So You Want a Guard Dog, eh?

True protection dogs are FRIENDLY to people when their owner has no reason to feel threatened.  The instant anyone does something threatening the dog changes into a guard dog attitude.  The dog will wait for the owner’s command and guidance – either to continue with the attitude, attack or quit.  Dogs that are constantly suspicious of strangers or anyone except those he is familiar with are operating on fear. The dog that feels that everything is something to be afraid of and aggressive to is NOT a good guard dog prospect!  Most dogs who have a potential to be a good guard dog are easy-going, non-reactive dogs.  Dogs who are fearful will even bite the “good guy”!  Dogs who are to be guard dogs need to be highly and positively socialized.  They need to meet and greet MANY people and to NOT be encouraged to growl, but rather told to stop it.  This should be done during the window of prime socialization between the ages of 6 and 16 weeks old.  NEVER reinforce (pet, stroke, soothing talk, feed) a dog for inappropriate behavior, and never encourage the dog to be fearful (“It’s OK” – NOT!).  A fearful dog is essentially a loaded gun; a dog who will bite out of fear (called a “fear-biter”).  Dogs need to be taught to be confident without being fearful.

Raising a dog to be a protection or guard dog is not unlike raising any canine member of your household.  The exact same things need to happen in a potential guard dog’s life that should happen in a dog intended to be a family pet – heavy, positive and frequent socialization.  In fact, a dog who responds to a stranger at the door with barking does not need to be a trained guard dog.  Most dogs will bark at the door.  A dog must have a well-rounded view of life and be able to recover behaviorally from every new experience before he even moves into the finer points of guard dog training.

I have never trained a dog to be a guard dog, but I am well familiar with the overall temperament of a dog that will do well to make it as a guard dog.  If I were to want to train a dog to be a guard dog, I would NOT do it alone!  I would seek out and train with people who have vast experience in training dogs in this capacity (in another life, I would have loved to do this!). 

I would encourage anyone looking to own a dog to be protective to contact someone locally to help you in the choice and training of a dog for this line of work - I would not undertake this alone.  A guard dog is essentially a loaded gun; if you don’t have control of that gun, you WILL have problems.

Here is a very brief list of things found in a good guard dog:

  • Heavy play drive (tennis ball or tug-toy driven)
  • High energy - most working dogs will drive you crazy with their activity level and their need for both physical and mental exercise!
  • Able to quit on command (after taught, of course!)
  • Heavy work ethic; these dogs realize they do not work alone, and they are a team with their handler
  • Strong attention to their owner/handler
  • Ability to focus
  • Able to recover from "insult"; (they don’t fall apart under pressure)
  • Wait for the owner/handler to make the decision to act (they do not work on their own)
  • After a long time (years, maybe!) and plenty of experience and training, a good working dog will be able to decide for himself if he is needed
  • Able to adapt to new environments, surfaces, weather
  •  Not reactive or impulsive
  • A good, sound working dog is able to pass the Temperament Test given through the American Temperament Test Society (http://www.atts.org/). 
  • A good, sound working dog should also be able to pass the AKC Canine Good Citizenship Test (http://www.akc.org/events/cgc/index.cfm ).

Pam Young, LVT CDBC CPDT  
Dog Gone Good LLC
Dog Behavior Consultant
Personal Dog Trainer