“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!

113 responses to ““He’s very protective”

  1. I have a 5 month old German shepherd he is afraid of people when they approach him. He loves lady’s. He loves my friends but jump on top of there lap when they come over. We also have a 4 month female that is very quite hardly barks. They get alone fine. I just don’t know when my husband kisses me he jumps in between us if someone comes to kiss goodbye he don’t like it. The kids running in house he don’t like he will nip them. Kids think it’s funny. I am yelling at kids an dog. Don’t know how to stop. Also we have river rock in yard they keep eating it. Then later you will know when they get sick an throw up. Help please.

    • You very much need to contact a trainer regarding these issues. Someone who understands that your dogs need both management (to prevent undesireable behaviour) and counter conditioning. At 4 and 5 months old, you still have an opportunity to change your puppies confidence levels with strangers but you need to start right away. The socialization window is closing already for the 4 month old.

  2. i have 1 year old rottweiler, and now recently I have noticed him being very possessive about me. He sometimes, only sometimes, barks and tries to attack my family members when they approach me, especially my husband and sister in law. I know it is not good and can be dangerous. what shud I do?

  3. I have a rescue dog who was incredibly fearful of everyone and everything for a few years but I spent 5 years training him. I am now the proud owner of two very well trained and socialised dogs. They aren’t interested in people per say but they do not approach them negatively nor are they fearful in them. Having said that, they do interact with people in the hope of a belly rub or their ball being thrown. I trust my dogs around people, but I also trust they will be their for me if a terrible situation were to occur.

  4. Tracy Megwanabe

    Hello. Thanks you the article, i just love it. I have a 2 year old Akita named Hachi. He his a great dog. He is a male,and un neutered. He’s great with his family. Loves Kids. Gets along only with female dogs, and a few male dogs…when im away at work, i tie him outside during the day and bring him when we get home. Sometimes he is a bit unsure of male figures. He hasnt bite anyone. But will growl and bark when they enter the yard. How do i help him br more secure with himself, and not scared when others come inyo the yard??

    • If you leave your dog tethered all day, he WILL eventually bite an unwary child or person. You have trapped him so he cannot escape and he is feeling defensive all the time. At two years old he is just “becoming a man” so to speak and this behavior will only get worse. Please bring your dog in during the day, crating him if he’s destructive. You are doing him a great disservice by tethering him.

    • Tracy, your message about tying him while you’re gone is scary. He could break loose, bite someone & all this while no one is at home. You’re setting up this Akita for a bad ending. He needs some positive training, work with a trainer to have him around other dogs (in a controlled area) Good luck

  5. I adopted a dog from a shelter that was very timid. After he started to bond to me he started barking and growling at all other people. I took him to training and after a few months he became a very friendly dog that loves everyone. He just needed some discipline, tlc and confidence. No one can believe he is the same dog. He is a Boston Terrier mix that I can now trust completely with everyone.

  6. I do not let my dogs around to many people. for the simple reason if my dog likes everybody then they can be stolen very easy. I don’t trust many people at all these days and sure do not want my dog doing it. I only have certain people I will let my dogs be around. I used to be the exact opposite till I had my dogs stolen luckily we were able to find them. also had a couple of horses stolen caught them to took a couple of days but we caught the thieves turned out ours were not the only ones they had taken. it took about a week before the horses were located but they were found and were very sick with shipping fever. now I don’t let very many people around any of my animals. I don’t care if that’s good or bad my animals are safe and that’s all that matters to me.

  7. This has stuck a chord with me and my shepherd bitch, but not with people. She is like this towards other dogs. I would be interested to learn what technics I can use to make her feel safe whilst in my company whilst other dogs are around.

  8. I am the proud “MOM” of an abused,neglected,starved shelter Pit-Bull who doesn’t bark at strangers or anyone else.She looks at everyone like they’re a potential playmate.She’s not here for protection lol.

