I frequently talk to people who are dealing with aggression and reactivity issues with their dog. These behaviors have a bunch of different causes, but most owners think that it stems from the same thing. They all think that their dog is behaving this way because they are being protective. This could not be further from the truth.
Your Dog is Not Rin Tin Tin
Dogs are not capable of determining whether or not you need them to be protective. Even a trained protection dog is operating off of a trained cue, which is either a certain behavior from the “bad guy” or a verbal command from their handler. In fact, a protection dog who will make up their own mind about who to bite is a massive liability.
Now take into account the typical reactive German Shepherd. It isn’t just suspicious people in dark alleys that they bark at. It’s the neighbor kid running around with a balloon. It’s the doodle puppy on a flexi leash. It’s somebody bringing their groceries in from the car. None of those things are of any threat to you, and your dog is behaving that way due to other factors.
Understanding that this type of behavior is not your dog protecting you is key to resolving their issues. Let’s examine the reasons why your dog might be reactive in the yard or on the leash.
Barrier frustration is an unfortunate side effect of how many pet dogs are handled on a daily basis. Having a tight leash all the time when walking around the neighborhood is very frustrating. Being behind a fence all day with dogs walking back and forth outside is very frustrating. A textbook sign of reactivity being frustration based is a dog who is social in a loose, free setting, and then acts crazy when they are on a leash.
This behavior starts with excitement toward people and/or dogs. The dog gets very excited seeing something walk by, and they are held back from it and the person/dog leaves. This happens over and over again, and that excitement starts to turn to frustration, and the dog’s behavior gets worse and worse.
Fear issues can also cause displays of aggression when on leash, or when somebody comes to the house. This is often the result of small body language signs being ignored for a period of time. For example, you might have a friend come over to meet your new 8 week old puppy. When the friend comes in, your puppy walks away and tries to get some space from this strange new person. This friend, meaning well, goes over and picks the puppy up to pet it. Your puppy just had it’s first lesson that trying to avoid confrontation does not work.
More and more of these situations happen, and your dog decides to try something different. They bark, or they growl, or they snap. And it instantly works extremely well, and gives the dog what they have been looking for. They now know of an extremely effective way to protect their personal space, and it works much better than just trying to move away from the issue.
3. Resource Guarding and Being Territorial
This is an issue that does very much resemble “protective” behavior from your dog, but the reality is more concerning. A common situation where this happens is when the dog is hanging out with the owner, and somebody goes to hug the owner. The dog then responds aggressively, and everyone assumes that the dog is doing it because they thought the hug was something nefarious. In actuality, the dog is viewing the owner as a resource, and is preventing anybody else from interacting with their resource.
Your dog should not be viewing you as theirs. This is not healthy behavior, is not your dog being truly protective, and it indicates that there is a huge issue with the relationship between the two of you. This is coming from the same place as a dog who growls when you go near his food bowl, it is just showing up in a different context.
Dogs can also resource guard their space, including their home or yard. A key indicator that this is the root cause of a problem behavior is a dog who is fine meeting people in neutral places, but reacts much worse when a new person enters their yard or walks through the door. Your dog is not paying the mortgage, and they should not be in control over who is allowed to enter your house and who isn’t.
4. Predatory Behavior
Predatory aggression is different from the causes listed above, because this is true aggression with the intent to cause serious harm. The fear aggressive dog and the normal leash reactive dog don’t really want to hurt you, they just want to control aspects of the environment. The resource guarding dog has no issue with you as long as you leave their stuff alone. Predatory aggression is another beast altogether.
An example of predatory behavior that humans have selected for is a terrier who has great determination to hunt and kill vermin. That terrier is genetically programmed to do this job, and they are very good at it. However, a dog who is a great hunting terrier is probably not going to be great with small animals in the home. They cannot differentiate between a rat in a barn and a parakeet in your living room.
This behavior is usually triggered by movement and/or noise. Children are a common target of this behavior because they are small, move erratically, and make high pitched noises. For a predatory animal, they have all the signs of being a prey item. This is very dangerous, and is a massive red flag for dog trainers when evaluating a new case. Small dogs, cats, and people on wheels (bikes, skateboards, etc) are other common targets of this type of aggression.
5. Control Freaks
This group of dogs also has ingrained genetic behavior that can appear as if the dog is protecting you. Herding dogs are bred to do some combination of chasing, controlling, nipping, stalking, and being pushy. If a herding dog with strong instincts in that area is not given an outlet for that behavior, it can show up in the wrong way.
I had a client one time who had a cattle dog who would try to bite joggers who ran past the yard. In his case, it was not a matter of predatory behavior or being territorial, but rather him practicing the same sequence of chase and bite that he would do on a cow. He was not getting nearly enough mental and physical stimulation in his life, and he did not have enough structure from his family.
Herding breeds are generally the dogs where this behavior shows up, but there are individuals in other groups that can show this type of behavior.
The Problem with the Protectiveness Misconception
Thinking that your dog is protective when they really have a different issue is problematic. It can prevent your dog from getting the right kind of training, and it can cause you to deal with the behavior from too long.
A qualified dog trainer can help you to determine the root cause of your dog’s issues. Knowing the cause allows you to have the right plan for behavior modification, and will let you give your dog the best help.
If you think that your dog could benefit from a behavior evaluation, contact us and tell us a bit about your dog.