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Why Some Dogs Become Protective of Their Owners

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

Why is my dog so protective of me?

Why is my dog so protective of me?

Is Your Dog Dangerously Overprotective?

When somebody attempts to say hello or give you a hug and your dog inserts himself in between, growling and snarling in the most threatening way, this can be a real problem. A protective stance can be a blessing in an emergency situation but surely isn't when the dog attempts to protect its owner from people who are not doing anything wrong.

Excessive protectiveness is a dangerous situation. Some dogs resort to aggressive behaviors in order to prevent strangers or even family members from getting too close to their owners. These dogs are a big liability because they may even feel compelled to bite. Worse of all, these dogs attack unprovoked. In other words, these dogs will attack without good reason (from a human perspective, that is).

But why does a dog feel compelled to attack in such a vicious way? And why does it overreact to something benign, like a hug or handshake? There can be a variety of reasons why dogs resort to behaving this way.

Signs Your Dog Is Protective Over You

  • Your dog growls at strangers
  • Your dog snarls and shows his teeth to strangers
  • Your dog acts aggressively around strangers or family members
  • Your dog will attack unprovoked
From a dog's perspective, they are protecting their owner.

From a dog's perspective, they are protecting their owner.

Reasons Why Dogs May Become Over-Protective of Their Owner

Sometimes owners train their dogs to become protective without realizing it. They only notice the gravity of the problem, but fail to notice how they contribute.

They Become Defensive Due to Lack of Guidance

Dogs who have developed a strong bond with their owners will likely live their lives in comfort and happiness. These dogs know that the owner will protect them from harm and ensure their well-being because a history of trust has established that fact. These dogs will trust their owner, looking up to him/her for guidance and direction.

However, if the owner fails to provide a certain level of guidance and that safety net of reassurance is never formed, some dogs may feel compelled to take a defensive stance. The underlying causes for what we perceive as "protectiveness" may stem from fear and insecurity.

The Owner Rewards the Behavior

At first, the owner may think it is funny, or even reward it. A stranger comes near the owner to talk, and the dog will growl. The stranger will stop in his tracks and leave. The growling has been rewarded by the stranger leaving. So a week later, another stranger approaches the owner and the dog starts growling again.

This stranger is not intimidated by the growl and continues getting close, and the dog becomes more aggressive to send him away. He growls, lifting his teeth and showing his pearly whites. The stranger goes away. The dog has now learned that he must act more aggressively to send strangers away, and a new behavior has been learned. This soon becomes a bad habit and the owner has given up and decided that it is just a ''trait.''

Some owners actually tell others, with pride, ''my dog is very protective of me.'' They feel that because their dog protects them, it proves that the dog loves them. However, they are missing something crucial: Their dog is insecure, unpredictable, and will react negatively when people don't expect it.

Dogs Need to Be Socialized

All dogs need to be socialized from an early age and must learn to accept strangers on their property and near their owners. Allowing them to be over-protective may turn them into a big liability.

  • Often, dogs may also become protective of children. While this trait may not really appear as a defect, it becomes so if the dog becomes protective when it's not necessary. These dogs may resort to growling and biting even when people with good intentions come close.
  • At times, dogs become protective when owners are sick or frail.
  • I have seen some dogs become suddenly protective when the owner got pregnant. These dogs will stick near their pregnant owner and even block people from coming too close.

Whichever the scenario is, a dog should not be encouraged to become over-protective of its owner as this may translate into aggression and even biting. Even dogs sent to protection training are taught to clearly understand the difference between a real threat and something that is not harmful. These well-trained dogs will not aggress if a friend comes over and hugs you.

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Read More From Pethelpful

Protection dogs trained by pros are often excellent with kids. Indeed, protection dogs must have a sound temperament in order to excel. Training a weak-nerved dog to be protective is an accident waiting to happen.

More About Dog Behavior

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.

Questions & Answers

Question: I found an abused foxhound on April 6th, and she is a love bug except when she and I lay on my sofa bed together and my husband comes over she begins to snarl and growl. Why is this?

Answer: She may be protective of you or the couch (or both), and she just might not be comfortable with your husband being around. This snarl and growl is a distance-increasing warning telling your husband not to come close as she feels threatened by him.

Question: We rescued a Collie Cross about 2 months ago. She is great with us now that she has gotten used to us. She has always been good with other dogs but wary of people, especially when they enter the home. Her previous owners did not socialize her much. My husband takes her to work every day and she has started to become over-protective. Lunging etc. at people and dogs if my husband touches the dog. We would like to stop this ASAP. Any advice?

Answer: For safety and correct implementation of behavior modification, you will need to have a dog professional help you out. Look for one who is well-versed in behavior modification and who uses force-free, humane behavior modification. She may need a desensitization and counterconditioning program to change her emotions.