  9. I had a Corgy named Smokey… He loved everyone except the Meter man… Usually when anyone came over he would look at me for approval, if I told him it was ok he would wag his tail and sit looking at them til they acknowledged him. Once they said hello he would lay close by.
    He lived 16 years and was loved by everyone because of his gentle heart.
    There was one time he showed a side I’d never seen… A man with a large dog came too close to my yard and he got between me and the man, his barking was mean and threatening it scared me. The man told me to call off my vicious dog… I told him he wasn’t vicious but he obviously didn’t like you, the man was uncomfortable and left screaming at me as he walked away. The odd thing he never barked at the large dog but beyond him at the man.
    He also saw someone in my car one morning @ 2:00 a m when he had to go outside. He never barked, just stood frozen and stared, I called the police and they caught the guy.
    I miss my Smokey.

  10. I have an adopted pup – almost a year. With new people he’s a barker! tucks tail and hides. Sometimes when he see’s that the people aren’t going to harm him he goes to play but still has difficulty going to them for pets and love. Some people he just never adjusts to. We’ve asked friends/family to ‘ignore’ the barking and dog and not to be afraid but again, with some he doesn’t quit. We’ve tried to hold him and introduce him – and not sure what else to do. We’re around people a lot with gatherings and traveling. We also have a border collie and she just loves everyone!

  11. How do I teach her to look to me for help when she’s unsure how to react in a new situation, or teach her a more optimistic worldview? I socialize her, take her anywhere I can, especially around lots of people. She is ok until someone talks to her!

  12. I have 2 male neutered German Shepherds. Now 9 and 10. They love everyone, during the day. We have 10 fenced acres and if anyone comes during the day they practically open the gate for them. Night time…on patrol. Nothing gets past the gate. Love those boys!! Sometimes I with they would at least bark when someone comes to the gate during the day!

  13. I’ve got a 5 year old Rotti mastiff x which means she’s a big girl. She was abandoned then got bumped to a couple different homes before being with me the last 4 years. She barks at everyone when she is in the yard, even the neighbor who she’s known the last 4years. She is incredibly unsure of anyone new but I have noticed she ends up on her back for a belly rub most times still acting sketchy though. Which makes me incredibly nervous.

  14. My girl is the best….
    Very rarely she will place herself between me and someone. She does it so little I listen. When they put their hand out to her she backs up, and places herself back between me and them when they put it down.
    I one had a guy come out of the bushes when hiking in the woods and walk towards me real fast….she started running towards him and jumped up and body slammed him with all 90lbs of herself…..her non-aggressive way of being aggressive. I learned years later that there was a rape back there about that time and it was not reported in public as it was at a college…they chose to keep it under wraps…
    She has never been openly aggressive to anyone out side of body slamming that guy, but I listen to her and totally trust her judgement…she is a Lab mix…

  15. When my dogs are outside they bark at everything but when they are inside they ignore anything going on outside the front door. Just dont let someone inside the house.
    There will be trouble if they come in without me at their side.

  16. We have a 2 1/2 year old German Shepherd. She is EXTREMLY loving and very puppy like with myself and my husband. But, when people come to our house, she does bark, and growl. She stops when we tell her to, and does allow our guests into our home. the thing is, she will never EVER let anyone touch her or get close to her. She is never threatening after we tell her it is ok, but remains very very reserved. My mother in law has visited twice, for a week at a time. Both times Samantha has calmed down n the first day, and tolerated the visit, but has never warmed up enough for a pet. This is the case in every visit we have had. We do not think much of it, since we do not have many friends in our area, and rarely have people over. She is always respectful of what we say, but do bring her to bed with us to avoid any mishaps in the middle of the night or the morning before we wake up. Should we be doing something to help her understand that houseguests are ok? We both just fear a confusion if we are not around. She is NOT aggressive, rather protective and apprehensive. Which we are aware can be very dangerous. Any advise would be awesome.

  17. I adopted a very nice husky type dog s from the SPCA a couple of months ago. She is very good with people, but fear-aggressive with other dogs. She even hears a dog outside & she degenerates into a barking, slathering mess.
    I have been working with her & she’s getting better. The trainer at the shelter suggested treats, but she is so insane when she sees another dog I’ve found that a sharp crack with a flyswatter or stick on the ground or furniture is the only thing that will get her attention. Then I can attempt to sooth her and tell that’s enough. Hopefully by spring I can get her calm enough to go to the dog park. It takes work & time. I don’t know why she is this way, but something happened in her past that scared her away from other dogs.

