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Are you wondering why your loyal pup always seems to be on alert and ready to protect you? The close bond between dogs and their owners is something that has captivated humans for centuries. But why do our four-legged friends seem so eager to defend us?
Dogs protect us because they consider us their pack or because they have learned the behavior from their owner’s encouragement. They may have other motivations like resource guarding or territorial aggression that can look like protectiveness but are actually signs of aggression caused by fear or anxiety.
Before we can look at why dogs are protective, we should look at if all dogs are protective first.
Are All Dogs Protective?
When it comes to dog protection, while some breeds may be more predisposed to guard or alert behaviors, the ultimate answer to this question is no. The protective level of any given pup will depend on its breed, age, individual personality, and how it was raised or trained. Even so, the training and socialization done by most owners will likely prevent your dog from protecting you in an attack. You can see in the video below that in two of the three households tested, only one showed to be protective of their owners!
Breeds that have been bred for generations for work in protection will naturally have stronger protective instincts, like the German Shepherd, Pit Bulls, Belgian Malinois, and Doberman Pinscher. Over many generations of dogs, these breeds have been used for police work, bite work, and personal protection training by professionals all over the world.
However, these breeds are also bred as pets, and extremely protective instincts may be frowned upon in a residential neighborhood. So while the breed itself can make a dog more apt to protect, each dog’s pedigree and the history of its line also heavily affect a dog’s protection level.
Why Are Dogs Protective of Their Owners?
As dog owners, we know our furry friends often act protectively towards us – but why? We might want to think they’re just showing devotion and affection as any other family member would, but that doesn’t always tell the whole story.
In truth, there are a variety of factors at work when it comes to why dogs may become protective of their owners. So if you’ve been wondering what makes your pup so loyal and devoted, read on – we’ll explore some interesting explanations for this behavior!
Reason #1: Protect the Pack Instinct
Dogs have a deep-rooted instinct to protect those they consider their pack. Dogs are fiercely loyal and dedicated to their family groups, a trait they inherited from the wild wolves who rely on pack protection for survival. This instinct stems from wolves in the wild who are rarely separated from their pack, preferring to stay together to stay safe. Over the thousands of years that humans have domesticated dogs, this instinct is still going strong!
In the early stages of dogs and humans, protective instincts were very desirable. Humans relied on dogs to protect their livestock, their homes, and even themselves from attacks. Dogs that had strong protective instincts were likely chosen to breed more often, passing on the genes. Over time, dogs have changed drastically, with a large variety of breeds that look and act very differently from each other.
Protective instincts still reign in many dogs, especially breeds that were encouraged and trained throughout their generations for protection. However, even the smallest and shyest breeds have the innate desire to form a strong pack with their closest people. Each dog will react differently, but it’s not uncommon for dogs to become protective of their chosen pack when threatened.
Reason #2: Owners Are Encouraging the Behavior
It’s not a secret that dogs feed off of our emotions, but sometimes that can work to our detriment. Dogs learn and are trained through our feedback, both positive and negative. Whether we give the incorrect response purposefully or not, the reactions we give our dogs have a huge impact on their behavior, whether you mean to or not!
Lack of Guidance from the Owner
The situations that bring forward a dog’s natural protective instincts are usually high-stress situations for the dog. Dogs may look to their owners for guidance during these situations, even if the owner is unaware. Owners may not realize the dog is confused or stressed, so they don’t provide any guidance on how to handle the situation.
Without any training on handling stress, dogs may resort to defensive or fear-based behaviors when they sense danger or are uncertain. This can be further complicated if an owner sends out mixed signals during such a situation, leaving the dog confused as to how to act. As such, providing consistent feedback and clear direction during stressful times can go a long way in helping guide a dog’s behavior and prevent it from feeling the need to protect its owner.
Dogs are very intuitive animals, so it’s no surprise that they understand when their humans respond negatively or positively to their behavior. Although owners may not mean to reward negative behavior from their dogs, if they shout, laugh or act boisterously in response, the dog will often take this as praise and become more likely to repeat the behaviors that elicited such a response.
In some cases, this can lead the dog to become protective of its owner due to associated rewards on an unconscious level. Pet owners need to be aware of how their reactions can influence their pet’s behavior and do what they can to encourage positive habits instead.
They Think it’s Funny
The rise of social media has brought many pets to fame in the past few years, and many of them have built a platform around their cuteness and adventures. Unfortunately, social media has also shown that many dog owners will exacerbate their dog’s undesirable behaviors for “funny” videos. Dog behavior and body language are not widely known to most people, so while these videos may seem funny from a human perspective, it is often very stressful for your dog, which can lower its life expectancy.
Owners may encourage their dogs to be protective for a video or laughs, but the dog doesn’t understand that this behavior is only to be funny. In turn, when a dog encounters a similar situation in their everyday lives, they react the same. This can become a liability, and therefore owners should try not to encourage the behavior, but instead seek a professional trainer for assistance.
