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Dog Behavior: How to Stop a Dog From Being Protective on Walks

Adrienne is a certified dog trainer, former veterinary assistant, and author of the online dog training course "Brain Training for Dogs."

When dogs act protective, they are often simply fearful.

When dogs act protective, they are often simply fearful.

How to Stop Dog From Lunging at Strangers

You are walking down the street when your dog sees a stranger coming too close. You cringe a bit and tighten the leash in fear your dog will react. Indeed, within seconds, your dog transforms into a lunging, barking machine. The stranger, concerned, moves away to the other side of the road. You start wondering: Why is Rover being so protective of me lately?

Is My Dog Protecting Me or Is He Just Scared?

It is easy for owners to assume a dog is being protective when it barks and lunges, but in most instances, this is not the case. More likely, instead, you are dealing with a dog that has ''weak nerves'' and excess ''reactivity'' to stimuli perceived as a threat. According to dog trainer and behavior consultant, Pam Young:

True protection dogs are FRIENDLY to people when their owner has no reason to feel threatened. 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!' 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.

Understanding Fearful Behaviors in Dogs

Fear, many seem like a far emotion when we see dogs lunging/barking/growling, but this is really in most cases, a bluff. From a human standpoint, let's imagine for a second that you are fearful of cats—just the thought of them makes you cringe.

One day, on a walk, a friendly cat tries to approach you. You make a loud hissing sound followed by stomping your feet as you move in the cat's direction. The cat, terrified, runs away with raised hair. Since this worked perfectly, next time, very likely you will repeat this action. If you find a cat reluctant to leave, you will likely make the hissing sound even louder and stomp even more to get your point across. The same goes for dogs.

A dog used to people backing off when he/she moves towards them barking will normally try to intensify the behavior if the intruder or stranger does not back off. The dog may be thinking ''Why are these people not leaving despite my aggressive display? Evidently, my barking is not working, so I must try harder now."

A Helpful Game for Dogs With High Arousal Levels

Does your dog go ballistic on walks when it encounters a stranger he does not feel safe being around? Does your dog scare off people on walks? Is your dog's aggressive display very intense on these outings? Then you may want to teach your dog the ''chill out'' game.

Invented by dog trainer Dee Ganley, this game is helpful because it teaches self-control and basically offers an arousal “turn off” switch''. The main goal of this game is to help your dog realize that she can go from a really high arousal state to instant calm. According to Dee: ''The goal is to teach the dog that he can substitute a calm behavior for his agitated state.''

To teach the ''chill out'' game simply equip yourself with good ammo. In other words, use the tastiest treats your dog knows. Forget about using kibble, or those stale dog cooking you have forgotten in a jar, instead, try to invest in hot dog slivers, freeze-dried liver, chopped-up steak, chunks of roasted chicken, and so forth. You want these treats to be soft and in small bite sizes so they can be delivered quickly.

Now for being practical, invest in a fanny pack or a dog treat pouch, so you can have these treats always handy. Next, you need to get your dog really excited by playing tug or allowing him to chase a toy on a string. In the middle of the game, right when he appears to be at a high level of arousal, stop all play and become still like a statue and ask for a sit. After sitting, you start the game all over getting aroused again, and so forth. Your dog, therefore, will be learning that in order to play, he must show self-control...this ultimately gives you the power to moderate his arousal levels almost as if equipping yourself with a ''shut off button!''

Obviously, asking your dog a sit when her level of arousal is up to 100 such as on walks at night or when strangers are approaching will likely not work. This is because his/her cognitive functions shut down when she is in this state of mind. To make her able to cognitively function, you will need to work her under the ''threshold''. What does this mean? It means initially working him/her away from known triggers and then gradually exposing her to them from distances she does not react to. How do we accomplish this? We will see this next.

An Important Exercise: ''Under the Threshold''

This exercise accomplishes several things; it works on your dog under the threshold, it teaches self-control, it builds up a bond and it changes the dog's emotional state about people coming close. How do you accomplish all this? You can do it with just a treat pouch full of goodies and a good training tool such as a head halter or a ''holt head harness." A Premier ''easy walk'' harness may help for mild cases, with little aggression. A muzzle is also a must for cases where the safety of others may be at stake.

How to Classically Condition Your Dog to Accept Strangers

Of course, locking your dog in the house or surrendering him to the yard, will only make problems worse. No longer, being exposed to people, he will become more and more socially isolated and the aggression will intensify. The problem needs to be addressed, preferably with the help of a reputable dog trainer specializing in behavioral problems, or a dog behaviorist.

