First Published September 24, 2013

One of the reasons that people have dogs is as a living alarm.  Our dogs tell us when the mailman is at the door, when a guest has arrived and sometimes when the birds land on the birdfeeder.  This alarm behaviour is very useful to us unless it goes wrong and slides over to barking for the fun of it.  This behaviour is so useful to many of us that some folks think they should take things a step beyond alarm behaviour and into guarding.  Once in a while I will have a client in a puppy class who asks me how to train their young pups to do protection work.  I have done protection work for sport on a small scale so I have some thoughts on how to do this that are informed by what I have learned in that realm.

The first thing I like to think about with a protection dog is why you want one.  If you feel threatened all the time, you might want to consider what you find threatening.  I have had a variety of answers to this one including feeling threatened by family members, by neighbours or by strangers in the neighbourhood.  If you feel threatened in your own home, please get help to live in a safer environment.  A dog is the wrong tool for that problem, and that is a lot of responsibility for a dog to carry on his shoulders to keep you safe from the people you live with.  If you feel unsafe with the people you live with, moving is a better solution than teaching your dog to bite.  If you feel threatened by your neighbours, then I will share that owning a dog, any dog makes you less of a target for vandalism or theft, but again, do you really want to continue to live in a neighbourhood where you aren’t safe?  Consider moving; it is a much better solution than owning an animal who you depend on to keep you safe.  If strangers in your neighbourhood are a threat to you, consider getting a neighbourhood association together to address the issue, because that is a better solution than depending on a dog to discern when you are safe and when you are not.


This is not a safe protection dog.  This dog is out of control and barely held back by the handler.  Teaching a puppy to do this is often a death sentence for the dog because the family eventually cannot live with a dog who is dangerous in this way.  If the dog ends up in a shelter or rescue, then adopting him out to a family ensures that someone will get hurt.  Avoiding this fate is easy; choose instead to raise your puppy to be calm, confident and friendly and learn about bite inhibition in a good puppy class before 16 weeks.  Image credit: whiterabbit / 123RF Stock Photo



Here is the problem with depending on a dog to keep you safe.  Dogs are terrific at deciding what is safe and dangerous, what is novel or what is out of place and telling us about that.  So if a strange truck appears in your drive, then the dog will reliably tell you “hey, there is a strange truck in the drive”.  What the dog is less good at is deciding if that the strange truck is a problem or not.    If the strange truck is the UPS truck bringing you a gift from your aunt, then biting the delivery guy is not cool.  If on the other hand it is a truck full of bad guys who intend to empty your home and haul away all your stuff, then maybe guarding the house would be a good idea.  Your dog doesn’t read, so how is he going to tell one from the other?

Training dogs for protection work falls into one of several categories but all protection dogs should have a few things in common.  There are dogs trained in protection sport.  Schutzhund, French Ring and a few other disciplines are like the martial arts of the dog training world.  These dogs are highly trained and will only bite when they are doing their sport.  Most of these dogs are owned by civilians who are interested in this aspect of dog work and most of these people are experienced in other areas of sport before they start doing protection.  Then there are personal protection dogs; these dogs are trained to protect their handler in a dangerous situation.  I would argue that there are few situations in Canada where you actually need a personal protection dog.  I had a friend who was a veterinarian who had one; she made farm calls late at night in rural Ontario and her dog was trained to guard her and her truck after she was attacked in a barn by someone who had called her out for help.  I have another friend in the prairies who does courier work in the oil fields, and he also was attacked by someone who called him out.  In both cases the dog is on duty when they are working and off duty in a kennel when they are not working.  These are working dogs and not pets.  The third category of protection trained dogs are those used by police, military and border patrols.  These dogs are also not pets.  Regardless, all of these dogs come from parents who did bite work and who are themselves stable, calm and easy to manage dogs who are willing to close the distance between themselves and the bad guy when asked to do so.

Let’s consider what life is like when you live with a sport dog.  As I mentioned above, these dogs should start out as stable individuals who are not shy or snarky or hard to handle.  They should be co-operative, biddable individuals who are confident and easy to handle.  It disturbs me enormously when people take a timid puppy and teach him that the only person who can touch him is the owner.  This does not make for a good, safe protection dog.  This puts veterinarians and technicians at risk when the dog needs health care.  This puts the public at risk.  This can also put family members, friends and delivery people at risk.  Living with a sport dog means putting the time and effort into socializing, training and preparing the dog to bite when appropriate (on the training field, with a bad guy in a bite sleeve or suit, never ever off the training field and especially never a child in a snowsuit or a firefighter in a bunker suit!) and to be relaxed, and easy going the rest of the time.

If you are going to get involved with protection work, you should start out by spending time in the culture and figure out if you want to be involved with that type of work before you get your dog.  This means finding a club and going out to meet the people and learn about what they do, how much time they spend on their sport and what they feel is different about living with a protection trained dog compared to living with a pet dog.   Having a dog who is trained to bite is a huge responsibility and it is one that should not be approached without consideration and reason.  Don’t get involved unless you are fully aware of the liability and completely willing to accept the responsibility to protect the public from your dog as well as your dog from the public.


Visiting and then volunteering at a sport dog club can give you a really good chance to learn more about protection sport before you invest in a dog who will be trained to do this work.  The time you spend preparing for a protection dog is well spent and will inform you about if you really want to do this type of work with your dog.  Image credit: rks / 123RF Stock Photo


A sport dog should be friendly to people when he is not working and he should also be willing to get close to people; if he won’t get close to people, then how is he going to bite them?  A dog who darts in, grabs and then bolts in terror is not much use in sport where they will test the dog’s courage by having the bad guy in the suit follow the dog or look menacing.  When people ask me if I think their dog is a good candidate for bite work or protection work, they often present me with a shy pup who is willing to grab the owner, but who screams in fear if you grab his collar.  With a lot of patient work, you can overcome this, but why would you want to do that?  Why make a dog who is not outgoing and confident close the distance and bite someone they don’t know?  A good sport dog is often also a family pet with a job, so he needs to be stable, confident, friendly and only bite when the context is appropriate.

