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Watchdog vs. Guard Dog: What's the Difference?

Adrienne is a certified dog trainer and former veterinarian assistant who partners with some of the best veterinarians worldwide.

Size doesn't matter when it comes to being a good watchdog.

Size doesn't matter when it comes to being a good watchdog.

Guard Dog vs. Watchdog

There seems to be a lot of confusion these days about the differences between watchdogs and guard dogs. These terms are often used interchangeably as if they both describe the same thing, but that is not the case.

Is it right to label a Yorkshire terrier as a guard dog no matter how fierce he is when visitors come over? Are mastiff-like dogs categorized as watchdogs or guard dogs? What makes a dog a good or poor guardian? What traits belong to each category? This article discusses the differences between these two terms.

Whether you are looking for a dog who will sound the alarm every time an intruder is coming by your house or one who will take the issue more seriously, you'll need to conduct good research in order to get what you want. Before investing in a dog of a certain breed, learn what that breed was originally bred to do, ask the breeder questions, and keep other traits in consideration.

Consider as well that even among breeds, dogs have individual personalities. One of my clients once got a dog of a breed known for its watchdog qualities, but she ended up discovering that her ducks had much more "watchdog" qualities than her dog!

Note: This article is not a substitute for professional guard dog training.

Are Watchdogs and Guard Dogs the Same Thing?

Watchdog or guard dog—who does the job best? The truth is that they both do, but they each have their own specialty. Using these terms interchangeably is almost like saying that a doorkeeper or a receptionist does the same job as a security guard. Yet, the doorkeeper's job is limited to screening visitors, providing courtesy service, and accepting deliveries, and he's most likely not armed. The security guard, on the other hand, may have a more prominent role, may be armed, and may even have the ability to arrest. So let's see what sets a watchdog apart from being a guard dog.

What Is a Watchdog?

These are dogs whose main function is to be vigilant and sound the alarm for anything perceived as unusual. A good watchdog should be discriminative over what is perceived as usual vs unusual. Hypervigilance is not a good trait in this case, as the dog may react excessively to things that are not really relevant to the owner. Often, hypervigilant behavior is based on fear and may be seen in dogs who haven't been socialized enough.

The main characteristic of a watchdog is the ability to bark loudly. In this case, size doesn't really matter; indeed, some of the smaller breeds are often some of the best watchdogs. Many terriers, chihuahuas, larger poodles, dachshunds and shi tzus are all excitable breeds that have the potential to make good watchdogs.

What Breeds Don't Make Good Watchdogs?

Yes, there are many breeds that make poor watchdogs. These are dogs who are more likely to invite a burglar in for some popcorn and a movie. The Siberian husky, Alaskan malamute and clownish pug come to mind. Many of the hounds are also eager to meet and greet newcomers on your property because they have a strong pack drive. Generally, the Bloodhound, Newfoundland and Saint Bernard also have a reputation for being eager to greet people, yet, the latter two may appear quite intimidating due to their size when they're excited to jump and say hello!

What Is a Guard Dog?

These dogs bark loudly as well, but they're also capable of attacking and restraining people or other animals. They may bark initially, and if the bark doesn't work to send the intruder away, they may take action and move to plan B. A typical example is the junkyard dog who is left to patrol the area during the night and is capable of incapacitating intruders.

Guardian Dogs

There are two main types of guardian dogs: the short-haired mastiff-like breeds and the hairy livestock guardian dogs, which, as the name implies, were selectively bred to attack drive predators, including animals large as wolves, away from livestock. These are large, strong specimens sometimes weighing about 100 to 200 pounds.

What Dog Breeds Make Good Guardians?

The Doberman, Rottweiler, German Shepherd, American Bulldog, Bouvier, Swiss Mountain dog and Giant Schnauzer are all excellent guardians. Many of these dogs were bred as all-purpose, versatile dogs who fit well into the guardian role.

Some breeds, on the other hand, were originally bred for hunting, but their intimidating looks and instincts to protect property made them good guardian candidates. Examples include the Akita, the Weimaraner and the Rhodesian Ridgeback.

