“He’s very protective”

“He’s very protective of me,” bragged the owner of the German Shepherd I had been called out to evaluate. “He won’t let anyone near me.”

Photo by Dan Foy

Photo by Dan Foy

Indeed, her 18-month-old Shepherd was telling me in every line of his body that he did not want me anywhere near him. Head down, eyes wide and staring, muscles tense, and softly growling, he was not a dog I had any desire to approach. He was not, however, “guarding” his owner.

Many fearful or insecure dogs act just like this Shepherd, growling and posturing when people come near their special person. However, their body language tells the true story: these dogs are worried. Their weight is often shifted over their hindquarters, and they rarely position themselves in between the new person and their owner. They lack confidence, and make up for it with their “the best defense is a good offense” approach.

So why do they only show this behavior when they’re by their person? Simple: they’re only brave enough to show how they feel when they have “backup.” Social animals, whether dogs or people, tend to be more likely to act aggressively if they are part of a group whom they believe will back them up. We’re all a little braver with our buddies nearby.

Make no mistake, these dogs could still bite. However, allowing your dog to act in this way out of some misguided notion that he’s “protecting” you is both dangerous and unfair. It’s dangerous to other people, who could become victims of your dog’s insecurity if he ever feels pushed to defend himself. It’s unfair to your dog, who is stuck in a conflicted, adrenalized state any time he encounters someone new. It’s a bad situation all around.

The best “protection” dogs are those who are well socialized, confident, and self-assured. A dog needs lots and lots of experience with people before he can pick out a truly threatening person from someone who’s merely a little different. To a dog who views everyone as a potential threat, your tipsy neighbor returning from the bar, your nephew with Cerebral Palsy, and the burglar who breaks into your home are all equally terrifying – and all just as likely to get bitten.

If your dog growls and barks at unfamiliar people, he’s telling you he needs your help. So how can you help him? Teach him that new people predict wonderful things. Teach him to look to you for help when he’s unsure how to react in a new situation. Show him a more optimistic worldview. Protect him from his fears just as fiercely as you wish him to protect you from true threats, because to him those fears are very truly threatening.

Do you have a truly protective dog, one who loves everybody, or an insecure dog? Please comment and tell us about your dog’s personality!

168 responses to ““He’s very protective”

  1. I have a 6 year old black lab as well as an 8 year old yellow lab. Both dogs are well socialized. However, I’ve noticed ever since having children (actually, ever since I got pregnant with my first), that the black lab has become more cautious around other dogs. She doesnt stray far at the dog park, and if another dog approaches us, she runs right over. She growls or snaps at the other dog. I don’t like letting her meet new dogs when out on walks anymore. She won’t hurt the other dog, but she definitely is trying to tell the other dog to stay away. She only does this with dogs she doesn’t know. Also, when she goes to dog daycare, and we’re not around, I never get any complaints. She’s always been a bit more aggressive than my other dog, but just wondering if this is normal, and how to help her feel more comfortable with other dogs when her family is nearby.

  2. My Jeffery doesn’t growl but he jumps and barks if another person hugs me. Forget dating or bringing a beau to the house!

  3. My dogs (Male and female Aussie) bark at every new person who comes in the house. I had a contractor out yesterday and every time he came in the room, they barked. I know they aren’t protecting me, I can tell it’s a nervous bark. Your article stated that we should teach them how to react to new people but you neglected to tell us how. I could really use some guidance there. Thank you!

  4. So how can I help them? How do I teach them that new people predict wonderful things, to look to me for help when unsure how to react in a new situation. How do I show Them a more optimistic worldview? Protect them from their fears just as fiercely as I’d wish them to protect me from true threats? (Reworded the articles words). Great info but no help on how to do any of it…

    • If you look to the side you will see the articles that are under the heading categories, you will find more information about training, aggression, etc…

    • I think that this means treats. Google watch the world on YouTube. Our behaviourist has me taking our dog to shopping centres etc and treating as people walk past.

    • Jess, I was just about to post the same thing! It sounds great, but how do I accomplish those tasks? I’m guessing treats/distractions also. I’ve asked the question about what to do with my growling puppy and have received many answers that oppose one another. It is a little frustrating. One person says that if I give treats I am rewarding that behavior. Another person says that you can’t change your dog’s feelings, so reassuring them when fearful isn’t bad. Another says that the reassurance is like a reward. ack. It is confusing. I’m going to try distraction, pause, then treat. Hopefully my pup will associate people walking by with a good thought/reward for being calm.

