FAQ: How do I teach my dog to defend itself?

I get this question occasionally: How do I teach my dog to defend itself from people or other dogs?

Here is the short answer: DON’T.

Ready for the long answer? Okay!

You NEVER EVER EVER EVER teach a dog to defend itself. NEVER EVER EVER. First off, in doing so what you’re really teaching them is that they shouldn’t listen to you about who is dangerous and who is not (because you’re telling them to decide on their own in order to defend themselves), second that they are allowed to attack people and other dogs, and third that you aren’t going to help them in a tight situation. When it comes to people, legally speaking it doesn’t really matter if the guy is beating your dog with a bat: if the dog bites back, it is highly likely the dog will be blamed. The appropriate coping mechanism for a dog in a bad situation is to find you and get you to help. If it’s a person who then attacks YOU, dogs that are either guard breeds or have learned to listen to their owner’s body language (ie, are submissive) will see that there’s a problem, and then defend you.

Honestly, the best solution for both dog and human attacks is for the dog to retreat. It takes two to fight: two together can cause the death of one of them. But if you’ve taught your dog to retreat, then there is no fight, and any injuries — if there are any — are minor.

The long and short of it is that dogs shouldn’t ever attack people, unless those people are attacking their humans and those people provoked it. (Even then, the expectation is that the dog will stop as soon as the people start to retreat. In California, the expectation is that if someone retreats and your dog is not stopped, the dog is considered a weapon and you are at fault and can be sued.) If you attack and your dog backs you up, the dog gets put down. If the dog defends himself, the dog gets put down. The only time this might work out okay is if someone attacks you, your dog defends you, and when the people stop attacking your dog stops defending. The dog’s reaction to violence towards itself needs to be to run — and it’s your job to tell the humans to stop or get him out of that situation.

When you teach a dog to defend itself, dogs don’t specify “Defend myself against abuse.” They hear, “Defend myself against things I don’t like.” When that works for abuse, then the next thing they start doing is being aggressive toward someone who accidentally hurts them (like steps on a paw, or uses them for help rising and hits a soft spot, or when a little kid tugs too hard on the ears), then they get aggressive at someone who takes their food or toy, then someone who walks too close to their food or toy, then someone who looks too much at their favorite pet, and so on. Soon you have a dog who is attacking people for virtually no reason because the dog has learned that, hey, violence works to get what they want.

It’s much harder to re-train a dog than to teach it not to fight in the first place.

Finally, dogs protect people who are in danger. If someone attacks you, your body language will stiffen (stiff = bad emotional state to dogs) and your dog will step up to protect, doing what needs to be done. You don’t have to teach him that. So don’t worry that because you’re teaching him not to attack people and not to defend himself, that will apply to you. All you’re really teaching him is to turn the other cheek — something we could all learn!

The next question might be: HOW do I teach my dog to leave a bad situation?

The next time a person yells at you or a dog barks at you and your dog does nothing, praise lavishly. If your dog looks over, pull them away and when they stop looking, praise lavishly. If your dog tries to engage without your okay, pull them away fast, get their attention, then walk them away while praising lavishly. I mean seriously, lavishly. Like they won the Nobel Prize. If a dog barks and your dog either leaves or looks to you for guidance — you’ve got this answer now, right? Right!

Enough of this, and most dogs will figure it out!

Because I take my dogs to dog parks, and because I use them with dog-aggressive dogs, they’re under fire more than most. I’ve done a LOT of work to make sure that if they do get attacked, their first line of defense is to leave. This keeps them safe: 99% of attacking dogs will stop attacking when the other dog runs away and/or lays down. That’s what I want: an end to the fight! 99% of people can’t keep up with a running dog, which means my dog can outrun any human attacker. Woo hoo! This is a good thing.

If you have any questions, feel free to ask!

Jenna

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12 thoughts on “FAQ: How do I teach my dog to defend itself?

    • I have no idea! It’s not happening for me, and I haven’t gotten that complaint from anyone else. I have gotten people saying they’ve checked, so I don’t know why it’s doing it!

      Can I give you whatever information you’re looking for?

      Jenna

  1. Pingback: FAQ: How do I teach my dog to defend itself against another dog? | Jenna McDonald's Feathers and Fur

  2. Pingback: FAQ: Will my dog defend me if I teach it not to be aggressive? Or, How do I teach my dog to defend me? | Jenna McDonald's Feathers and Fur

  3. I’ve been reading a few of these articles and while the information is great, I genuinely don’t understand how, should the circumstance ever arise, any pet owner would let their dog be taken and put down, simply for BEING A DOG. No matter what the situation, after whatever happened, -I- would handle my dog, I would teach him what was right or wrong in that situation. If anyone tried taking my dog, especially to put him down, they’d be put down as soon as they touched his first hair.

    • As you should. There are a lot of cases where people do sue the state for taking their dog, but unfortunately the only win I’ve heard of was in Canada when someone was able to prove it was a lab and the issue was breed restrictions, rather than aggression.

  4. This is not true. You have clearly never been attacked by either pitbulls or pitbull terriers. They do not simply give up. They chase and go for the throat. Get your head out of the clouds. Where do you live? In a middle class residential area?

    • Actually, both myself and my dogs have been attacked by pitties in our work as well as simply on the street. And I would agree with you in certain things: pits are bred to follow through with what they start (referred to as ‘gameness’) and when they’ve been conditioned to attack, they’re not going to give up. (They make great service dogs for the same reason; once trained to do something, such as alert to an oncoming seizure, nothing will stop them from doing so!)

      There is also about 2-5% of dogs for whom this technique won’t work; those dogs are simply going to keep fighting, no matter what your dog does. The good news is that the likelihood of coming across one of these dogs is slim. However, if your dog fights back, all dogs become those dogs. If your dog doesn’t fight back with that 2-5%, it’s easier to haul the aggressor off, even if they won’t stop. So in short, I still recommend teaching your dog not to fight back!

      Where I live doesn’t much matter; I work with aggressive dogs in all areas.

      Jenna

  5. hi i liked what u wrote up there but ummmm.
    i have a problem.
    here in egypt if u r seen witha dog people tries to see if ur dog is confident or a cowered .
    so many people comes to attack the dog or at least try to, and if ur dog just steps back or run back it called a cowered dog and it might end up being attacked and killed (the dog and the owner).
    so all i am asking for is to teach my dog to stand her ground and fight back if she can she a really nice dog she suffered alot from her previous owner and now i am taking care of her as much as i can , she is now almost 6 years old .
    so how i teach my dog to stand her ground barck and gets a bit aggressive with someone who is trying to annoy her and all under my command.
    idk much people or friends who has dogs to go out with .
    so thanx in advance for ur help. 🙂

    • Wow! That’s a VERY different culture than here, and possibly with very different laws about dogs and dog bites and the like. If I were you I’d look for trainers who train dogs for self defense, so you can have your dog attack on command, and come back on command as well. That isn’t what I do, though, and I wouldn’t want to give you poor advice!

      Good luck!

      Jenna

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