My Dog Appears to be Guarding Me and it Makes Him Look Aggressive…. Why?

The short answer is they are trying to protect you. The bigger question is, why?

This is a common situation many of my clients face and ask me about. Over-protective behaviour occurs frequently, and odds are, you will have experienced this especially if you have multiple dogs. Guarding behaviours typically involve lunging, barking and snapping at other people; less than ideal when out in public.

The first step in addressing these problems is to understand the root cause of these behaviours. It can sometimes be difficult for owners to comprehend these sort of behaviours – on the surface it may look like your dog is attempting to protect you by being an overzealous guardian but more likely than not, they are actually protecting themselves.

The self-protection gradually evolves into over-active guard behaviour that extends to the whole pack i.e. you, as the owner.

Usually that first lunge or snap at a passer-by is triggered because the dog feels threatened; the dog is insecure and afraid. This fear can then change into protective behaviour in two main ways:

1)If a dog perceives someone or something as a threat, it is easy for the dog to perceive this threat against the group, not just itself. Importantly, this alone does not necessarily result in aggressive displays.

We must remember that ‘canine society’ is hierarchical in nature with high ranking members carrying out a number of important functions including protection and taking the lead in threatening or dangerous situations.

So, does that mean your dog thinks he is your leader and protecting you? Is your dog dominant over you?

Almost certainly not. The most accurate explanation is that your dog doesn’t have faith in YOUR leadership. They aren’t assuming a leadership role, but they also don’t think you are up to the task. Naturally, this leads to insecurities when it comes to perceived threats. The truth is that among domestic dogs, there are few truly dominant animals.  When dogs who are not naturally inclined to be leaders take up a leadership position, they can anxious and stressed which contributes to the irrational nature of their responses.

2) The second way this behaviour emerges is related to the point above but also distinct in certain ways. Something which I think we all forget is that we are animals too and fall foul of many behavioural tropes similar to dogs, often without realising. For example, when you dog lunges at someone of something unexpectedly this can be a shocking experience and quite distressing for some owners. After several of these sorts of experiences, we can very quickly become programmed via classical conditioning – in this case a conditioned emotional response.

You may begin to fear that jogger or push chair approaching because you know what is about to happen.Not only is your dog already nervous of them approaching but they now sense your anxiety as well leading to a cascade of fear and uncertainty.

Something so important when you are a leader (or if you hope to become one), is to remain calm and controlled in conditions of threat or danger. Your behaviour, while not obvious to you, is obvious to your dog and YOU must set the example. If you remain fearful of these situations, your anxiety and fear essentially validate your dog’s position and behavioural responses. If they see you all worked up over an approaching jogger, they think they are right to feel the same and act the way they do.

Your dog has no way of knowing that you aren’t afraid of the jogger or the approaching ‘threat’ and you are afraid of what your dog might do. All they see is:

Jogger approaches -> You get nervous -> A need to react and defend

To embark on a clear path to training, we need to appreciate and understand these underlying behaviours as best as we possibly can. If we don’t understand these factors it can leave us frustrated and confused when we don’t see the progress, we expect during training.

Where to begin?

The first place to start is to check the foundation of the relationship between you and your dog – what do you represent to them.

Without going into immense detail, your focus should be on fostering and developing a relationship with your dog that encourages leadership through clear and consistent boundaries and direction. Think about regulating valued resources and be aware of your own tone, energy and body language as you interact with your dog. It’s a good idea to frequently run a check on your emotions while you are out and about with your dog, especially in crowded situations or environments where you think your dog might react poorly.

Dig deep and overpower the urge to feel anxious when ‘threats’ approach. This will get easier with time. Keep your head high and believe that you are the leader you are meant to be. Do this consistently and your dog will notice, training will be more effective, and harmony can be restored to your dog-owner relationship.