      • That must be so frustrating getting all that contradicting advice! Unfortunately there is no controlling body for dog training, so anyone can call themselves a dog trainer and hand out terrible advice!
        The best way to get good information is to find a certified, science based trainer. Avoid “balanced” trainers and anyone that says things like “we only use food for tricks” or “not all dogs can be trained with positive reinforcement” another red flag would be anyone talking about pack theory and alpha dogs.
        The person that told you that you can’t reinforce an emotion is correct. What we want to do is change the emotion to a positive one using classical conditioning. You do this by rewarding your pup for looking at the scary thing. (using a clicker to bridge between the look and the treat) Distractions are best saved for when scary things are getting too close.
        However, you have no way of knowing if I am a certified dog trainer, and if my advice is sound, so I really do recommend that you find a person in your area to teach you how this is done. Good luck!

  5. My Dane started growling at strangers when he was about 18 months old. Not all strangers- mostly in a specific store that allows dogs. At first I was devastated: my sweet puppy whom I had since 8 weeks old, socialized, taken to obedience and conformation classes (graduated), countless dog parks and simply every place where dogs are allowed he was taken and socialized with people and other dogs. Why??? I called and started training with dog behavior pro’s, re visited my existing trainer and no one could find an answer. Guess what? Now, almost 2 years later, I still don’t have the answer but I’ve learned to manage the situation. I guess being a working breed intact male there’s always a possibility that he’ll growl at a new person that seems threatening. My solution: always be aware if anyone is approaching ur dog and be in charge. I CAN LITERALY TELL if he’ll growl. Who knows why- protecting me, himself, smells their dog on them… I do tell people he doesn’t like to be petted if I think there might be a problem. And I’ll never be 100% comfortable with people petting him while he’s on leash. But I do know he’s fine off leash (he does listen to me off leash so whenever it’s allowed he’s off) and I still take him everywhere just being aware of my surroundings! Dogs are the best!! And I own the best one of them!! As does every dog lover!!
    Lid and Bentley

  6. I have a two years old golden retriever mix. She loves all people. Which is kind of worrying me. Because what about the bad people? How can I teach her to keep us in her protective circle? We just adopted her 3 weeks ago. So it’s still adjustment period. She is an amazing dog.

  7. My Yellow Lab mixed, not only does not bark or growl, he loves everyone and everything. He just wags his tail, and if you are a cat or a squirrel or another dog, it is all the same to him. Hi! Want to play? Have you got a cookie for me ? If it is person. Most laid back dog we have ever had.

  8. We have adopted a 3 year old ( approx) miniature schnauzer who is wonderfully loveable and friendly to all humans, but often acts aggressive toward other dogs. The dog trainer we took him to has advised us to give him treats when he sees another dog so that we can change his opinion of other dogs. We’ve been working at this, but it’s going to be a long process, I think.

  9. I have a male intact German Shepherd, about 18 months old. I bought from a breeder when he was a puppy. He is AKC. I have socialized and he has been in training his whole life. He has always shown separation anxiety in public places. He growls at men especially. He even nipped my nephew. I think he is insecure though. He seems to like and trust women more than men. He loves my husband and two grown sons though.
    My trainer says he is “on edge”. To say the least.

    • I have a fantastic Trainer that can help you if interested. Go onto FB and look at All Dogs Elite. He’s fantastic, does a lot of work with dog aggression and socialization. I have an 8 month old female and she has been through his dog camp 2 times, not with any issues but to prevent them. His name is Marcus and I love his quiet nature and methods.

      • A quick look at his Facebook page shows that he is a trainer I would never use or recommend. Lots of dogs with prong collars on, obviously not an evidence based trainer 😕

    • Sounds like your dog has weak nerves. It’s genetic. There is no “fixing” that, only management and understanding the dogs limitations. Too many clueless breeders of GSDs think it’s great to breed “low key” (ie; couch potato), “soft” (ex. – shows submission at even a stern look), dogs for what they refer to as “the pet market”. The majority will also have low stress thresholds.

      What they see (erroneously) is a low maintenance GSD who they can easily control. What they actually are is not fit for breeding. When you take a breed with guarding traits and breed the weakest links temperament, drive, threshold wise, you end up with puppies who have an even worse case of anxiety and insecurity.

