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Pet Points: My dog is too protective of me

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“My dog is very protective of me – anytime someone comes near me he will growl or bark. Sometimes this can be an issue when I just want to socialize with people that are not a threat, but my dog doesn’t want anyone to come near me. How can I make him understand who is really a threat and who isn’t?” 

Great question!  In fact, we were just discussing something similar in our Canine College (www.caninecollegemi.com) training class the other night.  We were in the process of teaching our student dogs to bark “on command.”   The command, we decided, could not be verbal. 

So we invented a slight hand motion command instead.  Why?  Because that way, if a stranger approached us and we were concerned, we could give the secret signal for our dog to bark. 

It would look like our dog was sending a warning on his/her own which is exactly what we wanted.  It would not be as effective, we decided, if we found ourselves in an uncomfortable situation and had to say “speak” to get our dogs to bark a warning. 

Your issue is similar…but different…right?  You’ve got a dog who barks at everyone – be they friend or foe.  And you’re right, that is a problem.  Because here’s the thing – your dog is very probably behaving that way out of fear.  

He may be protecting you from the scary thing…he may be protecting himself from the scary thing but regardless, no one wants their dog to be afraid of people like that.  It’s no fun for the dog to be scared and it’s certainly not fun for your friends or for you. 

My Doberman used to do that – he’s a bit of a chicken.  I was mortified because he is a lovely dog and I always felt like his breed type, combined with the growling behavior would convince people that he was a vicious dog.  Not the reputation I wanted for my beloved family pet or the breed in general.

Instead, I taught my dog to be comfortable in the presence of people.  All people.  I put myself in control of each greeting.  Sometimes he sits while I greet the person, sometimes he is expected to walk past and ignore them.  Sometimes he’s allowed to greet the person in his own crazy, happy way and sometimes I request a warning bark.  Sound good to you too?  Here’s how I got there.

Remember those psychology courses when we learned about the Fight or Flight Response?  That is, when faced with a perceived threat, a physiological reaction occurs that causes us to run away from the threat (flee), or stand our ground and fight the scary “thing.”   Well, dogs who bark, lunge and growl at people are exhibiting the “fight” part of that equation.  They are feeling threatened and are electing to stand their ground in an effort to convince the scary thing to go away.

It is logical, then, that if we help the dog become less afraid, the fight type behavior will diminish.  Then, once the fear is lessened, we can easily institute a simple bark on command signal.  That way, you have a happier dog who can still provide the “first alert warning” signal you appreciate – when needed.  

The best way to help a dog (or anyone really) feel better about something or someone is to make an awesome, fantastic party happen whenever the yucky person/thing is nearby.  So…if I give my son a new PS4 game every time he does his math homework…eventually he will really like doing his math homework.  Because great things happen to him when he does  his math.

For my dog, boiled chicken is his PS4 game (thank goodness or I’d be broke!).   So, when people appeared boiled chicken rained from the sky.   And when the people left…the chicken disappeared.  Eventually my dog learned to want to see people because as long as the people were around…chicken was happening.

This really does work.  There are some nuances of course.  Every dog is different and as such any training/behavior modification program must be customized to meet each dog’s needs.  

An excellent booklet to help with this type of program is The Cautious Canine by Patricia McConnell, PhD.   And of course working with a qualified behaviorist can be a tremendous help.   When “shopping” for a qualified behaviorist it’s best to work with a professional who has experience in developing/implementing behavior modification programs and utilizes dog-friendly training methods.