Other serious guardian breeds include the Anatolian shepherd, the Kangal, the Akbash, the Tibetan Mastiff, the Kuvasz, the Mid-Asian shepherd, the Komondor and the Caucasian shepherd. And let's not forget about the aloof Fila Brasileiro, Dogo Argentino, Tosa Inu and Canary dog.

What characteristics do good guard dogs have?

In general, physical appearance plays a big role. Size does seem to matter when it comes to deterrent qualities, and so does the breed's reputation. For instance, a study revealed that burglars considered dark dogs the most dangerous ones. Dog owners at times also crop their dog's ears in an effort to make them look more intimidating.

Guard dogs may have different guardian styles. Some bark initially, while others may quietly immobilize the intruder. For instance, Rottweilers are known for having a "wait and see" attitude and will react only when they deem it is necessary. Mastiffs, on the other hand, may jump on burglars and stay put until their owner tells them otherwise.

A Word of Caution About Guard Dogs

Many guard dogs instinctively protect your territory, but most require special training so to help them discriminate between friend and foe. The importance of having a reputable professional train your dog to guard your property cannot be emphasized enough. The risks of training a guard dog on your own are too high to even give it a try.

Guard dogs aren't safe for inexperienced owners. A well-rounded, balanced temperament is required and these dogs need loads of socialization and training. Many feel that the best way to train a guard dog is to make them suspicious of everyone. Instead, they need to learn that the mailman, guests, friends and neighbors should be tolerated. They shouldn't act reactively when welcomed guests come and go on your property. It's much fairer to train them when not to guard than when to. The truth is, good guard dogs shouldn't be hyper-vigilant.

"The dog that feels that everything is something to be afraid of and aggressive to is NOT a good guard dog prospect! A guard dog is essentially a loaded gun; if you don’t have control of that gun, you WILL have problems."

— Pam Young

Closing Thoughts

There's a very fine line between acting protective and harming an innocent person. As a behavior consultant, I have witnessed too many stories of guard dogs who happen to hurt a child who ends somehow in the yard of Uncle Ben who owns two serious guard dogs. If you are concerned about burglars but don't want somebody getting hurt on your property, it's best to play it safe and invest in good locks and an alarm service instead.

Training a guard dog is not something you should do on your own, nor something you should ask the average dog trainer. You will need a trainer who has made training guard dogs his specialty for many years or decades.

Note: Sometimes, owners believe their dogs have great guarding abilities, but what happens when you leave the home? Will your dog be able to immobilize a burglar? Will the burglar be able to befriend him with some tasty food? Or will he slink away and allow the burglar to take possession of your belongings? It's best not to find out of course, but the video below is quite interesting to watch.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

© 2013 Adrienne Farricelli


Agnes on August 27, 2013:

Awesome hub. I think my dog is both: very protective, but also loves to be a watch dog.

The Examiner-1 on August 27, 2013:

I have a neighbor who has a couple of either puppies or small 'yelpers' (4-5" legs) and they bark and chase anyone who walks past their house. They will even run a couple of houses down the street after them.

Shelley Watson on August 27, 2013:

Very interesting hub, thank you for the useful information. I agree with you that a guard dog should be trained by someone highly knowledgeable. My German Shepherd was trained professionally and a better companion and guard dog you couldn't wish to find. Up, interesting and useful.

Bob Bamberg on August 27, 2013:

Good hub with lots of good information. I, too, casually thought of the terms as interchangeable. The receptionist/security guard analogy brings it sharply into focus.

I particularly like your advice not to train the dog yourself, but to seek out a certified trainer whose specialty is security dogs. At the same time, people should touch bases with their insurance agent regarding their homeowner's policy. Voted up, useful and interesting.

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on August 26, 2013:

epbooks, no worries! I've been guilty of it too!

Elizabeth Parker from Las Vegas, NV on August 26, 2013:

Great hub. I am probably of guilty of using that terminology interchangeably when it make makes perfect sense the difference between the two. Great tips as well about finding an experienced trainer if someone is looking for a guard dog!