How to Get Started and Things You Will Need

  • A treat pouch
  • Tasty Treats
  • A head halter/holt head halter/easy walk harness
  • A muzzle, as needed (for safety's sake)

Step 1: Use Tools

Make sure you get your dog used to the head halter/holt halter/easy walk harness. Follow the advice of a dog trainer or read the instruction on the manual that comes with such tools. The same goes for the muzzle. Get your dog used to these training tools days ahead. And remember: training tools are not a substitute for training!

Step 2: Teach a New Association

Basically, use the same high-value treats used for the ''chill out'' exercise. Now, make a smacking noise with your mouth, and deliver the treat. Repeat, repeat, repeat. You want to do this until your dog automatically looks at you for the treat upon making the smacking sound. At this point, congratulations! you have classically conditioned your dog to associate the smacking noise with getting treats.

Step 3: Add Distractions

Practice this for brief sessions for a few days, and then try this outside in gradually distracting environments. The moment you spot a person at a distance, make the smacking noise and deliver her a treat. Repeat, repeat, repeat, making it clear that the treats arrive there is a person and the treats end when the person is no longer in sight. Basically, imagine your exercise between these two parentheses (). They open when a person is spotted and close when the person leaves. Do not give treats outside of these parentheses during the walk.

Step 4: Generalize the Behavior

With time, your dog will associate the presence of people of treats. This changes your dog's emotional state of mind, from the aroused ''I have to send you away'' to anticipation ''I saw a person, now where's my treat?'' Now, once this is clear in your dog's mind, you need to further generalize...therefore, try this exercise on a day when it is getting dark, or around noisier people, or in a certain busy area. Then gradually increase the criteria, and do it when it gets darker and with people closer. Make safety your top priority.

If you really want to further work on this try to enroll a few people you know but that your dog does not know too well. Have them walk nearby, but far enough to be safe. Tell them to do the smacking sound and toss in her direction a handful of tasty treats. This is a jackpot in her mind, and if done often enough she will further love seeing people around. Repeat, repeat, repeat. You may need to adjust her feedings the days you do this exercise to prevent her from eating too much.

Now, a time may come, where she may revert back to her barking/lunging behavior. In this case, you may have gone too fast, go back a few steps, and work from a farther distance. This work takes weeks, even months of practice to start seeing some results, so take it slow. Enrolling your dog in private classes may be a good start so to create a foundation of self-control and training. Again, make safety your top priority, your dog can be a liability, and one bite is all it takes to create havoc in your life and your dog can even lose its life.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

© 2011 Adrienne Farricelli


David Miller on June 30, 2020:

There is both operant and respondant (classical) conditioning being used in this article. Respondant conditioning involves involuntary reflexes - fear in this case. Operant conditioning involves voluntary responses - choosing not to behave or to behave in some way. The article describes a method of using respondant and operant conditioning to change the reflexive fear response to a response the dog chooses voluntarily through reinforcement using a primary reinforcer - this is operant conditioning.

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on June 25, 2020:

Hi Steven, no I meant classical since we are creating positive associations with strangers. Stranger=treats.

Steven Symonds on June 25, 2020:

Good article, although I think you mean operant conditioning and not classical conditioning

trudi atkinson on March 11, 2020:

my dog is protective around men, when I am out walking. I will go back to clicker training and try this. It only happens when men come out of no where.

Maria on August 02, 2017:

Excellent information, my dog is usually protective around other dogs especially the first time after that she becomes familiar and doesn't mind if they get close to us.

Brenda. on April 25, 2017:

My baby dog want let my husband give Me a kiss this time he bite him...What can I do it just with my husband ..He is a very small dog ...I am at my wit's end. I love this dog so much we have two others it just baby who does this and he is the smallest?

Rebecca Mealey from Northeastern Georgia, USA on December 23, 2011:

Boy, do I know some people who need this. Will share!

Shasta Matova from USA on December 23, 2011:

great info voted up. my dog is getting better around people.

Naomi's Banner from United States on December 23, 2011:

This is some really great advice on dog training. It can save you a lot of trouble walking your dog if he perhaps has a tendency to arouse anger in dogs tht happen to be bigger than him. Thanks for a great Hub!

Deborah Brooks Langford from Brownsville,TX on December 23, 2011:

AWESOME HUB.. and very informative.. thanks for sharing..

I voted up and awesome

Merry Christmas