“Stranger danger” is a common reason people reach out for help. The dog barks at people passing by the house, approaching the house, and upon entering the house and does not settle down easily or at all. This is a very troubling behavior hurdle for its owners for obvious reasons. It’s understandable that the humans want to be able to have their friends and family over without a huge display of reactivity, aggressive lunges, or a potential bite. They find themselves embarrassed, frustrated, and sometimes frightened by what might happen if they let it go unchecked. But I tend to find that owners will let this behavior go on a lot longer than a variety of other behavior hurdles. Let's explore why that is.
I’m behind these owners in helping their dog learn to feel comfortable and safe so they can have the people they love over for a visit without a bunch of stress, but it is not uncommon for us to hit a point of division on our goals. I hear so many owners say, “We want him to bark because we want him to protect our home….we just don’t want him to bark when it’s people we’re okay with.” I find a lot of owners let this behavior go on for quite a while before reaching out for help and it’s because they’re grappling with the idea of extinguishing a behavior they don’t see as all bad. So what they want from a trainer is to help them have a dog who calmly greets invited guests and wards off the boogie man. Essentially, teach the dog how to sense whether someone is a good person or a bad one. I know dogs can be trained for scent detection, but can we train for morality detection? “Protection” dogs or police dogs aren’t dogs who are trained to instinctively determine someone’s intent. They’re trained to attack on cue. The human still has to make the judgment call and the dog, in order to be employed for this job, has to as readily stop biting when cued as well.
I actually find that most people who believe their dog is trying to protect them, don't realize the dog is simply trying to protect itself and they have nothing to do with it. This idea of a dog putting themselves into a protective role makes the human feel so good, that it's easy for them to not look beyond that particularly selfless motivation as an explanation. It's also easier for people to feel empathetic with their dogs when they believe the actions are a misguided display of love for them.
It's understandable why we think this way though. Heartwarming videos and tales of hero dogs constantly flood us and subconsciously boost our expectation of 'loyalty'.
I’ve myself seen quite a few stories of dogs who have saved the day by warding off an intruder who sought to do harm to their humans or property. I personally think many of these dogs respond the way they do because the social situation under which the stranger was entering the home, for example, was not typical and the dog knew that. Owners weren’t there at the door to let them in or everyone was sleeping, for example. Perhaps the dog was startled and the bad guy smelled of adrenaline and stress.
These stories are fuel for people to let a dog keep practicing an unhealthy behavior. What if someday they need saving? I get it. I get that many people want the dog who can sense a person with ill intent or let them know there is trouble afoot. The problem is that unless you’re going to train a dog for protection, allowing a dog to sit in a state of fear-based reactivity where they may respond in a proactively defensive manner doesn’t mean the dog knows who is a threat and who isn’t, and you’re gambling with your dog’s emotional health and future. I mean, a lot of delivery drivers would likely argue that a great many dogs aren't necessarily good judges of character.
The way I often put it is, you either have a dog who will alert to something problematic or defend you in an odd and dangerous situation or you don’t. One dog is not a better dog than the other.
My first dog as an adult was a soft fuzzy vizsla and he was as gentle as could be. I could take him anywhere, he was great with people and children, and I don’t think I ever saw him raise a lip. He responded to scary stimuli by avoidance and appeasement and I was under no illusions that this dog would have a protective instinct, which was fine by me. I’ve always been the type of person who would rather my dog run away from danger than into it. I would be devastated if anything happened to him and someone who might be out to hurt me might also hurt him too.
But that marshmallow of a dog fully bared his teeth when I found myself in the presence of someone who sought to hurt me, and it stopped the threat in its tracks. Is the moral that I’ve changed my mind on having a dog to protect me? Nope. I’m thankful for what he did, but I still don’t want my dogs to put themselves in danger for me, nor do they need to. I know they love me and they don’t love me less if they run for the hills if a threat arises.
The moral of my story is: This was the type of dog who someone might joke would bring a burglar a stuffed animal as an offering and wait to hear what a good boy he is. He was able to love people as a collective unconditionally his whole life, and he still knew when something was wrong anyway. Like I said, your dog is either going to do that or they’re not.
Of course the odds of a dog with a fear of strangers biting an intruder might sensibly be higher than of one who typically loves people entering their house, but the odds are at their highest that same dog will bite someone who you welcomed into your home first.
Let me make that clear, your “protective” or “territorial” dog is at a higher risk of biting someone they're not supposed to. A much higher risk. Gambling with that and playing the odds for the potentially small benefit that if someone breaks in you will have a dog who will stop them, is a losing battle for many and for their very wanted guests.
If your dog can’t differentiate between friend and foe, then the responsible thing to do is teach your dog that people are safe. Meeting your dog’s needs by providing them with a sense of security focuses on improving their quality of life, as well as yours.