Personal protection dogs often have an edge to them, but their job is a little different than that of a sports dog.  Most personal protection dogs don’t do double duty as pets.  Most personal protection dogs have very specific jobs and are taught to guard under very specific circumstances.  These dogs must also be confident and outgoing, but they may have a quicker trigger than the sport dog.  They must learn to bite not only on the sport field, but also in context while on the job.  The dog who worked for my friend the veterinarian was taught to guard the truck she drove.  If you put your hand on the door handle of the vehicle, he would bark his head off; it was very frightening.  If you reached in the window to pat the dog, he would bite.  These were cues that the dog learned in order to do his job in the event that my friend was unable to tell him what to do.  He was also able to sit or lie down in a barn and guard until told that he was to go back to the truck.  This allowed my friend to visit remote barns in relative safety, but it wasn’t always easy.  When a group of farm kids took to taunting him when he was in the truck, my friend decided to refuse to service the client instead of risking that the kids on that farm would get hurt.

Professional dogs  are often very similar to personal protection dogs, and when you see them in public, they need to be left to do their work.  They have various degrees of training and have various skills.  In general, unless they are doing a demo, the officers who are handling them don’t want to talk a lot about what their dogs can and cannot do; they are working and interfering with these handlers and dogs can make it very difficult for them to do their jobs.  If you encounter a law enforcement or military working dog, give them space to do their jobs without interruption.


This dog is working and most likely the officer who is with the dog won’t have time to discuss his dog with you.  The most polite thing you can do if you want to know more about police dogs is approach your local police force by phone or email and find out more information when the dog is not on duty.  These dogs are not pets and are not intended to amuse passersby; they are valuable animals who protect the officer when working, find evidence and track down lost civilians.  They are not here for the amusement of the public.  Image credit: aijohn784 / 123RF Stock Photo


Coming back to my clients who want to do protection with a dog, let me share some cautions with you.  First and foremost, having a dog who will bite on cue may sound cool, but there are HUGE responsibilities associated with having such a dog.  You must first train that dog to accept at every situation and experience with a calm demeanor.  That means that if you take that dog down to the train station and a delegate of Star Trek fans in full Star Trek costumes steps off, your dog needs to be able to accept six Klingons in full gear and remain relaxed and focused.  The dog should be able to calmly watch other dogs working and not lose his cool.  He should be able to watch a group of kids horsing around and not get upset and feel the need to interfere on his own steam.  Your dog has to be as cool as a cucumber about every situation he might find himself within.  This means that for the first year or so, you are going to be working on both socializing him to everyone and everything you will encounter, but also that you work on self control at all times.  A dog who is trained to bite, but who has no self control is a danger to everyone he encounters.  Realize that if you have taught your dog to bite and he bites the wrong person at the wrong time, that is your responsibility.  If you are not prepared for this level of responsibility, then don’t teach your dog to bite.


If these people got off the bus, would your dog accept them or would he feel that he needed to act on his own steam and bite?  If he won’t accept them, and you have taught him to bite when he is uncertain, then you can be prepared for a lawsuit or even criminal charges if your dog harms people in your community!  Image credit: harveysart / 123RF Stock Photo



Next, you need to find a coach who can guide you through the process of selecting, training and preparing you and your dog for bitework.  When I did bitework with my own dog, I started months before I purchased my dog by taking lessons with a trainer who did bitework, and made a training plan for my puppy that included socialization, obedience and early preparation for the work he would do as an adult.  The day he came home we worked on preliminary work to get a stable, controlled bite, and a fast, clean out (the out is the term we use to describe when the dog spits the sleeve or bad guy out, as well as self control over his food dish and meeting strangers politely.  This means that from day one, I had a plan in mind for my dog, but that plan included advice from someone who really understood what she was talking about when it came to protection work.


This exercise is typical of what sport dogs do early in their bitework training.  If you are going to do this, you need to find a qualified coach who is going to help you to develop your dog’s bite into a safe bite that only happens when you ask him to do so, and who will help your dog to stop biting immediately when asked.  Expect to pay such a coach for their time and energy.  Teaching a young dog to bite properly is skilled and physically demanding work, and you will pay your helper every time you train.  It is not difficult to spend several thousand dollars between puppyhood and your first competition.   Image credit: killmosquito / 123RF Stock Photo


Whomever you are working with should also be teaching you about obedience, and if you are going to pursue competitions, tracking too.   Similar to many of the martial arts, protection work is only one phase of what your dog should be learning.  Most protection competitions include an obedience test and a tracking test so that the dog is not just biting on cue, he will also come when called, heel accurately beside you and track down evidence or a bad guy if told to do so.  To my mind, teaching a dog to bite without teaching the dog the other skills to round him out is not only dangerous but hard on his body; bite work takes incredible energy and can result in injuries if it is not done carefully, under control and with forethought to the dog’s wellbeing.


If after reading all this, you feel like you are ready for the responsibility of living with a dog who is trained to bite, and you have the resources to invest in this sort of work, email me, and I will help you find someone who can help you.  If you feel like having a dog who bites will protect you in your home or neighbour, please consider moving to somewhere where you won’t be in danger instead.