Why Do Dogs Act Protective of One Owner?

When a dog acts protective of one owner, the issue shouldn't be underestimated considering that these dogs, when put in a stressful situations, may be likely to bite. Intervention from a dog behavior professional is paramount considering the risks involved in such situations. Protective behaviors tend to not get better with time, and the more a dog is allowed to rehearse the problem behavior, the more it puts roots considering that this behavior tends to attain a strong reinforcement history.

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Protective dogs are asking for other dogs or people to move away from the preferred owner

Asking For Distance 

Dogs may display protective behaviors towards people or other dogs approaching a particular owner/caregiver. In order to better understand this behavior, it helps to take a closer look into what "protective" dogs are trying to obtain when they bark, growl or lunge towards people approaching their "favorite person."

What is the purpose of a dog acting protective of a particular person? Until dogs can talk, we might never know exactly what is going through their minds, but we can sometimes make some educated assumptions. From watching dogs acting ''protective'', we can deduce that, from a functional standpoint, these dogs are displaying a distance-increasing behavior.

In other words, these dogs desire space and want to put distance with the person or dog that is approaching. We can deduce this because, when the person or other dog is approaching their favorite person, these dogs get increasingly stressed, and when the person or other dog leaves, these dogs appear relieved.

Many dogs have a space bubble, that is, an imaginary boundary, which when surpassed, makes the dog feels on the defensive. Dogs acting protective have a space bubble in place when they are in company of their favorite person.

 In absence of their favorite person, these dogs do not exhibit "protective" behaviors such as tensing up and barking, growling and lunging. The barking, growling and lunging are therefore external manifestations of an internal turmoil with the dog pleading for distance.

Claiming a Resource  

What is causing though the internal turmoil in these dogs? Are these dogs bold? Are they jealous? As mentioned, we can only make assumptions, but in most cases, there is not much to be flattered about. Confident, well-socialized dogs typically aren't the ones to act protective. Most often the issue stems from insecurity and fear.

 It comes natural for dogs to form a strong emotional attachment to certain caregivers and therefore, it is possible for the dog to "resource guard" his favorite person just as they would do with a high-value bone, toy or a favorite sleeping spot. This type of guarding often stems in insecure dogs who are afraid of losing access to their resource.

On the other hand, more than a willful desire to protect a resource, there are chances that some dogs simply feel very safe when nearby a particular person; whereas, they feel threatened by others, but because they feel safe in presence of their preferred owner, they put up a false scene of "get away from us...or else..."

Indeed, if the owner happens to toss the leash and leave, the dog is likely to turn around and leave too rather than confronting the stranger alone.

Whichever the underlying cause, the behavior most likely stems from an underlying fear of either losing a resource or feeling threatened by people/dogs the dog doesn't feel safe around, or perhaps a combination of both.

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"Stay away from my owner!"

Particular Circumstances

Interestingly, some dogs act protective of a particular person in particular circumstances, such as when the caregiver is pregnant or sick or when that particular person is sleeping. 

Some dogs may become protective in certain stages of the owner's life.  Some dogs may grow protective once the dog owner grows old and some dogs only act protective towards children. 

Regardless of when or how the behavior happens, one thing is for sure, fast intervention is needed to nip this behavior in the bud before it is given the chance for establishing.

A History of Reinforcement

Distance-increasing behaviors such as barking, growling and lunging generally have a strong reinforcement history at play. This is because every time the dog puts on the aggressive display, approaching people or other dogs tend to raise a "white flag" and move away. 

Protective dogs perceive this as Rover scoring 1 point and the person or the other dog leaving scoring a big, fat 0. Well seriously, most dogs don't keep tabs on things like this, but you get the point: if the behavior works, you can rest assured it will repeat and strengthen. 

Did you know? Some times dog owners may exploit a dog's protective behavior by encouraging it rather than taking steps in extinguishing it. This because they feel flattered by their dogs' guarding behaviors and perceive them as a sign they own a valuable guardian who will protect them from "people with bad intent." 

Sadly, this is rarely the case and these dogs just become "indiscriminate protectors " who will act aggressive towards everyone approaching, including innocent people and children. Due to a strong reinforcement history, these cases can be more challenging to overcome.

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In behavior modification for protective dogs, treat delivery is contingent upon others approaching, once the person/dog leaves, treat delivery stops

Now That You Know... 

