their special friend. You may also see this if your female comes into season and you have other dogs: you may find that one of your males ‘guards’ the in-season female from the others.

They may protect members of the family. You will also need to rule out whether their behaviour is again about exclusive access to a resource. For the young Yorkshire terrier who would not let the husband get into bed, this was about exclusive access to the bed and to affection, as well as a poor relationship with the husband where there was very little trust.

Dogs also protect members of other species. The Maremma and the Grand Pyrénées Mountain dog are two well-known livestock protection breeds who imprint on the flock and work to protect the flock from danger. If you go hiking in the Pyrenees, you will see signs warning you not to approach the sheep. Across the mountains and hills of Eurasia large mastiffs and livestock protection dogs have worked for thousands of years to keep livestock safe.

Likewise, on the plains of Northern Europe from France to Hungary and beyond, you will find multipurpose shepherd dogs who are used for livestock protection as well as herding.

How do I know if my dog is protecting me?

First, rule out generalised stranger danger. If your dog is fearful or suspicious of people or other animals when you are not present, then it is unlikely they are acting to protect you. A dog who is protective will not behave in the same way when the human or animal they are protecting is not present.

You should also rule out the influence of other resources such as exclusive or preferential access to petting, food, comfort or resting spaces. For instance, if your dog always pushes your other dog out of the way if you offer petting, this is not about protecting you from threat but about preferential access to your attention or contact. In this case, behaviour is driven more by frustration in these circumstances.

In the example with the Yorkshire terrier, since the dog only went to attack the husband as he came to get into bed, we would have to understand whether this is about the bed, the wife, the contact the dog is accessing, or the husband.

We could ask whether the dog does the same thing if the wife is not in bed already. This would help us understand if it is about a resting place.

If the dog behaves differently if he is being petted by the wife on the couch, this could also tell us that it is about the bed.

We may ask if there are other circumstances when the dog also growls or snaps at the husband.

There may be more factors involved. In this case, all four things needed to happen before the dog would growl or snap. It was about the location, about the female guardian, about access to petting and attention and it was about the relationship the dog had with the male guardian.

It wasn’t protective behaviour.

Rule out other variables first

Protective behaviour is what is happening when you’ve ruled out or understood all other variables. It’s human nature to think of canine behaviour as it relates to us, but in fact, most dogs are not thinking about threats to us. Instead, they are thinking of threats to themselves.

You should also explore impulsive behaviour. Some dogs who are protective also need help with impulse control. If your dog is choosing behaviours that are largely inappropriate for the situation, then this relates to impulsivity. A husband getting into bed is not a threat, for example, and the dog’s level of behaviour was disproportionate to the ‘offence’ committed. Your neighbour does not mean you harm and to grab the neighbour’s trousers is disproportionate to the threat posed.

Some people think that because their dog comes to sit with them if strangers or other dogs appear, then their dog is protecting them. For instance, one spaniel would regularly go to sit with her guardian when guests arrived. However, the dog was generally suspicious of strangers in general and her behaviour related more to the fact that her guardian bolstered her confidence. Sitting near her guardian gave her the confidence to cope with strangers.

A final aspect of behaviour that you also need to consider is territorial behaviour. If your dog behaves differently in the home, then this is something you will need to explore.

Consider simpler explanations

As you can see, there are many simpler explanations that need to be accounted for before you can say that it is likely your dog is protecting you.

One client explained that his rottweiler would regularly ‘guard’ him from an elderly neighbour, particularly when the guardian was occupied with something else. In reality, the dog really did not like the neighbour. The client simply didn’t see how the dog behaved when he was not around. Because we generally only see dog behaviour when we are present, it can be tempting to think that it relates to us.

You should always work safely to get a better understanding of what is happening. In this case, we did not need to take video of what happened when the dog was alone. We simply asked the neighbour how the dog behaved towards her if he was alone in the garden. Her response was that the dog was ‘always terrifying’ and it was ‘worse’ when the guardian wasn’t present because there was nobody to intervene. Careful interviewing can help you identify if it relates to you rather than having to set up test situations to rule out issues.

Other signs of protective behaviour

A protective dog will move between you and the threat, using their body to block access to you.

Dogs who are protecting another individual tend to stay very close to that individual or keep them in visual range.

As the threat approaches, the dog will increase warning signs, perhaps moving from growling to lunging and snapping.

When the threat retreats, the dog will stay with the individual they are protecting.

If a threat approaches and the dog was engaged in something else some distance away, they will usually move towards the individual they are protecting rather than moving towards the threat.

The dog may be a breed selected for guardianship, but we should remember all dogs have the capability to guard other individuals.

Typically, protective behaviour should only be seen when there is a threat of danger or harm. Hikers walking in the Pyrenees can pass without harm as long as they stay away from the sheep.

You may find that there are specific triggers that lock together and need to be understood.

Managing a dog who is protecting you

As with any dog, your first job is always management. You should make sure that your dog does not have opportunity to practise these behaviours. If the behaviour happens on a walk, you will need to make sure that you have a secure lead and perhaps muzzle your dog. Although muzzles can encourage us to place dogs in situations beyond their capacity, our primary responsibility is to keep our dog and other individuals safe.

If the behaviour is happening in the home, you should also make sure you are keeping your family members or guests safe. It will be vital that you work with a behaviour consultant since it is often difficult to avoid situations in the home and it is both impractical and unethical to keep the dog muzzled or separated for long periods of time.

Training a dog who is protecting you

Once you have ensured that your dog cannot practise these behaviours, it is useful to take a short break from exposure to others while you begin your training.

First, you should address any underlying impulsivity. Stiff stares, barking and growling are appropriate ways of signalling a threat; waiting until the last moment then lunging and snapping are not. Sometimes this occurs because we have either ignored or punished lower level behaviours. These behaviours should not be ignored.

Second, you should then work with a qualified and experienced behaviour consultant to help your dog understand when others are a threat and when they are not. You may wish to use cues to signal that other people will not be a threat or to build up behaviours that keep the dog away from individuals who approach. You will also need to carry out a graduated exposure plan so that your dog habituates to strangers approaching through repeated exposure at levels that increase gradually.

Under no circumstance should you muzzle the dog and hold them in position with a lead while strangers approach you. This method is called flooding. It is highly unpleasant for the dog.

Although it is sometimes carried out with good intentions, to help the dog ‘get used to’ people or other dogs approaching you and to see that they mean no threat, the same results can be achieved with a graduated exposure plan. This does not teach the dog that reacting will have no consequence. Instead, it teaches them to reappraise threats and learn the more complex cognitive processes required to inhibit their natural instinct to use aggression to make threats back away.

You can read more about this topic on Lighten UP’s sister site Woof Like To Meet.

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