By Tyler Muto
“I know he’s just trying to protect me, but I don’t know why”
This is a common sentiment among dog owners bringing their dogs into our training center for help. If you have owned multiple dogs, there’s a decent chance that at least one of them has displayed over-protective behavior. The problem behaviors most often associated this sentiment are the dog lunging, barking or snapping at passers-by while out on a walk.
For successful resolution of problems like these, it is helpful to first understand what is actually going on. The motivation behind the behavior is often difficult for us humans to grasp. Dogs that lunge, bark and snap at people or dogs on walks are rarely acting in defense of their owners. Rather, they are protecting themselves. Or at least that’s the way it begins…
In most cases, the first time a dog lunges at others while walking, it is because the dog feels threatened. While this feeling of threat may be generalized as a perceived threat to the whole family or “pack”, it begins with the dog itself feeling insecure or afraid. This fear can then evolve into protective behavior in two ways:
First, as was already stated above, if a dog perceives someone or something as a threat to the dog itself, it is easy for the perception of threat to be generalized to the rest of the people or dogs they are with. However, this by itself does not necessarily result in an aggressive display. We must remind ourselves that dogs are inherently social animals, and as is true with all social animals, part of their experience and behavior is shaped by social constructs or hierarchies. These hierarchies may be static, or fluid, set in stone, or situation dependent, but they exist nonetheless. Within canine society, high-ranking members play a variety of important roles, one of which is taking the lead in situations of threat or danger and protecting the rest of the group.
So does this mean that your lunging/barking dog thinks he is “dominant” over you?
Not likely. A more likely interpretation would be that he or she doesn’t have faith in your leadership, which translates into the dog not feeling secure in the faith that you will protect him or her if need be. In fact, it is probable that if your dog is predisposed to experiencing these kinds of insecurities, they are not the type of individual that is gunning for top position, and they would much rather enjoy their position somewhere in the middle of the pecking order. In other words, your dog probably doesn’t want to be acting like the leader, but they feel that they have to because no one else is taking the reigns. Truth be told, among domestic dogs, there are relatively few “truly dominant” individuals. When dogs who are not naturally programed to be in a leadership position feel compelled to take that role, it can often fill them with anxiety and stress, thus contributing to the explosive and irrational nature of their responses.
The second iteration of this evolution is related to, but not entirely the same as the first. One of the ironies of dog training is that we humans often forget that we are just animals as well, and we succumb to the same types of conditioning that our dogs do. Being caught off guard by your dog suddenly lunging at a passing person or animal can be incredibly distressing, and even borderline traumatic for some. After several of these experiences in close succession to one another, we very quickly succumb to classical conditioning, or more specifically a conditioned emotional response.
Although the sight of an oncoming jogger used to not bother you at all, after repeated pairings of that sight immediately followed by the scary and distressing experience of your dog lunging at them, you now find yourself overwhelmed with fear and anxiety at the mere sight of a jogger coming toward you while you are out walking your pup.
While your dog started off lunging at joggers because they themselves felt nervous, they now begin to notice that as the jogger approaches you become afraid and nervous too!
“I knew this jogger was bad news,” the dog exclaims to himself “even my human is afraid!”
One of the traits of a good leader is the ability to stay calm and controlled in conditions of danger or conflict. Thus, your fearful/anxious behavior simply deepens your dog’s lack of confidence in you as their leader.
Furthermore, your anxiety validates for the dog that they were correct in being concerned. “Even my human is afraid!”
The dog has no way of knowing that you aren’t afraid of the jogger, you are afraid of what your dog might do. All they perceive is that when joggers appear, you get nervous, and they put two and two together from there. You, the human who is short of breath and whose heart is racing under the weight of your anxiety surely must need your dog to protect you.
I in no way intend to undermine the importance of a clear plan for direct training and behavior modification of this issue. However, to embark on that path without an awareness of these underlying factors can leave us frustrated and confused as to why we aren’t seeing the progress we expect.
First and foremost, check the foundation of your relationship with your dog, and what you represent to them. Without going into a discussion of what constitutes healthy leadership, suffice it to say, avoid any advice which advocates pinning your dog to the ground or the like, and gravitate toward an approach that encourages leadership through clear and consistent parameters on activity and behavior, the regulation of valued resources, and an awareness of your own tone, energy and body language as you interact together.
Next, run a check on your emotions when you are out with your dog. If you find yourself feeling anxious or nervous, it is worth pursuing strategies to mitigate either the emotion itself, or at least the signs of it. Breathing exercises such as deep “belly breathing” and visualization can be powerful tools. I also find it important to be accepting and understanding toward yourself for having these emotions, and to recognize that it is natural to continue feeling anxious until you start having some success and positive experiences out with your dog. Until then…”fake it ‘till you make it”.