“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.”
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!