When it comes to protection, most of us think of highly trained police or military dogs, who’s main purpose (usually), after all is said and everything is considered, is really to help provide safety to the handler. It isn’t to hurt criminals or to help ‘find the bad guy’, although those are useful skills.
After all, dogs are a naturally protective species. The desire to keep ‘family members’ safe is highly instinctual, even genetically ingrained. This makes perfect sense, since the average wild dog or wolf relies on its pack for survival.
Step One: Understanding
The first step to coping with an overprotective dog, even a dangerous one, is to understand the situation. What is causing the dog to feel the need to be defensive? Was it something that happened in the past, or does the dog view someone’s behavior as threatening? Certain breeds are simply more prone to defensive behavior due to original breeding, such as several livestock guardian breeds.
For example, the famous Rottweiler is believed to have been first bred during ancient Rome, about 2,000 years ago, to help guard and protect livestock (among other purposes).
You can’t truly begin to treat the dog’s unwanted behavior until you understand why it is occuring. What you Don’t Want to Do is simply try and punish these protective behaviors. Punishment might simply reinforce the dog’s need to offer protection.
Step Two: Reinforcing Social Skills
In fact, socialization is probably one of, if not the single most important skill anyone will ever teach their dog. Outside of trauma, such as a physical attack in the dog’s (either to the dog or someone else) past, a properly socialized puppy will very rarely ever become overprotective to the point of becoming a danger to the well being of others.
If they don’t see humans as a threat because they’ve learned to enjoy being around them, there is no need for a dog to feel defensive.
If a dog does feel the need to offer protection because he has learned to consider a person a possible threat, you’ll need to teach him to enjoy that person, not fear him. The basic training principle you need to consider is called ‘Counter-conditioning’, which essentially amounts to pairing something the dog enjoys with the thing he fears.
If the dog enjoys that ‘thing’ more than he fears the ‘other thing’, he should begin to enjoy that thing he once feared because it means he gets to experience the other thing he loves.
A loose example would entail teaching a dog not to fear water by slowly tossing the stick out further and further, so he is forced to gradually enter the water in order to retrieve it. Once the dog retrieves the stick, he is rewarded with that delicious piece of meat. The desire for meat far outweighs the desire not to get wet.
The Fearful Dog
To a human, that cowering, shivering, pathetic looking shelter dog huddled in the corner of his crate, doing his best to look as small and unthreatening as possible, has the potential to be more dangerous than that dominant animal snarling and standing tall, staring you dead in the eye.
This is because the dominant dog probably isn’t feeling his very life is threatened. He is just telling you to back off, this area is his. You know exactly what he wants. The shaking animal huddled in the corner, however, might feel his life is at stake. His capability of ‘flight’ has been taken away; it is the very definition of being backed into a corner. His only options left, as he sees them, is to either do nothing and hope the threat goes away or respond with force in order to protect himself.
An example would be a neglected puppy mill dog, or the victim of home abuse. These dogs have suffered a form of trauma, and socializing them could be a long and tedious process. In nearly every single situation these dogs can be saved with the gently care of an Educated, Experienced Trainer or Behaviorist.
When it comes to these extremes, you don’t want to simply ‘let things go’ and hope they improve, or try and cut corners by doing things yourself (unless you have done extensive research and are experienced).
Sometimes, all it takes to rehabilitate this dog is love, patience, and gentle nurturing over time.