Since she has shown already in the past that she was wary of people, was poorly socialized and now she is lunging at people and dogs, it may be that she is stressed and wants distance. She may feel safe near your husband and doesn't want her safe 'bubble' to be invaded by people and other dogs she doesn't trust. I am afraid that this is not something that can be solved ASAP as behavior modification takes time. If the work area she goes to everyday is a closed environment, this layout may make her more reactive and feel trapped due to not having much the option to move away.

Question: My 3 year old basset hound Hudson has recently become protective of my wife. He growls when he is laying by her and I approach. I walk, feed train and socialize him regularly. Any ideas what it could be or how I can tackle it?

Answer: We may never really know what may be going through those doggy minds when they act this way, but I suspect that there can be various triggers. For example, perhaps he feels safer near your wife or he likes to sleep nearby her and senses you as a "disruption" to his sleep if you are often going back and forth through doors waking him up and startling him from a deep sleep or making more noise around the home, carrying tools, fixing things etc.

For mild cases, I use desensitization and counterconditioning techniques. For instance, I make sure that every time the husband moves towards the wife, the dog is fed some tasty treats. After several reps, the dog starts becoming more accepting of the approach because great things happen. How the treats are delivered may vary based on circumstances. I may have the wife feed them, or the husband may toss them in the dog's direction every time he approaches. These 'set-ups" are rehearsed several times until we notice a conditioned emotional response, where the dog looks eager to have the husband approach rather than dreading it. The process is similar to this: https://pethelpful.com/dogs/Help-My-Dog-Barks-When... but rather than entering a room, you are getting closer to your wife.

Now, a disclaimer is warranted here. While this procedure may appear simplicistic, it is not. In order to succeed, you will need to be careful on not sending the dog over threshold, you need to watch for signs of stress and you have ensure the safety of all considering that dogs who growl may bite. We do not want to push a dog to biting because we want a dog to keep "using his words" rather than biting. For safety and correct implementation, it is therefore important to conduct behavior modification with the help of a dog behavior professional who can provide in-person coaching and guidance. Hope this helps, feel free to post any other questions here or update on how things go in the comments section.

Question: My two-year-old labrador loves his walks, but everytime someone comes outside their house, he barks at them. What can I do for him to ignore the person and keep walking?

Answer: The good news is that you have identified the antecedent. In other words, you know exactly what is triggering the behavior (people coming outside their house). The not -so- great news is that it might take some time to change this behavior, especially if it has been rehearsed for quite some time and the unpredictability of people coming outside may catch you unprepared.

A behavior modification plan in such a case that may work is the "Look at that" game" outlined here:https://hubpages.com/animals/Changing-Dog-Behavior...

Basically, you will be out together, and every time your dog sees somebody coming out of their house, you will be feeding high-value treats. Initially, you may have more success if you can enlist the help of some volunteers who will repeatedly exit their homes so that you can practice this exercise at a distance in a controlled setting (so your dog is under threshold) rather than being caught off guard not knowing when your dog may spot somebody.

Otherwise, you may have to be constantly scanning for people exiting their homes and promptly feed your dog. A behavior consultant to help you out may be best for safety and correct implementation of behavior modification. He or she may provide the ideal setups to work on the issue.

Question: When my dog Duke barks (toy poodle, male, unfixed) my dog Kya (toy poodle, female, fixed) attacks him but only for a couple of seconds, and he walks away growling. What does this mean?

Answer: It sounds like a form of re-directed aggression. When two dogs are very aroused from something (e.g., person walking by the fence) all this excitement/arousal energy accumulates, and one dog may redirect on the other.

Question: My dog hates people and the world. What do I do?

Answer: You help your dog change his negative mindset and view of the world. What if every time your dog meets somebody he doesn't like you feed your dog some high-value food like roasted chicken? Day after day he should start likely those people more and more. Dogs are pretty simplistic beings that form negative and positive associations. Unlike people though, they do not hold "grudges" or act out of vengeance.

Instead if they 'hate" people it's often a matter of people causing them to feel fearful or intimidated by them. This may be due to lack of socialization, a fearful predisposition or negative experiences (which may stem from things as innocent as the dog getting startled by people moving fast, coughing, sneezing or laughing loud).

Question: I'm fostering a twelve-year-old Staffordshire Bull Terrier who is so sweet, but barks aggressively at people when he's in the car, or if someone walks too close as they pass. What do you suggest?

Answer: The behavior you are seeing is not unusual and it's often due to the same dynamics as seen in dogs who bark at the mailman. Because people leave, the behavior is reinforced.

