Having A Dog Protect Your Family
As a dog trainer, any time I take on a new client, I always have them fill out an intake form to get an idea about the owner and the dog as well. One question I ask is why someone chose to get either that specific dog or that specific breed. One common answer I am seeing more and more frequently with larger breed dogs such as Boxers, Mastiffs, Pyrenees, German Shepherds, and other bully breed mixes is this answer: "they are intelligent, loyal, and protective of the family". While this may generally hold true to these particular breeds, there is one term I have to focus on, the word "protective". I frequently get asked in puppy classes with these dogs if they should really socialize their dogs to like people because they want them to be protective. I also get asked if a puppy reacted and snapped at them for raising their voice at another family member, etc, if that really is such a bad thing because they want the dog to be protective. Even with adult dogs I get told that the family wants to stop (insert behavior here) when the dog does it to them only, because they want their dog to still be protective. If you are in this camp where you would like your dog to be protective, please read further. If you have a friend or family member who wants their dog to be protective, please read further. If you have a dog that already behaves "protectively", please read further. If you have a dog that is one of the typical protective breeds, but isn't protective, please read further. It's time to clear the air on what a "protective" dog should and should not be and what steps to take based on what you want and what the dog is already displaying.
First off, I want to dispel the common myth out there about our protective breeds. Your unsocialized dog will not know the difference between a good guy and a bad guy. It is amazing how many owners want to make sure their dog is protective, so they only ever have the dog meet people that live in the home and maybe a couple other people at most and then are shocked when this dog bites one of their guests. What's worse is when people assume their unsocialized dog also knows the difference between a child and an adult and won't bite a child. This is also 100% false as the majority of dog bites actually occur to children. If you haven't properly socialized your own dog, your own child may also be at risk of being bit by your dog.
Secondly, think of the emotional state you put an unsocialized "protection" dog in. Most of those dogs that do react "protectively" are usually doing it out of fear, not because they are suddenly brave and feel the need to defend you. Imagine if every time you saw a person, you thought it was someone wielding a knife there to potentially hurt you. To an unsocialized dog, that is what their reality is. They don't know that your neighbor that you invited over is not a threat. Also, not all living creatures respond to fear the same way. Some dogs will just plain run away or freeze and will only bite if they are cornered and have no other options. Since most burglars don't think to chase the dog around, that probably won't get you the "protection" result you want anyway. For the dogs that go straight to fight mode when afraid, meaning they aren't really thinking about what you want or say either, do you really want a grenade that could go off at a moment's notice anytime you even think about inviting someone over?
Third, can you afford a dog you think should just be for protection. If you get a tried and true protection dog, the amount of training that goes into that is going to leave you with quite the hefty bill, not to mention breeding quality of the dog because a protection dog is a dog with a job and not all dogs are equipped, no matter how much we want them to be, to adequately do the job asked of them. If you are not in that group, I am talking about can you afford it if it goes wrong? If your dog bites someone and your dog gets labeled as a vicious animal, you will be required to have insurance on the dog for typically around $100,000, sometimes more. If your dog bites someone and they are not current on their rabies vaccine, depending on where you live, animal control may require the dog to be quarantined at a vet's office, which is another large amount of money. If your dog is current on rabies, the still may require you do a rabies quarantine. You also are liable for any damage your dog does so you could be sued if your dog bites someone. Even if you weren't there when it happened, your brother took the dog for the day, whatever it may be, you are still the one liable. In some cities or states, if you knew your dog was dangerous and it still bit somebody, you could even be charged. Other than the monetary cost, can you afford if a dog bit your child, the neighborhood child, a family member, or really anyone in general who probably was not attacking you or breaking into your home? I do know that's something I couldn't have on my conscience.
Now, if you do truly want a protection dog still, you need to put a lot of time and effort into training this dog properly. If you were to look up the sport of Schutzhund or IPO for dogs, that is the kind of obedience and control you need. These dogs are not vicious dogs that hate or are scared of people. These are dogs that have been trained for hours over years to get that kind of control and precision the handlers have. These are not unsocialized dogs. If the handler says to bite, the dog does so with no hesitation and the moment the handler asks the dog to let go, the dog does so immediately. People that compete in this sport spend hours training with their dogs and it takes over a year to a couple of years to get the precision and control they have. If you cannot devote the time to training a dog like this for protection work, you should not have a dog that you want to be "protective". This is not the trainer trying to be mean; this is the trainer telling you that it would be highly unintelligent to put a grenade in your house that at any moment you don't even know could go off and you have no control over it. Not socializing or training your dog and putting it in your house and hoping it never bites someone you don't intend is irresponsible and like doing exactly that.
If you choose to ignore this advice, then here is my warning as a trainer. Do not ever let anyone into your house. Do not ever invite guests or family members over. Keep the dog away from your children. Also, don't ever have an emergency in your home because chances are that the unsocialized fearful dog will not know the policeman breaking into your home to help you is not trying to attack you. If your dog is unpredictable, it is not a safe environment to have guests or children around it. If you do have a puppy that is a known "protective" type of breed, socialize the dog and start training it now. Do not wait until there is already an issue to then try to fix it. Prevention is always easier. If you have an older dog that is already "protective" and you need help because you don't have a highly trained dog, contact a professional behaviorist to help you through this issue. If you have one of these known protective breeds that doesn't have an issue, still train the dog. I am not saying all of these dogs are bad and people should not own them. What I am saying is train them and socialize them; I say this with any dog you own whether it be a chihuahua, a lab, or a german shepherd. If we bring these dogs into our home, it is our responsibility to make sure we have trained them and have good control at all times, while providing a safe environment for the dog as well. This is one of the reasons I encourage everyone who owns a dog to at least train them to the point they can earn their AKC Canine Good Citizen title showing that not only are you a good owner, but your dog is a good member of society and you have control of your dog.
While there are those dogs that make the news for saving a child or saving the family in the home, that is not every dog and there is low probability your dog will do that, so please don't count on it. If you want good protection for your home, implement security cameras, a good security system, always lock your windows and doors, and have access to a phone where you can call 911. You don't have to have a mean dog to feel protected. If you have a big, scarier looking dog that is friendly, someone randomly wanting to attack you will probably think twice anyway, even if the dog wouldn't hurt a fly. Please don't use "protectiveness" as laziness to not train and socialize your dogs. These protective breeds are usually great dogs and we don't need them to continuously get a bad rap as more accidents happen.