As mentioned, a dog acting protective of an owner is a serious manner and requires professional intervention. The professional needs to come into your home and evaluate your dog and his environment and suggest the most appropriate behavior modification plan.  Following are some tips on how to stop a dog from acting protective towards a specific person.

  • Look for a dog trainer/dog behavior professional experienced in aggression and using force-free behavior modification. Any talk of alpha, pack leader, shock collars, etc. should be red flags of somebody not using modern training techniques and/or using methods based on aversion.
  • In the meanwhile, you should prevent your dog from rehearsing the troublesome behavior. If your dog acts protective in presence of people approaching, do not allow them to approach. Do not invite guests over, or if you do, keep your dog in a separate area in the home.
  •  If your dog acts protective of you on walks, move away if somebody tries to approach you and let them know you'll talk to them later when your dog is not around. Prevent your dog from rehearsing the problematic behavior.
  •  Let your dog wear a muzzle if you think he might bite as accidents may always happen (a child rushes towards your dog without giving you much time to move away).
  • If your dog acts protective towards other dogs sharing the household approaching, keep them in separate areas and rotate the time you spend with each dog individually. Avoid allowing both dogs sticking around "hot spots'' (like the couch area if one dog acts protective when in your lap) if that's where fights are likely to occur.
  •  If you do not have other dogs in the home, but your dog acts protective towards other dogs on walks, give your dog distance from them by walking the opposite way if they are coming straight on or by walking on the opposite side. Stay away from areas where stray dogs abound or dogs are kept off leash.
  • Skip punishment-based techniques. As mentioned, the issue stems from an internal turmoil. It makes no sense punishing dogs for barking and growling if we fail to tackle the underlying emotions. Punishment will also just make you appear unreliable and will add stress to an already stressful situation. Hence, the importance of using professionals using kind, dog friendly behavior modification methods.
  • What methods are used? While every professional may use their own methods, they are more likely to be based on desensitization and counterconditioning. Dogs are exposed gradually and systematically to stimuli/situations known to evoke the protective behavior making sure the dog doesn't go over threshold.
  • For example, the dog may be be shown the person or other dog known to evoke protective behaviors at a distance from where the dog is calmer or just less likely to react, and at the same time, he is fed high-value treats. The treat-feeding time is contingent upon the person or other dog's presence. Then once, these figures are out of sight, no more treats are fed. This training method is known as "open/bar closed bar" and was crafted by dog trainer and behavior expert, Jean Donaldson.
  • Should you ask your dog to perform a behavior before feeding treats? We are so used to feed treats to dogs "operating", that it may sound odd to feed treats for a dog only acknowledging something. That would be counterproductive though. Firstly, because dogs may be too concerned about their triggers to cognitively function (in other words it's hard for dogs to concentrate when they overly worried about a situation) and second because there are chances that the dog may think his behavior made the high-value treats happen when instead we want to create a strong trigger/food association rather than a trigger/behavior association.
  • Avoid having people approaching you to  hand feed your dog. This may lead to dog approach/avoidance behaviors. With the help of professional though, people approaching you can toss treats to your dog in a treat-retreat fashion basically, tossing treats past your dog. 
  • Use a muzzle if your dog is prone to biting and make sure you have several safety precautions in place with your professional to play it safe. 
  • If your dog at any time reacts, that is often a sign that he wasn't ready for that level of interaction and therefore you need to work from further distance or reduce the salience of the stimulus/situation.
  • With dogs acting protective towards other dogs approaching, things are a bit more challenging because you need both dogs to be perfectly under control. Hence, the importance of using leashes and a helper to keep both dogs at a distance  from each other and prevent them from getting too close.
  •  For mild cases of a dog preventing another dog sharing the household from approaching the owner, it helps feeding the protective dog treats every time the other dog approaches. Of course, help from a professional is always advised for safety and correct behavior modification implementation. More of this can be found here: Dogs Fighting Over the Owner
  • Remember: behavior modification takes some time to implement and requires management when the dog is not being actively worked with and conditioned. This means that when these sessions are not practiced, the dog should be kept away from his triggers considering that, as mentioned, it can be highly reinforcing for dogs to bark/growl and lunge considering that the person or dog in question often leaves/or is removed following this display.
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