Dog trainers often face a challenge when clients tell us that their dog is “protecting them”.
The common scenario prompting such claims is when a person approaches the dog's owner, and the dog reacts aggressively, seemingly to ward off the perceived threat.
One of the key issues dog trainers have with the term 'protection' is its loaded nature. In the context of dog training, 'protection' usually refers to specific behaviours trained in activities like protective sports, where dogs are instructed to perform tasks such as object guarding or apprehending suspects. These trained actions involve consistent signals and commands, making 'protection' a specialised term. Drawing a parallel, saying a pet dog is “protecting” someone is akin to mislabeling an emotional support dog as a service dog—they carry different connotations, entail distinct training approaches, and even legal connotations.
When examining the intent behind a trained protection dog, it becomes evident that these dogs operate under specific commands and tasks, devoid of stress, as it aligns with their trained role. Unlike an average pet dog, which may exhibit similar behaviours on the surface, the motivations and emotions differ significantly thereby giving a lack of predicability in the pet dogs ‘protective’ behaviours.
One common reason for a pet dog's seemingly protective behaviour is resource guarding. The dog perceives its owner as a valuable resource and seeks to prevent anyone from taking that resource away. Resource guarding, an inherent trait in many dogs, can trigger a primal survival mechanism that is challenging to predict and control. Furthermore, the dog decides themselves whom they perceive as a threat to their resource and this could be, for example, between a mother and her child. A trained protection dog, on the other hand, has been told on command what is the threat, making the behaviours highly predictable.
Another potential reason for seemingly protective behaviour is fear. In such cases, the dog may view a trigger as a threat and, often being physically attached to its owner (with a leash, for example), react in a fight-oriented manner. However, these dogs are not protecting their owner; they are attempting to address their fear by signalling a potential conflict. Despite their aggressive appearance, these dogs are ready for a quick retreat as they prioritise self-preservation over protecting their owner.
Concerns arise for dog trainers when owners believe their dogs will genuinely protect them, fostering a false sense of security as well as leading them to make rational decisions based on this belief. This can both be dangerous for society as well as the actual owner as an unpredictable dog may redirect onto them. Consequently, owners may inadvertently encourage a 'bodyguard' type of behaviour, allowing the dog to assume the role of an executive decision-maker. Dogs displaying resource guarding or fear-based behaviour cannot be considered reliable protectors; their actions are more likely driven by instinct and self-preservation. Embracing this misconception may result in potentially hazardous situations, as the dog's unpredictable actions could pose risks to others.
Furthermore, it's essential to consider the mental and physical toll on a dog exhibiting such behaviours. Unlike dogs trained in protection sports, which find enjoyment in their activities, pet dogs displaying protective tendencies due to fear or resource guarding are likely experiencing extreme stress. This state of mind is not sustainable for their well-being and can adversely impact their overall health. It's crucial for owners to understand that a dog appearing protective may be distressed rather than enjoying a fulfilling and happy experience.