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!