      There are reasons why the SV uses Schutzhund to evaluate the breedworthiness of German Shepherds. Folks here decided to poo-poo on that idea and decided that if they didn’t want “mean dogs” who were “bouncing off the wall” they could breed perfectly good pets by breeding towards traits that were polar opposites to what the breed should be. What they end up with are skittish large dogs who are apt to bite out of fear. By attempting to produce a dog thats “good with kids” they did exactly the opposite. My West German Line GSDs are bomb proof. Rock solid. They go with us to the 4th of July fireworks displays and NAP through the entire thing. Their people aren’t worried, they aren’t worried. It all goes back to good genetics and only breeding the most fearless, even temperament, intelligent, and able bodied animals (among a plethora of other desirable traits that are of utmost importance when considering breeding)

  10. Shannon wilson

    When I was a child, I had a black lab/Irish Setter mix. Sweetest dog you would ever meet. One day when I was out walking her, a young man approached me and pulled a knife on me. She immediately put herself between us and showed her teeth and snarled unlike anything I had hear from her before. She knew he meant business and she would have risked her life to save mine. That is a protective dog. My shepherd I had would have risked her life for mine as well, but she had a lot of anxious aggression in every day situations.

  11. I have a 8 month old GSD who seems to have a combination of both protection & fear! His trainer says he will always be protective, but we need to build his confidence around stangers.
    We are working with a trainer & Jack Jack is much better in social situations & I have learned how to properly correct him. He still barks at new people when I am with him, but will ignore strangers whole with my husband.
    After 3 weeks of boarding/training we have Jack Jack in a beginner class & he had a few moments barking at other dogs.
    We are going to train him to wear a muzzle so people can feel safe approaching me & Jackson feels confident while people approach me!
    It’s a long process, but worth every minute & dollar.
    I lost my sister to cancer 2 years ago & I can see it on Jack Jack’s face that he has been guarding me as a deal w/ my grief.

  12. I have a 6.5 yr old female lab mix who will bark at anyone wearing a uniform…police, fireman, paramedic, armed forces. Should I try counter conditioning with as many of these as possible? There is a fire station and a police station nearby, don’t know if they’d let me try, but it’s worth a shot if it will work.

  13. My dog is a little cockapoo who loves all people and dogs. She does, however, seem to take signals from me about other dogs. For example we were once at a parade and she sniffed lots of dogs but then there were 2 German shepherds that I didn’t approach and they actually dragged the woman holding their leashes into the road when they ran at us barking. It worries me that people take dogs that could react that way to events with children and many other animals. Is this wide berth we gave them something the dogs were sensing? My dog is not aggressive so she just tucked tail and hugged my leg. I’m wondering if it’s something I could have helped her with (and she isn’t scarred from the experience at all – still very social and loves everyone)

  14. Leslie Mccormack

    Protective collie. Melody. While camping a bear came into the encampment abour 3 am. Melody, a therapy dog,stood up from beside me, hackles up, ruff puffed, growled nearly silent alerting me and stood as attention at the tent flap nostrals flaired, ears up, tail flagged at attention, until the bear moved off. She then lay at the entrance, on my feet,nose pounted out for the rest of the night. Shes my good girl. No fuss no muss just nope you got to get by me first Mr. Black Bear.

  15. Great article! GSDs are often missunderstood as being aggressive, most are just badly trained… (or not at all)
    But if you keep them close and train them well, they are really the best dogs out there!

  16. I have a 5 yr old beagle Dalmatian mix which dies thus exact thing when I’m walking her but not if my sons walk her. I am desperate to get her to stop this I’ve tried to get her to walk next to me and sometimes thus works but j can’t walk very fast and if she’s got to “go” she tends to walk fast and in front if me. How can I help het

  17. To some degree I think you want your dog to be wary or strangers. I go running, often in the evening and my GSD gets on guard if anyone else is around. Also if anyone was to rob your house do you want your dog to think hmm stranger that’s okay wonderful things will happen? My dog by no means is overly aggressive, but he’s aloof with strangers and I feel keeps me safe.

  18. I’ve had clients with ‘protective’ dogs and love this article! Fear and insecurity should be treated with patience and confidence building and never be encouraged or thought of as ‘look my dog is protecting me”. A confident and social dog is what we should all aim to have, not only for safety reasons, but for the well-being of the dog. It’s our job to advocate and protect our dogs, not the other way around. A dog that is wary of people is a dog uncomfortable…and that is something as owners we need to address. We’re capable of protecting ourselves and a dog who bites is a dog often put to sleep, regardless of the situation. I’d rather my dog is ignored should there be a break-in, than shot or put to sleep for attacking another human being.

  19. We have a 1yr old rescue that is retriever Sheppard cross. We r not sure of his story but he is very nervous around people and scared of men. He first barks hearing man’s voice then hides behind us. I’m doubtful he will bite but he runs away if too frightened. We r trying to let new people in every so often but he’s still the same. I don’t mind it really….it keeps us on guard then. He’s good with kids tho.