How a stranger reacts to your dog’s protectiveness can also be encouraging for them. When a stranger approaches and ignores your dog’s subtle warning signs, your dog will often escalate. When that makes the stranger back off, it reinforces the escalated behavior. Now the dog may jump immediately to escalated behavior when the next stranger approaches and may escalate even more if they find this doesn’t work.
You can see how this can quickly compound too dangerous behavior, so it’s best to avoid approaching strangers or putting your dog in the position of being approached by a stranger if they are showing strong protection instincts, at least until they have been trained on how to handle the situation.
Reason #3: They Have Other Motivations
Dog behavior and social structures are very different from humans, but we often still attach human emotions to the actions of our dogs. It is a natural thing for people to do, but it can have negative effects on our dogs. When it comes to dogs acting protective, we often assume that they do it because they love their owners. While dogs do love us and show us affection, their protective behaviors may have another drive behind them.
In the wild, dogs have to fight other dogs and animals for resources like food, water, and places to sleep. These instincts still reside in our pet dogs, although many realize they don’t have to fight when in their home so it doesn’t become a problem. However, some dogs will still struggle with resource guarding.
Commonly, resource guarding refers to food, but your dog can guard anything as a resource, including you! Instead of protecting you because they love you, they are protecting their resource of affection. This doesn’t mean that your dog doesn’t still love you, just that their protective behaviors have different motivations!
Another big resource that dogs guard is their territory. For most dogs, this means their yard and home, although sometimes they may extend their territorial tendencies to places they frequent often (like a favorite part of the park or grandma’s house). They will bark, growl, or show other aggression signs to try to get the perceived threat to leave. Territorial responses can escalate further if the dog is tied or penned up, as it becomes very frustrating for the dog.
Being territorial is similar to resource guarding. It is another way that dogs look like they are being protective of their owners when they are actually protecting their assumed “safe space.” Territorial responses are based on fear and anxiety, so they should not be encouraged without professional training. If your dog seems like he is extra protective of you, it may be territorial aggression, which can easily become a liability if the owner cannot control their dog’s actions.
Protective vs. Aggressive: Understanding The Differences
Protective dogs are often seen as a good thing in the eyes of owners that want to feel more secure when their dog is around. I agree that dogs with natural protective instincts and the socialization to know what is and isn’t a threat are very good to have around, but that behavior and temperament are rarely present without extensive training.
The truth is, many dogs that owners have deemed “protective” are actually showing signs of some type of aggression. Let’s look at the difference between protective instincts and aggression.
From the very beginning of our relationship, humans have relied on dogs for protection from other animals, invading people, and livestock guardianship. Even the smallest breeds, like the Pomeranian, were used to protect their owner’s belongings from thieves. These protective instincts are what attracted many people to dog ownership, but these behaviors can quickly become dangerous if mixed up with aggression. It’s important to be able to recognize the difference between appropriately protective behavior and aggression.
Even the most docile, gentle pup can become protective when they sense a potential threat. By recognizing the signs of respectful protection, we can ensure that our furry companions never display their teeth in anger or aggression. A few telltale signs that your pup is being protective include an alert but calm stance, focused on the intruder, and extra vigilant behavior. He may even stand between you and the perceived threat in an effort to defend you against harm, followed by a growl or sharp bark if he feels particularly threatened.
It’s important to note, however, that once he senses there is no danger he will typically return to his normal behavior quickly. Dogs that are showing protective behavior should still respond to their owner’s commands. Dogs that are showing aggressive behavior will be too aroused to be able to listen. This is the key difference between protective behavior and aggressive behavior.
Aggression is Normal, But…
Most dog owners don’t want to hear the “A” word, but aggression is a natural part of the canine world. While aggression in dogs can be dangerous for the people and other pets around them, some aggression can be addressed by a professional trainer. However, when pet owners choose to overlook their dog’s aggressive tendencies, often calling it something else or attaching human emotion to the action, it does a huge disservice to the dog. When we understand that our dog’s behaviors are actually aggression, we can help them address the root of the cause.
Growling, raised hackles and barking could all be signs that your dog is trying to draw a line between whatever he’s protecting and the perceived threat. In more extreme cases, lunging, snapping, teeth-baring, territorial urinating, and biting are signals that your pet is in an overly heightened state of fear or stress. If you notice these behaviors manifesting, be sure to move away from the situation gradually until your dog calms down. By doing this quickly, you can help promote positive behavior instead of allowing aggressive reactions to further escalate.
Even though aggression is a normal canine response, it is also a dangerous and complex behavior problem for dog owners. For most dogs, aggression stems from fear or insecurity in the dog’s environment. It’s not healthy for your dog to live in a fearful state, so it’s important to address the aggression issues with a professional trainer.
We love our dogs and appreciate their efforts to protect us, but it’s important to remember that they may not always be motivated by the same things as we are. If your dog is being protective, be sure to closely examine their behaviors to determine that they are not actually aggressive behaviors like resource guarding or territorial behavior. Knowing the difference can help you respond appropriately to create a happy dog!