Is my dog protecting me?

Along with separation anxiety, protective behaviour is the one behaviour that guardians most often contact me to say their dog is exhibiting where I often think this self-diagnosis has been made in error.

Much as I hate labels, many guardians mistake certain aggressive behaviours as motived by a desire to protect them. Some of those include territorial behaviours, a high degree of suspicious behaviour concerning unfamiliar dogs and humans, or resource guarding. In the past, vets and behaviourists may also have labelled these behaviours as dominance too. So today, I want to iron out the wrinkles, to clean up the confusion and tidy up the misunderstandings.

Usually, clients will tell me their dog is behaving aggressively or their dog is reactive when out on a walk. They tell me they stopped to talk to a neighbour and their dog barked at or lunged at the neighbour when the neighbour came up to shake hands. They tell me that an off-lead dog ran up to them in the park and their dog attacked the off-lead dog. They tell me that a cyclist went past and the dog bit them. Sometimes they tell me that their dog bit someone who came into the house or garden, even if they’d been invited in. Or they tell me that their dog growls at anyone who approaches them when the dog is sitting with them in the home.

Very often in these scenarios, guardians tell me that the dog was just protecting them. Like separation anxiety, an umbrella diagnosis for a lot of behaviours, emotions and motivations, I want more information first before I agree. Invariably, however, I arrive at a different conclusion. Is your dog really protecting you, or is something else going on?

Protective aggression is usually something I end up ruling out all together. Largely because protective behaviour is very different from the behaviour the guardian is describing. Although I don’t like labels, certain behaviours also require certain treatment plans – and that may include veterinary treatments or behavioural medication – and it matters what the dog is doing. After all, you don’t treat a sore throat with stomach medication. It would be completely ineffective, unless the sore throat was caused by acid reflux. Likewise, treating territorial, guarding or aggressive behaviour towards strangers as if it is protective behaviour is very likely to be as ineffective as treating most sore throats with Gaviscon.

Many dogs have been specifically bred for protection. Mainland European herding dogs from the Great Northern European plains were bred to work to not only keep the flock together, but to work in unfenced multi-purpose agricultural land. The predecessors of German shepherds, Belgian shepherds, Briards, Berger de Picardie, Beauceron, Dutch shepherds and some Italian herding dogs were bred to keep the flock together, keep the flock off crops and also to protect the flock from predators – both animal and human. Sometimes we call this the ‘living fence’ where the dog seems to act like a fence keeping the flock in, keeping them in situ and protecting them from threat, just as a fence would do. Some German shepherd owners erroneously attribute the ‘living fence’ notion to this manufactured modern breed, when in fact it is a behaviour we see in many other northern European flatland dogs, particularly the berger de Beauce and the berger de Brie. Being able to keep the flock together is a key aspect of this behaviour, and that means a certain level of independence – as the dogs may be left without the shepherd – but also a degree of stranger danger. Anything that approaches the dog is seen as a threat. It is little wonder that German shepherds, Dutch shepherds, French shepherds and Belgian shepherds are most often seen as guard dogs. They’re very different from the British herding dogs like the collie, and the herding dogs of the English-speaking diaspora in Australia, New Zealand and the USA.

Another group of more ancient working dogs also have strong instincts for flock guardianship, albeit without the herding tendencies: the livestock guardian breeds and mastiffs. From the Caucasus, through Asia Minor, into Eastern and Southern Europe, where there are mountains, there are livestock guardian breeds and mastiffs. Since there are few crops in these areas, you don’t need dogs who can also act as a living fence, keeping sheep from grazing on unfenced crops, but you do need dogs who can keep the wolves away and protect the flock in the absence of a human. All the big guardian breeds fall into this group, from the Akbash and Anatolian shepherd, the Carpathian shepherd and the Mioritic to the Maremma, the Pyrenean mountain dog, the Portuguese Estrela mountain dogs and the Spanish mastins, these dogs can often be found in European mountain areas along with an accompanying sign to remind hikers to leave the dogs to their flocks and not to make any approaches. Many of these breeds are also making their way into the Western world, where guardians are troubled by behaviours they don’t understand and that are out of place in urban areas, but that the dogs resort to particularly in times of stress when they’re more likely to revert to their ‘default’ settings and inbuilt behaviours rather than relying on learned experience. Recent work has shown that livestock guardian breeds like these are actually less motivated by territorial behaviour than they are by protective behaviour. In other words, they are bonded to the sheep and have imprinted on them. This behaviour, from a very early age, makes them very protective of their flock, seeing them as kin.

