FAQ: Will my dog defend me if I teach it not to be aggressive? Or, How do I teach my dog to defend me?

I’ve written posts on how to teach your dog to defend itself against people and other dogs (tip: don’t), but since people often get dogs in part for safety, this becomes a legitimate question.

Here’s the thing: if I teach my dog not to defend itself against aggression, but instead to flee, that does NOT mean I’m teaching my dog not to defend me. The reason a dog is willing to flee aggression is because she knows that we’re there to help her out. The opposite is also true: if I’m being threatened, she’s willing to help out. If I flee, she’ll hopefully flee with me. But if I can’t, she’ll help me fight.

Let’s talk theory, and then we’ll discuss practicality.

How many of us have seen or heard a sentiment like this one?

if_your_dog_doesnt_like-375x375While funny on its own, it exposes a problem in our thinking. We assume that dogs have some sort of supernatural sense about people. To an extent, this is true. If someone smells of high stress, anger, or the terror if his victims, your dog will probably respond negatively. It’s highly unlikely you’re ever going to meet that person, though, and if you do meet someone under high stress, it’s likely because they have cancer and not because they’re psychotic.

Dogs do make their own judgements about people. And dogs, like people, will decide they do or don’t like someone based on all sorts of different things and personality conflicts. That doesn’t make those people bad people, though, and it doesn’t make our dog’s judgement any better than ours. In fact, most of the time, our dog’s judgement is ours. Someone approaches me having just finished a cigarette (which I’m really allergic to), and I instinctively take a step away. My scent changes, even if I smile, to something a little less pleased. I may not even be aware of these changes in myself, but my dog can sense them and thinks, “Aha! There’s something wrong with this person! I shall not like them.” Then I think, Wow, my dog doesn’t like this guy. There must be something wrong with him! Well… sort of.

Here’s the truth: if your dog doesn’t like someone, it could be something funny your dog is responding to. Or it could be something funny you’re responding to, and passing on to your dog. Trust yourself; if you don’t like someone, then walk away. But if it’s someone you actually do like, don’t assume your dog is telepathic: assume he smells funny, walks in a way that annoys your dog, has an air that your dog doesn’t appreciate, etc.

Now, what about when you do actually need your dog to protect you? There are training facilities you can go to that teach dogs how to be attack, guard, and security dogs. I would STRONGLY suggest letting a professional do it, as doing it wrong could result in some pretty awful things. I wouldn’t even try it with my dogs; it’s not the training I specialize in, and because something going wrong here results in harm to a living creature (be they dog or human), it’s not a chance worth taking.

On the other hand, if you don’t need your dog to attack on command but rather help you out if you’re in danger, good news! You don’t have to do much. The first important step is to make sure that your dog is tuned into you. You can do this through basic obedience, agility training, walking properly — anything where your dog has to pay attention. If you go outside and your dog stops listening, then that’s where you need to work! What you’re doing is just teaching your dog to check you out and see what you think about things.

Here’s where it gets fun: dogs are hardwired to protect their people (primarily) and properties (secondarily). If I get attacked, I can guarantee I’m going to go stiff and, if it gets that far, yell and fight. I don’t have to say anything to my dogs: the moment I’m uncomfortable in a situation, they will (and have) step forward to help. In fact, I have to be more careful to make sure they don’t help prematurely!

So there I am, walking down the dark street with Cash and Lily (the two friendliest dogs in the world, both trained to be submissive and never defend themselves) on either side. Up ahead, I see a cluster of young men I don’t recognize. I stiffen. Immediately, Cash and Lily sense my uncertainty and step forward, ready to help. Both of them stand tall, chests out, in a “challenge” posture.

Then I realize it’s just my neighbors, and I relax. I say the dogs’ names, they realize I’m good now, and they relax, too. I didn’t have to do anything: I just had to have dogs that pay attention.

Another time, someone walked into my yard uninvited. I heard Cash and Lily barking and, since they’re trained not to bark at squirrels, neighbors, other dogs, joggers, etc, I knew it must be something unusual. That said, I still assumed it wasn’t something they should be barking at! Hissing, I stepped out the door and saw a stranger in my yard, backed into a corner by Cash with Lily barking from slightly farther away. I stopped making the bad dog noise (which, under this level of alarm, the dogs had ignored anyway) and said Cash and Lily’s names. Lily, never a fighter, stopped barking and retreated to my side. Cash, far more protective, hovered between me and the man, tail and head high, ready to defend me. I said, “Good boy,” to let him know that even though I’d disapproved a minute ago, now that I saw what he was barking at I approved. Then I addressed the man. When I realized he was there under my then-landlord’s orders, I called Cash back.

I have never taught my dogs to be protective, but dogs are naturally protective. Now, here’s a caveat: dogs are more protective of people than places. Unless your dog is trained to do so, they’re less likely to fight off a robber when you aren’t home than a mugger. The very fact that you have a dog in the house or yard means that your stuff is probably safe, but don’t count on it 100%. And that’s a good thing: if a dog bites someone who is trying to rob your house, YOU could be sued.

The takeaway? Dogs are protective. No amount of training is going to take that away. Don’t worry; you’re a loved part of your dog’s pack, and the pack helps each other!