  20. My dog is just fine with people we encounter. He wants their attention and enjoys when he gets it. He is also fine and friendly with other dogs. Until I sit. Then he becomes very protective or jealous, no dog can approach me. It is very disturbing for me, I cannot control him, I become very frightful. I dont know if he can sense it and is that way he attacks approaching dog. I avoid these situations, but I cannot always be in control, especially when other dog is off leash, I can only warn owner to hold his dog, but sometimes the desire to say hello to my dog is stronger than to listen to the owner. I believe that holding my dog in these situations makes him more frustrated and I am affraid that he might relieve that negative energy in some other kind of destructive behaviour.
    When we walk and other dog growls at him, he never gets in fight.
    I rarely pet dogs because I am affraid of his jealousy, if I can call it jealousy.
    I know this article is about dog-people relations, but maybe some of you can give me some advice.

  21. Lauri Barrera

    I have an 8 month female Shepherd .. She is shy and timid and does everything you said above.. Out of fear. We did level 1 obedience and she has gotten better but she’s not great.. I need to better her self confidence but everyone tells you something different.. Take her out, don’t take her out.. Etc… She’s my best friend and doesn’t let me out of site and I hate being without her too.. Maxx is one of the best Shepherds I’ve had so far.. She’s Czeck and she’s amazing.. She’s just shy and not confident as you say.. Any advice?

  22. This article wraps up with “So how can you help him? Teach him that new people predict wonderful things. Teach him to look to you for help when he’s unsure how to react in a new situation. Show him a more optimistic worldview. Protect him from his fears just as fiercely as you wish him to protect you from true threats, because to him those fears are very truly threatening.” … Like Jess, I’m left hanging… wondering “how do I do this?” We assume that treats are the solution. ???? A little more info would be very helpful.

  23. I have a 1 year old black lab who is protective. But only if we are walking and its dark out or if a stranger gets to close to me. Or if she senses that a person is bad. What she does is position herself between me and the stranger and growls deeply. But recently she has been doing this thing were when someone enters the house, she sits between my legs and gives a warning growl. Is this a good or bad trait?

  24. I’ve got an almost 2 year old adopted Pit bull. I have always made sure that he gets to meet a lot of different people. He is happy meeting anyone and everyone (this may sound strange, but in SA a lot of dogs are “racist” – he isn’t,) and I can welcome anyone into our home.

  25. Thank you for writing this article! I wish more people understood the difference.
    I took a JRT puppy home from the vets after she had been with us as an inpatient for 4 weeks, she was 12 weeks old when admitted and wasn’t vaccinated so had very little socialisation outside of the vet practice, I had tried to work with her while she was with us but it was very limited with her being vulnerable to illness.
    She was exactly like this when I took her and showed very little warning before biting, people just wouldn’t listened when I asked them not to touch her or come too close because she was small. I’ve had her for 10 months now and she’s a completely different dog now, I’m so so proud of her! ☺️❤️

  26. My 4 year old GSD was heavily socialised as a pup. My daughter was 6 when we got him and it was very important that my dog understood that new children were a source of fun. We had many children in and out of our home, we often greeted them through the back gate or over the fence. We had picnics in the yard and lots of fun with the hose. He came to school with me to pick my daughter up wgere he was loved on by excited children, we were always at the shopping centre and sat out the front watching people and noisy trolleys going by. I always welcomed people who wanted to pat him and say hello. Now l have a beautiful natured dog who loves “everyone”. He will welcome screaming kids into our home and greet a child entering our yard for the first time with a ball and wag of the tail. Is he a guard dog? Hell no! He would probably greet a burgler with a kiss and a ball then help him carry out the stolen goods. But l know he is solid around kids and people and there is no “accident” waiting to happen. Thats all that matters to me.

  27. My mid size terrier (rescue) is horrific when she sees another dog. I live in a high traffic dog neighborhood and Sully is so aggressive and barks and acts like the Tasmanian devil.
    I have to turn around and go in another direction or run across the street to avoid passing another dog. If it’s unavoidable…I pick her up as we pass and she is fine.

  28. My dog is protective if he senses I’m upset or in a stressful situation he will put himself between m and the other person. No growling or barking just him. He doesn’t like it when I cry either I generally get a 100lb cuddle buddy. Hug is a pretty sensitive Doggie.

  29. I have an insecure Doberman when it comes to children especially

  30. Yes, it can be insecurity, but it can also be ‘resource guarding’. I’ve had trouble with resource guarding dogs, and found that the best solution for that is to send the dog away from me if s/he growls at another dog (generally not people) who comes near. But reward them when other dogs do come near. It is also a good solution for fearful dogs, though you need to be more gentle with them.
    You also need to listen to (aka watch) your dog and just take the dog out of situation whenever it is uncomfortable My dogs tell me, by pressing the side of their face against my knee.

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