I am sometimes contacted by people wanting to make their dog be a guard dog. These people aren’t happy because their friendly or fearful dog is useless at protecting them or their property.
Training dogs to behave with aggression isn’t my bag at all.
Taking the ‘guard’ out of the guard dog.
I do however often go to dogs with guard dog in their genes and that are excelling at the job, but whose owners don’t want this behaviour. We’re trying to take the ‘guard’ out of the guard dog, if you like. These are often, but by no means always, a Shepherd breed.
I have just met a beautiful year-old German Shepherd called Dexter who morphs from an affectionate pet into a fearsome guard dog if a person comes near the house. Particularly if they enter.
The couple took him in at nine months old and despite diligent hard work this behaviour has escalated over the past three months.
A confident dog bred to guard.
I see Dexter as a confident dog doing what he’s been bred to do – to guard. Understandably, this guarding behaviour has become stronger both as he has settled into his new home and as he’s matured.
The work on socialising him with lots of different people and other dogs should have begun at a few weeks old and been ongoing. If this had been the case, the couple, his second owners, would probably not be having problems now.
Dexter was even more highly aroused than usual when I met him. In order to get him as calm as possible when I came, they had taken him out for some vigorous exercise earlier which probably had the reverse effect. My arrival and the first attempts to find the best way of working with him will have caused him extra frustration and stress, so much so that he redirected onto poor Max. Max is their very easy-going young Labrador.
Keeping his stress levels as low as possible will help Dexter to exercise more restraint, be less reactive. Training alone hasn’t worked – they’ve worked with an excellent trainer. It’s the emotions driving the aggressive behaviour that need addressing.
If Dexter were scared of people, then because fear was driving the behavior we would be working on his becoming less scared of them.
Dexter isn’t scared. He seems supremely confident, at home anyway. He simply doesn’t want other people near him, particularly not in his house. He will try to do whatever it takes to send them away.
It took me a while to see clearly how best to approach this, then I had a light-bulb moment. Instead of our aim being for him to just tolerate people coming to his house, we need to get Dexter to positively welcome them.
What might Pavlov do?
Pavlov used a bell. Whenever he gave food to the dog, he also rang a bell. After a large number of repetitions of this procedure, he tried the bell on its own. As you might expect, the bell on its own now caused the dog to salivate.
So the dog had learned an association between the bell and the food and a new behavior had been learnt. His body reacted automatically. (To be all technical, because this response was learned – or conditioned, it’s called a conditioned response. The neutral stimulus, the bell, became a conditioned stimulus).
Why can’t we use a bell too, a wireless doorbell with two buttons? On bell push can be on the front door, the other somewhere in the house. They both trigger the same plug-in bell. Instead of food, Dexter can have fun. He’s much more motivated by play anyway.
They can repeatedly over time pair the sound of the bell with a short game of tug or throw him a ball. They can introduce new toys for extra impact and rotate them.
When play is triggered by the bell, Dexter’s brain should flood with ‘happy hormones’ like serotonin.
I quote from the article Canine Emotion by Victoria Stilwell: ‘Serotonin, for example, has a profound affect over emotions and is responsible for regulating mood, enhancing a positive feeling and inhibiting aggressive response. Dopamine helps to focus attention, promoting feelings of satisfaction….’
After a great may repetitions over time, Dexter should feel happy and think of play at the sound of the bell, even when no play follows (although it would be a good idea to keep topping it up). His brain will automatically fill with happy hormones at the sound of the bell.
Eventually, when there is a delivery person at the door, instead of thinking ‘Invader’, guard dog Dexter should think ‘Fun’!
When a friend visits, instead of thinking ‘terrorist’, our guard dog should be thinking ‘Tug Toy’!
To give this the best chance of success, Dexter’s underlying arousal levels need to be as low as possible. Long walks and vigorous exercise such as he’s getting now may surprisingly have the opposite effect to what is required, as beautifully explained by Stacy Greer.
The main areas that need working on are Dexter’s hostility towards people and other dogs when out, and people coming to their house.
Avoiding altogether both people coming to the house and seeing people and dogs on walks as they are doing now will get them nowhere. However, putting the dog over threshold (too close, too soon or too intense) will probably make things even worse.
It’s a delicate balance.
NB. For the sake of the story and for confidentiality also, this isn’t a complete ‘report’ with every detail, but I choose an angle with maybe a bit of poetic licence. The precise protocols to best use for your own dog may be different to the approaches I have worked out for Dexter. Finding instructions on the internet or TV that are not tailored to your own dog can do more harm than good as the case needs to be assessed correctly. One size does not fit all so accurate assessment is important, particularly where aggression or fear of any kind is involved. Everything depends upon context. If you live in my own area I would be very pleased to help with strategies tailored to your own dog (see my Help page).