One of the common concerns I hear is that people don’t want to tell their dogs to stop barking/back off/don’t be aggressive because they want protection if something goes wrong.
Trust me, I understand that! I’m a slight woman who lives alone; I want my dogs to help out if I need it! That said, I also don’t want them to scare my friends. Let’s talk about what “submissive” means for dogs.
There are two types of dogs: dominant dogs (also called alpha dogs, lead dogs, or head dogs), and submissive dogs. The dominant dogs make the rules. The submissive dogs listen to the dominant dogs at all times, so that if the dominant dog says, “We have a problem! Everyone attack!” everyone attacks.
In human parlance, what this means is that if you’ve taught your dog that you’re in charge and they need to listen, they will. Here’s the best part, though: you don’t have to give them an attack command. Your dog will watch your body language. The “be on guard and help me” command happens when you stiffen up — which you’ll naturally do when you’re unsure of a situation.
Let me give you a couple of examples.
I took Cash and Lily walking one night in an area I wasn’t entirely familiar with. Cash and Lily are the type of dog that I would expect to lick a burglar to death, for the record. Anyway, while we were walking, I saw a collection of young men loitering in an area that made me a little wary. I didn’t so much as acknowledge my dogs; I was too busy looking at the boys. But my body language stiffened slightly in my wariness. Lily hung back to stay with me, while Cash stepped forward. He was no longer head-to-hip with me; he was hip-to-hip. I didn’t correct him until I got closer, and decided the young men were no threat. Then I said simply, “Cash.” Because I relaxed slightly, Cash realized there was no threat and fell back in line.
Now, if something worse had happened, Cash and Lily would have leaped to my defense. Since nothing happened, and since they listen to my body language, the both waited for a cue, and when the cue was to back down, they did. I’m the dominant dog, so they’re listening to me to see what they should do.
Another example: I was having a ladies’ night at my house last month, with many of my female friends coming to visit. I live in a guest house; to get to my place, you have to go through the back gate. I then have a little courtyard behind my house walled off on three sides for privacy, but the dogs have the run of the entire yard. We humans were in that courtyard area when my friend C came through the gate. Instead of going to my door, she walked through the gate and around the side of my house. This means that I didn’t let her in, and therefore hadn’t accepted her for the dogs’ sake. When the dogs saw her before I did, even though they’ve met C many times before, they both gave their great big guard dog barks, stopping her from coming any closer.
I hopped up and called them off (“Cash! Lily! That’s enough!”). They circled back to me to see what my body language would be. I saw C, gave her a big hug, and then they came in all wiggles and happiness to be petted. As soon as they’d let me know and my body language and tone of voice said this was a friend, they were thrilled to see her, too — but without me to tell them, they were alerting me that something untoward had happened: C had come in without being invited.
Now, the type of dog will influence how protective they are. Cash, for instance, always barks a time or two — until I take control of the situation — or steps ahead of me when I’m uncomfortable. King shepherds are bred from malamutes, German shepherds, and great Pyrenees originally. Two of those breeds are guarders/protectors, so that’s a strong impulse in him. Lily, on the other hand, is a pit bull; they’ve been bred NEVER to harm a human (news stories to the contrary), and she will lag way back until something’s really wrong before she steps in. (That said, before I had Cash she did step in a time or two when someone scared me. It never got to the point of someone attacking me, but I had to be more alarmed before she would take the slighter action of growling.) Some dogs step in early; others wait until it’s more obvious.
When you have a dog who believes they’re the dominant dog, then they’re making their own judgement calls about people and not waiting for your say-so. This may mean they miss truly dangerous people, or take a dislike to truly safe people. Not something you want your dog deciding! Especially since, in their mind, you’re supposed to follow their lead: if you’re the submissive dog, they aren’t going to be called off just because you say.
If you’ve ever played wrestling or tickle games with someone (kids, perhaps) and had your dog jump in to “help”, watch who they help. In my household growing up, the dogs “helped” my mom by jumping all over us kids and barking at us. This was appropriate: she was the dominant dog, and they were following her lead! (You can teach them not to “help” when you’re playing, just so you know.) If you and your partner are doing anything similar, and your dog is clearly on one person’s side, it’s a good sign of what they think of the other person! When my girlfriend and I are goofy and wrestling, the dogs stand back and bark. They’re saying, “We want to play, too, but we’re not taking sides!” That is totally appropriate! They wait for one of us to engage them, and then play with that one.
So! That was the long response to being worried your dog won’t protect you if you tell it to be submissive/stop barking/be nice. The short response is: it will! Even better than it ever did before, and only when appropriate.