It’s less unusual therefore to see protective behaviours from these dogs than it is from other dogs. And of course other dogs can be protective. All dogs are born knowing how to be a dog. Just in these two different types of dog we have selected for very particular behaviours that careful socialisation should address. What I would typically expect to see from dogs in this category would be that ‘suspicious until they know you; loyal when you’re a friend’ kind of behaviours. It’s not unusual for shepherd and livestock guardian owners to report that their dogs have problems with arrivals and departures from the group, and with strangers. Certainly, my own reprobate Belgians are highly suspicious of people and dogs until they know them. And then, they’re your very best friend and would guard you with their life. I always think of them of dog versions of the Robot in Lost in Space: “Danger, Will Robinson, Danger!”

So protective behaviour for these kind of dogs would include aggressive reactions towards strangers and generally biddable behaviour with people and animals they know. It’s often directed towards strangers who they perceive as a threat. However, these dogs would also be fairly biddable away from their flock. The true test of protective behaviour for me is if the dog is friendly when they’re not with their flock or family. Or that their reactions are much milder, at least. If the dog is as aggressive or reactive with strangers as they are when they’re on their own, it’s not protective behaviour, is it? They’ve nothing to protect. And most dogs, in my experience, are as aggressive or reactive on their own as they are when they’re with their humans or animal companions. My dogs are not protecting me: they’re as wary of strangers when they’re alone as they are when they’re with me. And stranger danger is very different than protective behaviour.

Protective behaviour:
* Behaviour exhibited would be barking, growling, lunges, air snapping, bites when a stranger approaches the dog who is with their guardian or another family member/animal. This would intensify the closer the threat comes to the guardian, family member or family animal.
* The dog does not behave in this way (or much more mildly) when the guardian, family member or family animal is not present.
* The context is always in the presence of the guardian, family member or family animal, whether on familiar or unfamiliar territory.
* The purpose of the behaviour is to keep threats away from a protected target.
* Rule out stranger-related behaviours, sexual behaviours (where the dog is protecting a dog of the opposite sex from same-sex dogs), territorial behaviours, resource guarding.
* Treatment would include desensitisation and counter-conditioning as well as taught behaviours such as a down-stay. Treatment will always focus on the dog-guardian pair. There would be little point in training the dog without the guarded family member present.

There may also be hyper-attachment to the guardian, family member or other animal in my experience, and the dog may not cope well without their presence. Remember that this behaviour may not be seen in isolation: it may be that the dog also presents other behaviours too. You can be both territorial and protective!

Stranger-related behaviours:
* Behaviour exhibited would be barking, growling, lunges, air snapping, bites when a strange human or dog approaches whether out in public, on home ground, whether in the company or the guardian or whether alone.
* The dog consistently behaves in this way with strange humans and dogs despite removal from territory, removal from resources and removal from familiar humans and dogs.
* The context is consistent every time strange people or dogs approach.
* The purpose is to stop the approach of unfamiliar animals or humans.
* Rule out protective behaviour, territorial behaviour and resource guarding.
* Treatment would include desensitisation and counter-conditioning as well as taught behaviours such as automatic u-turns, games such as “Look at That!” and working both with the guardian present and when the dog is alone. Treat and Train machines which dispense treats and remote training would be possible treatments for dogs who are uncomfortable with all strangers. Treatment will focus on both the dog alone and the dog with their guardian.

There may, of course, be dogs whose behaviour is intensified when the guardian is present or when they are on ‘home’ territory.

