You probably heard someone say “I have a feeling that she just wants to protect me” when their dog snaps at passersby during a walk, bark at strangers or lunge towards other dogs when outdoors. While this may be seen as normal behavior for a dog if you live on a farm in some rural part of the country like our ancestors did, it can be a source of frustration if you live in a big city where you meet thousands of people whenever you take your dog outdoors.
If you experience frustrations with your dog being overprotective of you then you need to find a solution. As an experienced dog trainer, I know the key to unlocking this problem is finding out the motivation for such behavior. As is with humans, you can’t help a dog to change its behavior without first understanding the cause of the behavior. Like us, dogs also have personal interests that they seek to protect and that is why your dog may snap, lunge and bark at strangers. It is not just protecting you, it is protecting its interests.
If you raise a puppy from the day it is born into adulthood you will notice that the first day the puppy lunges or barks at other dogs or a stranger is as a result of a feeling of insecurity. When a dog feels threatened it is likely to react by being aggressive. This can then grow into overprotective behavior depending on how you react to the behavior during the first times days.
A dog is a social animal and its behavior are shaped by the experiences it has. For example, if you have a smaller dog and you take it somewhere with many bigger dogs it’s likely to feel threatened. For this reason, it will likely try to be aggressive. If this being aggressive keeps other dogs at bay and you frequently take your dog to such a place you are simply reinforcing the behavior of lunging and even barking at a bigger dog. This becomes its behavior whenever it meets bigger dogs.
In most cases, it is the responsibility of the most senior or highly ranked dog to take charge of the rest of the dogs. This means that if you have more than one dog then they are likely to form a hierarchy with the most dominant one taking the lead. If the dominant dog leaves the park them some other dog will be compelled to take its position. This may result in anxiety and unpredictable behavior for the new leader especially if it was not ready for the role. For example, if you’ve always hard one dog then you adopt two new puppies, your dog will likely sense that it’s its responsibility to take care of the puppies. It is likely to start being overprotective of the new members of its family. If you take your dogs to places with high human traffic or many other dogs your dog will develop the urge to be protective of the small ones from any potential aggressor. It will thus show aggressive behavior and even try and be overprotective which will result in it learning to lunge at other dogs, bark at passersby and generally be the aggressor in any encounter.
The other way your dog learns and reinforces its aggressive behavior is when you unconsciously learn to mirror its behavior. We humans are more like our dogs than we want to accept. We learn quickly to use one bad incident as a barometer for predicting future incidents. For example, if you adopted a dog that was rescued from the streets chances that the dog was beaten up and mistreated by people and other dogs while on the streets are high. If you then took such a dog for a walk it is likely to bark at passersby or lunge at other dogs. Because it is afraid that what happened in the past is likely to repeat.
The problem is that if your dog shows such behavior several times, you are likely to expect such behavior whenever you anticipate meeting a passerby or other dogs. This will likely fill you with anxiety and even force you to change direction. This is because you don’t want to be caught off-guard by your dog’s aggressive behavior. What you don’t know is that you have been conditioned by your dog’s behavior and now you are mirroring its behavior.
Your dog has superior senses than yours, it will pick up your fear or anxiety and try to protect you instead. while initially, your dog showed aggressive behavior because it felt threatened. Now it will learn to bark at potential threats and lunge forward not for its own sake but to protect you. Now every time someone approaches you your dog will be on the guard ready to protect you. This is because the dog knows you are afraid. It has no way of knowing that you are anxious about how it will react. All it can perceive is your fear and it acts the best way it knows how.
Now it is clear that trying to solve this problem by training without establishing the real motivation of your dog’s aggression will be a tall order. When you notice your dog beginning to be more aggressive than it used to be the first thing you need to do is assess your relationship with your dog. Check your body language when your dog lunges at others or tries to attack other dogs when with it. What is your tone during those dramatic encounters? Does your heart begin to race? Do you turn white? What else do you do? If you are always anxious your dog will do something stupid when out in the public your body emits negative energy that is picked up by the dog. These form part of the problem.
In this case, the next important step to take is to work on your relationship with the dog. Learn to be calm even during the most dramatic episodes of your dog’s aggressive behavior. This will communicate to your dog that you are in charge and capable of not only protecting yourself but also its interests. Start by breathing exercises and visualizing great outdoor experiences with your dog. This will build your confidence and improve your relationship with your dog.