Q: My dog is very protective of me, my husband, and my mother. She doesn’t like it when other dogs are around any of us and even got protective when a kid came running at us. How can I break this behavior?
A: Many dogs are protective of their pack members (humans included), not just the “protective” breeds. As pack animals, dogs want someone to be the leader. Most dogs would just assume not fill that role; it’s a lot of work! However, if no one is confidently doing it, every dog will feel the need to step up. What does that mean? If the human members aren’t acting as the leader (confidence is key), the dog will instinctively do it – protecting them from potential “threats.”
One of the best ways to rehabilitate an overprotective dog is socialization. Unfortunately, she can’t just be forced into meeting people and dogs. It’s just as detrimental, though, to keep her locked away. To find the right balance, socialization must be controlled with calm, assertive handling. If, for example, the handler is nervous that she’ll act out when other people or dogs approach, the dog will read that energy and respond accordingly, protecting the handler from the perceived threat. If, however, the handler remains calm and in control, the dog will feel more at ease and will be less likely to respond negatively to the visitor.
The initial interactions must be well-chosen, then. Choose human and canine visitors who will not be nervous or aggressive themselves. The ideal visitors will be aloof to her behavior, helping her understand they aren’t a threat. It’s helpful to have her leashed in the beginning. Calmly praise and reward her for appropriate interactions, and calmly take her out of the situation when her behavior turns.
One great way to practice these socialization exercises is on a walk. The handler should, of course, be the person in control of the dog (remember to utilize that calm, assertive behavior), but the visitor should accompany you. This puts the dog into a great environment doing something they love, and she has to remain focused on the task at hand. If she acts out with dogs, you can also go for walks with another handler and dog. At first, you may have to walk with some distance between you and the other team. As she gets more comfortable, though, you can move closer together until you’re able to walk together.
It’s also important with this question to mention the fearful dog. Fear is commonly mistaken for overprotective. Be sure to read the dog’s body language. If she’s slinking down, tucking her tail, or drawing her ears back when she’s barking and growling, she probably isn’t overprotective at all. It’s more likely that she is simply scared. Dogs have a natural fight or flight mentality. When they get scared, many dogs will run and hide, attempting to avoid the trigger completely. Some dogs, though, will flip their fight switch on and will bark and growl at the trigger to scare it away. Think of the mailman, for example. When he comes to the door, the dog barks and growls at him, and it works – or at least the dog thinks it does! The mailman walks away. A fearful dog also needs socialization, but the methods are quite different.
by Jodi Hoyt, Hoyt Consulting