Downeast Dog News

"He's Protecting Me"

What’s really going on with the “protective” dog?
By | Mar 01, 2017
When our neighbor walks his dog on leash in “the hood,” she abruptly lunges, bouncing, mouth agape and barking with intensity, every time a car passes by. “She’s protecting me,” he said.

A client told me the reason her dog barked ferociously when someone knocked at her door was because he was protecting her.

We’ve all seen a little lapdog turn into a little monster when approached because we have been told, he is protecting his owner.

Pet owners are experts at anthropomorphizing (attributing human traits to non-humans), but it is surprising how frequently dog owners make comments that indicate they sincerely believe their dog’s actions are primarily motivated by their human's well-being. We are, hopefully, very important to our dogs, but we are also rather ego-centric creatures, too. Saying our dog is “protecting” us makes us feel more significant, doesn’t it? Sometimes, dare I say, claiming “he’s protecting me” might actually serve as an excuse for not doing anything about it. When it's a question of safety or functionality, we most certainly should do something about it.

When is it “protecting” (or guarding, a more appropriate term) and when is it reactivity? When is it a problem?

Dogs need to feel safe, first and foremost, just like us. And just like us, their behavior is dictated by genetics, history (habit), and the environment/situation in which they find themselves.

Guarding is when a dog puts on an aggressive display when he feels he risks losing control of a resource (food, toys, space, person). Guarding is usually triggered by the approach of a dog or human towards the resource. Personal space is a very important resource, and dogs may exhibit guarding behaviors on-leash, in the car, in the house, on the other side of a fence in an effort to control his space. Growling, freezing and snarling are common signs of guarding. Guarding against humans can be dangerous as the dog may be pushed to the point of causing harm. Seek professional help from a positive-reinforcement trainer if your dog guards. Guarding can be treated through systematic desensitization and counter-conditioning. It generally gets worse without appropriate treatment.

Reactivity is when a dog over-reacts to stimuli in the environment. It’s highly likely that Nellie, the car-chaser, would have the same behavior with any human attached to her - or even in the absence of a human. She is visually reactive to cars going by and because she’s part herding dog, her actions are probably partly genetically programmed. She really enjoys this hobby (re: her body language), but it’s not fun for her humans and greatly affects leash walking. Her owner now visually blocks her from seeing cars pass her (it’s not easy) which has helped a lot. It would be even better if he were to offer her something really, really yummy as a car went by or to train her to do an “incompatible behavior” (can’t occur at the same time).

The dog who barks at the door is reactive, too, but he may also be fearful or territorial. Protecting his human is probably not the reason for his behavior. Dogs who are reactive, for whatever reason, can also be treated using positive techniques. Systematic desensitization and counter-conditioning is the way to go for reactivity, too!

Systematic Desensitization and Counter-Conditioning is a systematic approach that combines the careful exposure to limited "doses" of a trigger or situation with appropriate amounts of whatever the dog would find highly rewarding so that the end result is a positive association.

I hope that you will be thinking more about the "protective" dogs in your life and what their motivators might actually be - it might be quite surprising!