Do You Need a Guard Dog?

Many people hope their dogs will be naturally “protective.” They may even want their dog trained to guard them and their family. But it’s usually not such a good idea, and a friendly pet dog might just do the job better.

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA
5-minute read
Episode #175

Do You Need a Guard Dog?

Over the years, I’ve had occasional requests to train a pet dog as a guard dog, and I’ve always declined as soon as my prospective client explained what, exactly, he hoped his dog could be taught to do. This week I’ll explain why expectations of a “protective family dog” tend to be unrealistic, and how a friendly pet can be all the guard dog almost any family will ever need – without guard dog training.

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Should You Teach Your Dog to Be Suspicious of Strangers?

Sometimes a client would like their dog to be suspicious of strangers. If you’re starting with a puppy, it’s easy enough to get that result. People do it by accident all the time: They keep the puppy close to home and socially isolate him from everybody but family and maybe a few close friends. By the time said puppy’s about a year old, there’s a good chance he’ll be growling at anybody he hasn’t met before. That includes the plumber, the new girlfriend your son brought home from college, and, if he hasn’t visited home a lot in the past few months, probably your son as well. A century or two ago, when most people lived on farms or in small towns, strangers constituted possibly worrisome novelties. An unfriendly dog may have been an asset then. Nowadays, not so much.

An unfriendly dog may have been an asset 200 years ago. Nowadays, not so much.

True, a generally unfriendly dog isn’t what most of my guard-dog-wanting clients want. They’re looking for Dogalini to be friendly to everybody in the family and polite to invited guests as well as to the UPS delivery person. Only when it comes to the bad guys – burglars! home invaders! – should Dogalini bark, growl, and maybe even charge and bite.

Guard-Dog Training Is Risky

Here’s the problem. If you want a loving family dog who will also bark, growl, charge, and bite on cue, you’re looking at some highly refined training. So you’ll need to hire a specialist, and this is where your dog’s troubles, and maybe yours, really begin.

Although there are signs that the field is gradually changing, most military, police, and guard dog specialists still rely on coercion and pain. Assuming the trainer’s skills are exquisite and the dog has a resilient personality, behavioral damage to your dog may be slight. Or … it may not. I know a family who were staying at a campground with their professionally trained guard dog when the dog charged out of their camper and bit a passerby. Was the bite a result of the guard dog training? I don’t know, and of course every week I meet dogs who aggress against strangers and have never seen a guard dog trainer in their lives. But whether or not the training somehow caused the bite, it certainly didn’t leave the family with a stable, safe dog.

How often do guard or protection dogs engage in freelance biting – biting on the dog’s initiative, not on the handler’s cue? Statistics seem to be impossible to come by. No surprise there, since reliable statistics on dog bites of any sort are hard to find. But you may be interested to know about some research into the behavior of Belgian military dogs. The studies began after it was found that the dogs showed an unacceptably high rate of freelance aggression. Harsh training methods were used on these dogs, and I think we can presume that the military trainers had fairly well developed skills. The Belgian researchers’ findings strongly suggest that the more reward is emphasized in training, rather than punishment, the higher the quality of the dogs’ performance and the less likely the dogs are to bite off cue. If you’re considering an old-school guard dog trainer, I think this should give you pause.

Besides, a dog is not a programmable device, where you establish certain settings and then you’re done. Guard dog training, like any other training, has to be maintained with regular practice. Can you reliably find 5 minutes a day to practice your dog’s basic manners? If not, is it realistic to hope that, even with professional backup, you’ll be polishing Dogalini’s guard skills?

How Much Deterrence Do You Really Need?

Finally, what criminals are you trying to deter? A dog is just a dog, not a police officer and not a soldier. There’s some evidence, though not as much as you might think, that the presence of any dog at all will put off burglars and others just looking for the easiest job. But, let’s face it, neither the mob enforcer with a mission to break your legs, nor the international jewel thief who knows where you hid Grandma’s sapphires, is going to be put off by a dog. These guys will just get Dogalini out of the way. Somehow or other.

How to Have a Fake Guard Dog

Here’s my advice. If having a guard dog will help you feel more secure, get a friendly medium-size or large dog and teach her the following behaviors: a rock-solid wait or stay, and a “Quiet now” cue. I’ve explained in earlier episodes how to teach both. And I’ll bet you don’t need to teach your dog to bark an alert. Most dogs will bark at least a few times when they hear the doorbell, or an unusual noise such as might be made by a thief breaking in.

So, you’ve practiced that sit-stay and that Quiet cue, and Dogalini’s got them cold. The doorbell rings. Dogalini barks a few times and you give her the cue to hush. You ask her to sit and stay in a position that will be visible to the person at the door once you open it. Then you open the door. Your visitor has heard the barking of a good-size dog. He sees that dog parked close by, apparently under your complete control. Your dog may never have so much as curled her lip at a person in her entire life, but right now she looks like your backup. And in the likely scenario that your visitor is the UPS guy or your kid’s best friend -- no sweat.

That’s it for this week! You can follow me on Twitter, where I’m Dogalini. I’m The Dog Trainer on Facebook, and you can also write to me at dogtrainer@quickanddirtytips.com. I welcome your comments and suggestions, and though I can’t reply individually, I may use them as the basis for future articles. Thanks for reading!

Golden Retriever Puppy, German Shepherd Guard Dog and Barking Dog images courtesy of Shutterstock

About the Author

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA

Jolanta holds professional certifications in both training and behavior counseling and belongs to the Association of Professional Dog Trainers and the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. She also volunteered with Pet Help Partners, a program of the Humane Society of the United States that works to prevent pet relinquishment. Her approach is generally behaviorist (Pavlovian, Skinnerian and post-Skinnerian learning theory) with a big helping of ethology (animal behavior as observed in non-experimental settings).