In this post, I’m going to tell you something that will possibly make you angry. It tends to have that effect on people, whether I say it like a jerk or as sweetly as I can. I think that people react in this way because they have an emotional response to things that go against what they like to hear.
Well, here’s that statement: your dog probably doesn’t want to protect you.
A lot of people swear up and down that their dog loves them and definitely wants to protect them. In most cases, the first element isn’t under question: dogs tend to love their owner. But you have to see things from the dog’s point of view. Just like you and I, dogs are interested in self-preservation. Humans do a lot of things based on certain moral codes, but might still ignore someone getting mugged in order to avoid danger. Dogs are the same. They’re interested in self-preservation, and because of that they don’t automatically have a desire to protect the people they live with.
Many people say things like: “All right, then explain to me why my dog barks when someone approaches me,” or “Why does my dog bark out the front window at the mailman?” or “Explain why my dog attacked someone on a walk the other day.”
In many cases, these events come about because dogs are territorial. The dog is simply saying “This is my house, and I need to protect it!” That’s a good thing. We want to be able to have control, but I do like a dog that has some territorial urges. My old Rottweiler was incredibly territorial. After being somewhere for ten minutes, he would decide that was his place to protect. When your dog sleeps at the front door or barks at visitors, then, he isn’t trying to protect your family. He’s trying to defends what he views as his territory: the place that he sleeps, lives, and eats. He wants other people to get away from it.
So what’s happening when you’re outside the dog’s “territory” and he still growls at people? In most cases, this is self-preservation. Your dog isn’t telling others to get away from you because he really likes you. It’s probably because he’s insecure about someone approaching, doesn’t see his owner as a leader, and thinks that the situation isn’t being taken care of. He says, “This is now my responsibility,” and growls, barks, or bites. That’s simple self-preservation. The dog doesn’t see the person on the other side of the leash as a leader and doesn’t feel safe, so he feels the need to protect himself.
The second scenario is that the dog sees his owner as his property. This dude picks up my crap, gives me food, and lets me jump on people and chew on his shoes and pull on the leash. This is my person.” That’s pure possessiveness. Dogs often growl when people come near their food or toys—and sometimes, they can see their owners as resources. They aren’t trying to protect their owner from danger; they’re trying to protect their possession. Usually, that’s a sign of relationship imbalance.
Has a dog ever seen a danger and decided to protect their owner from a threat? Yes. But that’s not the majority. Most of the time, these “protective urges” are dogs who are insecure or want to protect a resource that belongs to them. When police dogs go out and bite the bad guy, they’re not thinking about making their handler’s life better. The dog doesn’t think that at all. They bite the bad guy because it feels enjoyable to them. After all, they’re specifically bred to enjoy biting things! They’re not thinking of protecting their handler, but of getting what they want. The same is true of personal protection dogs. When I train these dogs, a nice bond always occurs and I’d like to believe there’s some emotion there. But most of the dog’s motivation comes from what they get out of protection: getting to bite things and defending their home.
When I try to explain this, many owners swear that their dogs protect them and even cite instances when they did. Sometimes, that’s accurate. But more often than not, the instance they describe falls into one of the categories above. That’s just the reality about dogs. I love them, but they’re self-interested creatures just like us.
Bear all this in mind, and don’t head out into the bad part of town thinking that your dog will protect you because he loves you. Given the opportunity, most dogs will take off running the other way when crap hits the fan! If you want a protection dog, be prepared for a lot of training. Maybe your dog will protect you because he loves you—but I definitely wouldn’t count on it.