  18. My lad husky mix. Every quite and relaxed dog. Never barks unless I’m playing with him.
    Last summer I was at the beach and “sudden” ( his name) “getting some love in” from a few young kids. Well I guess their dog didnt like it and wanted to come see what was up. As soon as durden noticed the other dog running twords them. He stepped between and got so aggressive. I have never seen him like that before, or since. No fight happens but he was READY for one.

  19. I have a 2 year old shepherd and ridgeback mix. He’s not aggressive towards people or dogs. Though if he thinks someone looks suspicious, he will bark. He will happily play with anyone and roll over for belly rubs. He does have a bad habit of walking up to anyone and everyone for attention no matter where he is. He will bark at knocks on doors but if anyone walks through the door, they’re immediately ‘attacked’ for attention.

  20. We have a very loving, happy dog who is only concerned with how much play time she gets with other dogs. However, we were visiting our grandchildren when our daughter-in-law opened the door to a person who was delivering items needed. The DM came in and our dog went nuts! She barked and had to be held back! She wouldn’t stop barking and attempting to get at this person until he drove out of the driveway.
    My brother said that dogs like her know automatically which person will be a problem. I guess that this person, who did seem unsavory… sorry for this judgment, may have been a concern. — she has never acted this way before or since when unknown people have come to our house or theirs.

  21. This is an excellent summary of this type of behavior. I’m working with a behaviorist, using meds and counter conditioning. It’s so much better when people turn away and don’t talk to my dog, which is what I ask. But much of the time they laugh and say she’s protecting me! So we are back-yarding it together (not leaving her!) while we work on the meds, and getting her to like the car (huge challenge) so we can go someplace quiet.

  22. Pingback: Aggressionsverhalten | Chakanyuka

  23. I have a 3 month old gsd, she bites a lot and already hates other dogs. What’s the best way to stop the biting? She gets my 15 month old and makes her bleed!!

  24. I have a great almost 7 yr old female GSD who has a wonderful temperament/personality. she growled only once on a walk when a man was behind us with a cap on. She turned around to look at him & growled. He backed off a few feet which made me feel better. I always get compliments on how great she is & the vets & techs say she is rare. credit to the breeder.

  25. Pingback: Can your “protection dog” protect you from a dog bite lawsuit? | The Unexamined Dog

  26. I have a 6 yr old male White Shepherd. He is very well behaved and trained. He has been around our neiphew his whole life but we recently moved and now he is acting exactly like the dog in this story towards my neiphew. It’s just puzzling to me. We sent a week in our camper in June looking for a new home and this neiphew stayed with him while we were out looking at houses. No problems and he was fine. 30 days later we move into our new house and he starts acting up towards this nephew. Pacing, growling, putting himself between the two of us. We have tried everything. We even had him neutered this week hoping it will help.

    I don’t know how to get him to stop. What do I need to do to help him?

  27. I am a single women with a 10 month old female GSD who I have had for a little over a month. Whenever anyone comes to the house she positions herself between me and them barking (deep loud bark) with head up, ears up, tail wagging. Her posture at the time looks like a classic GSD stance. (She will stop when I tell her it’s okay and greet the person.) But she will also do it if I have a guest who leaves the room and reenters which is disturbing. Recently I saw her do the same thing with my granddaughter. My granddaughter was in the the backyard playing and my daughter opened the back door to go get her allowing the dog out. Before my daughter got all the way outside my dog had positioned herself between my daughter and granddaughter and was barking at my daughter. Again she stopped when I told her to. I don’t work so we spend almost all day everyday together and I do try to get her out almost everyday in different situations to make sure she’s socialized. I guess my question is if this is bad behavior that needs to be broken or protective behavior that needs to be properly trained.

  28. I have a German Shepherd who knows people exist just to adore him. He loves everybody. Until you put a hand on me then it is game on. You can shake my hand, stand near me, bump me with your body but hands are a big no no for him.