Territorial behaviour:
* Behaviour exhibited would be barking, growling, lunges, air snapping, bites when a strange human or dog approaches a space considered by the dog to be their territory ie home ground, whether fenced or not, cars, homes, dog parks, familiar walks.
* The dog behaves consistently whether the guardian is present or not, but only on familiar ground
* The dog is friendly and approachable (or more so) away from the territory.
* The dog may be friendly and approachable if they arrive last to new territory that is already populated by unfamiliar humans or dogs, but may behave aggressively toward newcomers who arrive after them.
*The context is always on territory that is considered their own, whether that is because they are resident or because they have spent some time there, even if only very briefly. The behaviour is also only evident when a threat approaches, such as an unfamiliar dog or human.
*The purpose is to protect the territory, not the people or dogs within it, though it may well be intensified by the presence of people or other dogs.
* The behaviour may intensify if doors, gates and other barriers are introduced. Where physical barriers are not in evidence to demarcate the edges of territory, the dog may be less likely to intensify behaviour around the edge of the territory.
* Treatment would include desensitisation and counterconditioning on the territory, but may also include behaviours using remote devices and things like Treat and Trains where the guardian is not present.
* Rule out protective behaviour, stranger-directed behaviour and resource guarding.

Although the jury is still out as to whether dogs truly mark territory with pheromones in the same way as other canids do, it may be that these dogs are more likely to investigate urine and fecal matter left by other animals, and to overmark by urinating or defecating on top, and sometimes by scratching using hind paws to indicate where scent has been left. Dogs who are territorial may also often seem to spend more time investigating the perimeter when arriving at a new space, where other dogs are less likely to do so and may spend more time away from the perimeter. They may also leave well-defined tracks around the perimeter. I’d certainly be expecting to see other behaviours that suggest the dog is very aware of the boundaries to territory, such as marking around the edges or patrolling. The dog may also position themselves at entrance points if a physical boundary is evident.

Behaviours may be intensified by the presence of familiar humans or other animals. It may also be intensified by the presence of valued items. For instance, it’s not unusual for a dog to ‘claim’ territory in a kitchen or sleeping area from other dogs in the house, but the behaviour is less territorial and more about the presence of valued food items or sleeping spaces than it is about the territory itself per se.

As I said, it’s more typical to see certain breeds arrive as clients with these behaviours. For my own dogs, Heston my Belgian shepherd mix is pretty territorial. He is fine if we meet people off site (well, he’s a little nervous as he wasn’t socialised as well as he should have been – definitely my fault!) but he is not protective of me. He’d behave the same whether I was present or not. Lidy my Malinois is not particularly territorial, but she does not like strangers approaching her, wherever she is. You can see why I’d see myself as a protected guardian if I didn’t know for sure that a) Heston would bark at anyone who approached his territory whether I was there or not and b) Lidy would behave aggressively towards anyone who approached her, home ground or not, whether I was there or not. Because we only see the behaviour when we’re there, and because we’re self-centred little monkeys, we often think it is our presence that is causing the behaviour when in fact, it’s definitely a higher order skill to be more bothered about protecting others than it is about protecting yourself. All that said about guardian dogs and guard dogs, the most extreme case of protective aggression I’ve ever seen is a griffon vendéen… so it’s important not to dismiss protective behaviours just because the dog isn’t a doberman or a rottweiler or a malinois.

So often, when guardians tell me the dog was protecting them, I think that the dog actually felt completely unprotected by the human and was acting to protect themselves since their guardian failed to pick up on their discomfort around people or other dogs that they consider to be a threat. There are two factors that also play into it: the dog was often on the lead and therefore unable to get away from the threat since they were secured to their guardian, or the incident happened at an entrance point to the garden or home.

Let’s move on to another kind of behaviour that is often diagnosed by guardians as protective: resource guarding.

Other than these rustic dogs, lapdogs can also be protective of their guardian, particularly in the home and particularly when they’re on couches or under the feet of their guardians. It can be tempting to call this behaviour protective aggression, but often the dogs who show it also show other behaviours in other circumstances away from the guardian.

Resource-guarding behaviour:
* Behaviour exhibited includes barking, growling, lunges, snapping and biting both familiar and unfamiliar humans, dogs and other animals who approach an object.
* The context is always in the presence of a valued resource. Be mindful of the fact that human beliefs about value are not the same as those of dogs: dogs can guard the most innocuous of items. Most likely, however, are dogs who guard resting spaces (like beds and couches) who guard toys (or items considered toys) food or water bowls (and may only guard things they actually don’t want to eat at that time) and also may guard you as a resource if you are petting them. The target is more often a familiar dog or human simply because it’s more likely to happen in the home as resting spaces and food are not generally available on walks.
* The purpose is to prevent valued items or contact being taken from them.
* Treatment is particularly specific depending on what is being guarded. Desensitisation and counterconditioning are important, but taught skills like ‘drop’ or ‘trade’ may be useful for toys, but would be unhelpful for dogs who guard their beds from others.
* Rule out protective behaviour, territorial behaviour, stranger-related behaviour.

In my experience, dogs who guard items tend to be fairly anxious dogs on the whole and it’s rare to find those who only guard one item. Tilly, my little guardy cocker spaniel, didn’t just guard me if I was petting her (she had no interest in guarding me if I wasn’t sitting next to her) but she also guarded food items, toys and space. She’d even guard them from me at first. She also had stranger-related behaviour, and you can see how I could construe this as Tilly not liking other dogs and people approaching me when in fact what she was doing was feeling unprotected and vulnerable. The behaviour disappeared when I did not put her into vulnerable positions.

It’s worth noting that we don’t get to decide on the value of the resource. Lidy guarded a piece of dry pasta from me yesterday and then ate it with a most disgusted look, yet she will happily relinquish a sausage if I ask…. like I said, we don’t get to choose, the dog does. She has never guarded anything from me before.

It is also worth noting about what is appropriate and what is not. A friend shared a super video on Facebook the other day. Her gorgeous little Amstaff was in a preferred bed and an older hound was approaching, barking and moving in and out, trying to dislodge the interloper. The Amstaff did absolutely nothing, but it was clear the hound was very upset by the dog squatting his bed. That is appropriate behaviour. Good management followed, where the guardian asked the Amstaff to vacate the spot (which is right next to the fire… hence why it is so valued!) and he did so happily. He got a snuggly blanket and a hot water bottle next to his guardian and the hound got his preferred spot next to the fire. What is not appropriate, however, is a dog on vigil in their bed who growls every time another dog moves.

The same is true to a degree for all the behaviours I’ve described. It’s normal for many dogs not to appreciate strangers – so many of them have been specifically bred to be suspicious of unfamiliar humans. It’s normal for dogs to be territorial. If you lock your doors and you put up fences, you too are territorial, and that is pretty normal for a human too. And it’s normal for some breeds of dog to need to be taught that it’s okay for strangers to approach their flock – even if that flock is human. It’s also normal to protect stuff from those villains of the home who might intend to interrupt your petting session, who might intend to steal your spot by the fire, or who might come and stick their head in your bowl. Like my friend, it’s up to us as humans to understand where tensions are likely to rise and to manage those situations.

Whilst it’s normal, it is not something we need to accept. Sometimes it is something we cannot accept if the behaviour is injurious to others or to ourselves. And whilst you will see desensitisation and counterconditioning as part of all treatment plans, to deal with the emotional aspects of how dogs feel about threat, that will differ depending on what the context of the behaviour is and what its purpose is. For instance, this morning, I was desensitising Lidy around cows. That isn’t going to do anything to help her with her stranger-related aggression. It’s for that reason that we do need to be specific about what the context and purpose of the behaviour is, as well as the underlying emotion, because if we don’t, we’re back to treating sore throats with Gaviscon again.

It can be very difficult to work out what exactly is going on, particularly if you have no idea what your dog would do if you weren’t there. I suppose most people who tell me their dog bit someone because the dog was protecting them are just equating their presence with the bite, without realising the dog would have done the same had they been there or not. In any case, if you’re unsure, since all of these behaviours risk escalation if you do not address them, it’s vital you find a qualified and experienced behaviour consultant to help you out. They’ll help you through management, support you with training plans and offer you solutions that should keep everybody safe and help you address your dog’s difficulties. They should also be able to offer you an insight into what your dog is doing, and why. You don’t have to live with these behaviours and in many ways, they can mean our dogs lead much smaller lives if we don’t address them.