To tackle this issue, often counterconditioning is your best friend, but you may need to enlist the help of a professional for safety and correct behavior modification implementation. Here is an example of behavior modification for dogs who act protective of the car. https://hubpages.com/animals/Dog-Behavior-How-to-S...

Question: When my teenage daughter has a friend over, my 4 year old lab mix will go and sit by the friend. The friend will begin to pet the dog and then the dog growls and barks loudly. This has happened multiple times with different friends each time. What can we do?

Answer: For safety and to prevent rehearsal of this problematic behavior, please do not put your dog in this situation anymore. Keep her away until you can enlist the help of a dog behavior professional using force-free behavior modification methods.

Question: My shepherd is all of a sudden biting people for no reason! He is nine years old and has always been a sweetheart. He is my daughter's dog, and I am watching him for a week. Why would he do this all of a sudden? I also have my period at this time. He is a neutered male, but would this have anything to do with it?

Answer: I doubt it has to do with your period. I am more inclined to think that he is nervous about being out of his comfort zone and in a place with different people, sights, sounds, and smells. Dogs don't always do well with changes, and they may feel stressed. Some dogs are more sensitive to changes, and when they feel stressed, they are more likely to bite. Please be very careful. It may help to keep him confined in a quiet area and not let him be around people he is not comfortable around for the time being. Another possibility is that he is acting protective towards you. Regardless, make safety your top priority.

Question: I went away to college and when I came back, my dog suddenly started growling at dogs who come near me, even if I'm not the one holding the leash. We've had her for almost 3 years and this is the first that this has happened. What can we do to fix this behavior?

Answer: Your dog needs behavior modification with the help of a force-free dog behavior professional. In particular, your dog may benefit from methods based on desensitization and counter-conditioning. In other words, we make sure that your dog isn't put into the position of feeling the need to growl (under threshold) while at the same time creating positive associations contingent upon other people approaching. Have a behavior professional guide you through for safety and correct implementation.

Comments

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on September 13, 2020:

Hi David Johnson, you may see redirected aggression, your dogs get so riled up, they redirect on each other. It's important to lower their arousal when they see an intruder.

Kaiti Bentley on September 01, 2020:

My dog will become aggressive and lunge when there are kids around and people .she will stay close to me she duse not get aggressive with my boyfriend . I have socialized her at a young age with kids and people. I do know i had her at young age .i know the time that i got her she was not supposed to be away from her mom yet . And there was a little girl that did not treet her right when she was a baby .

David Johnson on August 24, 2020:

Why does my female dog bite my Male dog when they see an intruder

Riley on August 18, 2020:

I have a 3 year old pitbull that will not allow other dogs, or people close to me without him watching their every move. People he tends to jump in between, dogs on the other hand he loses it. He jumps up to growl at every little noise around when we try to sleep at night. He will also sit silent as others sit on my couch/bed and stare until he jumps in between or forces them off. He had been in dog fights before I got him however this aggression and the exacerbated levels of it has come after spending the months working from home this year. Wondering if I should be worried about the behaviors or thinking this is just a protective thing. I have owned German shepherd chow mixes, pure breeds and hunting dogs however I have never seen a dog jump to occasion, split up people in my house or even begging to growl at the slightest noise in my life

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on July 25, 2020:

Hi there,

I understand your concerns about your German shepherd who is acting protective of you. Because this dog is 11, I would firstly consider a vet check to make sure your dog is doing well considering that as dogs age, sadly they get aches and pains, their senses may decline and sometimes their hormones get out of whack which cause behavior changes. Not to mention, as dogs get older they can be less tolerant and have a lower threshold for stress.

Once the vet gives you the all clear, I would consider enlisting the help of a dog behavior professional using force-free behavior modification. I feel that your dog may need a good level of management to lower his stress (keep away from the kids if they stress him out) along with possible desensitization and counterconditioning if feasible. This is for safety and correct implementation of behavior modification.

chelabellah on July 22, 2020:

Hi. I am in need to help. I have an 11 year old German Shepard which I've had since he was 6 months old. His previous owners used to beat him and so when we first got him and attempted to get him trained, everything failed. Within the last year/year and a half he has become extremely protective of me.

I work from home and most days it was he and I at home until everyone else came home from work or school. However, with COVID, everyone is home now most of the day. My dog now gets in between me and any of my family members who live with me and most recently has started trying to bite these same people if they attempt get near me/go into my room when I am there.

I have children ages 5, 7 and 10 at home and I am concerned that he is going to end up biting one since he has also gotten in their way when they try to get near me and even taken nibs at them. I am at a loss as to what to do. I love my dog but I am concerned he will hurt one of my kids so I am looking for options of what I can do to deter this behavior. I don't want to get rid of him but I also don't think that at his age he can be trained. Any recommendations are welcomed.