  29. brenda stroud

    My alsatian we got as a rescue, she is such a lovely, loving dog ,bur when door goes or someone comes in gate, she barks , no other time just them2 ,

  30. Hello,

    I have a White GSD who is now two years old. I received her when she was 9 weeks old, and I noticed she was very insecure and fearful from day one. I tried to socialize her with people as early as possible, and invited many friends to my apartment every day during the first two months I had her. Though I asked them to ignore her and let her come to them, she would still hide under the coffee table and usually wouldn’t come out unless she had to use the bathroom.

    I remember trying to take her out for a walk for the first time. I had carried her around the area where I lived first and then tried to put her down, but she was shaking uncontrollably and tried to climb up my jeans to get back in my arms. She would shake and hide behind me if she saw a person, dog, car, bus, whatever.

    It wasn’t until she was about 4 months old that she discovered that barking made people back off, and though we had been going to puppy courses and I still tried to socialize her as much as possible (sitting down in the middle of town, trying to get her to be passive, spending hours at every petshop in the city at a time, going on dog walks with 40+ other dogs) her fear didn’t subside. At 9 months, my dog trainer told me that she didn’t think I could do anything more and I should consider putting her down.

    I was depressed for such a long time, but a kind woman at one petshop told me of another trainer (who worked with stressed dogs taken in by the police) so I contacted him. He seemed much more optimistic and told me he could help, but of course I had to change my ways. I was too kind to her and had to be more consistent and take control over all situations so she wouldn’t have to. He told me her fear could be a factor of many things, some of which were out of my control (genetics, how she was being treated during the first 9 weeks of her life, whether her mother was stressed during pregnancy etc) but I was enabling her by not being a strong enough leader. As someone who suffers from DID, bipolar, and anxiety disorders, it’s sometimes very hard for me to take control and my dog is very sensitive. She can feel when I’m having a bad day, and might feel the need to “protect” me then.

    It has now gotten better, in some aspects. I can usually walk past people without her barking at them (and if she does bark, usually if someone tries to talk to me or makes eye contact with her) I’m able to stop her quickly 90% of the time (still working on that 10% though,,,). I managed to walk about 10 meters away from a husky the other day, and she didn’t bark then either, though she usually goes crazy the minute she sees a dog. She’s very good and confident when she’s off leash, and whenever I am to meet other dogs with her, we usually take a walk together before setting them loose in a field. Despite her initial barks, she’s usually able to walk beside a strange dog without any problems within thirty seconds. And once they’re both off leash, my dog is happy and playful and you would never guess she’s insecure.

    It’s been a rollercoaster ride with her, since I never know what to expect of her. Some days she’s perfectly obedient, and others she barks at everything. But I’m happy not to have listened to the first trainer and I feel that I’ve made some progress with her at least.

    Another thing I’m extremely pleased with is that we have worked on getting over her fear of water this past summer. She was deathly afraid of even the smallest puddles before, but now is a master at the doggie paddle and even goes back in the water when all her human friends get out! It’s a step in the right direction and I hope it continues, but if you have any more advice for me to help speed the process I would love to hear it. Sorry for my long rant!

  31. My two year old gsd has become protective of me with my wife and kids. I called a dog trainer and she said my dog thinks he owns me. He has’nt bitten anyone yet but he wants them to know that they are too close. Does he need more socialization?

  32. I have a 10 month old female german shepherd that I adopted a month ago. Since that time she has had 2 moves with me and is now trying to adapt to a new state & climate, with a new-ish owner, and she seems to be getting more fearful and anxious. She exhibits the posturing you mentioned, barks and growls at people and other dogs while leashed or in the car and attempts to run away from other dogs, even yelping as if attacked recently (even though the other dogs were not approaching). I was hoping that increased socialization & exposure will help, we cannot avoid going outside for walks so cannot avoid dogs & people, however, I am concerned that she will become aggressive towards others rather than attempting to run. Please help!

  33. Anytime my husband comes near me he separates us and snaps at him .angry..he doesn’t like him near me or show me afectuoso .he behaves defensive jumps at him and pushes him away.. help! ANY SUGGESTIONS??

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