Misty Hodnett on July 20, 2020:

My Dog had puppies in she did not care for the to much at all after they were gone she became overprotected of me and my mom can I get angry at somebody she growls at them

Nick on July 07, 2020:

I have a lab about three, he’s a big baby. He’s starting to nip at people but only when I’m not around. He’s done it about three time only when my girlfriend has him.

Elise on June 15, 2020:

Our anxious dog is definitely a little fearful of dogs on walks but never ever reacts by barking or lunging, she rather hides or just stares and then sniffs the air after they passed by. She rarely ever barks in general. BUT the second my butt hits a bench, or like picnic blanket she snarls lunges and attacks every dog or human that comes even remotely close.. whether its a huge bullymix, a tiny senior chihuahua or a dog she knows and likes. As you can imagine this is incredibly frustrating since it's not a situation we can always avoid.

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on June 15, 2020:

Yes, many dogs start acting protective when their owner is pregnant.

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on June 15, 2020:

Hi Elrina, is your dog spayed or intact? If intact, it could be she is going through a false pregnancy and trying to protect what she may think are her babies/ her den.

Courtney on May 22, 2020:

Almost hit a dog brought her in while trying to find her owner and within a matter of minutes she became very protective and had to keep me in her sights at all time. I’m 5 months pregnant does that have a role to play is a dog becoming protective over a stranger.

Elrina on May 22, 2020:

Good afternoon. I've got a question about my dog. She is the most loving dog I know she always lies next to me on our bed. But all of the sudden she started acting strange she got milk coming out of her titties. And now she's aggressive towards anyone who comes in my room she wants to bite my mother always what can be the cause off this?

Bhawna on May 12, 2020:

My dog normally don't bark at any dog and any human ( outside the house) but when the come to my house he become aggressive and run after them while barking and try to bite them what should i do?

Carol Lincoln on May 10, 2020:

My 3 year old lab has recently become very protective of my elderly mother he lays his head on her the arm of her chair or stands up seemingly to sit on her lap Why is he doing this?

Kayli Rodine on May 09, 2020:

I have a collie mix who is 5 months she has recently been barking at children a lot. No growling is involved but she also gets very protective of me when other dogs come near if I am sitting on the floor even though shes social in general which I thought was very strange. It seems easy enough to just not sit on the floor but there also has to be a way to train this behavior out of her. Thoughts?

Kimberly nees on April 05, 2020:

I need help. Our dog, who was supposed to belong to our adult son, has bonded to our children & become aggressive when my son approaches them

Krysten on April 03, 2020:

Hi,

Ive had my rescue pup for about 7 months now and he is super sweet and gets along with everyone. Ive noticed that at time when my boyfriend tries to hug me or get close to me my dog immediately tries to put himself between the two of us. Hes not aggressive, more so territorial and stands in between us all time time. How do I fix this behavior?

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on March 28, 2020:

Hi Dana, there are many possible causes for the behavior you are seeing. Depending on your dog's age, he may be going through a fear period, or maybe he's reached social maturity which is a time of changes. You must also consider whether something might have stressed him lately or maybe he isn't feeling too well. Behavior changes should also be reported to the vet to make sure there's nothing medically going on. I wished it was easier finding out what may be happening, but there are many possibilities.

Dana on March 23, 2020:

My dog has suddenly started to act really weird. Yesterday me and my two teenaged girl went on a walk with my dog and he usually is very friendly around other dos and people but he just barked at them. We kept yelling at my dog but after a few dogs passed by he would not stop. Now tonight he had a fit about something going on outside when there was nothing happening outside. Please help!

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on March 11, 2020:

Hi Alisha, there are various forms of aggression in dogs and identifying the exact type may require an in-person assessment by a behavior professional, it could be your dog is fearful/aggressive, protective of somebody or something, or maybe somethings just trigger him such as being touched in a certain way, loomed over or approached in a certain way.

Alisha on March 11, 2020:

I have a lhasa

He is ready to attack anyone he bit my mom .. and my smaller bro and he played with my frnd who he met only once before he licked him and all played with him the whole day but next day he slept and my frnd approached him he went to attack him he would have hurt him but luckily he was on leash. Cause i knew i couldnt leave just like that with a stranger ... Whats is this aggression i cant understand cause he played woth him the whole day

Bret on March 03, 2020:

Hello,

I have a 2 year old lab who has begun aggressively lunging, body checking, and snapping at seemingly random dogs if they get too close to me on walks. If we encounter multiple dogs together or a large dog on a walk, she is very submissive and nervous. She only does this with other dogs. I would really like to understand something of what is happening here. I’m at a bit of a loss as to what actions to take in order to change this behavior. Any help is appreciated.

Frenchie mama on February 15, 2020: