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

Adrienne is a certified dog trainer, behavior consultant, former veterinarian assistant, and author of "Brain Training for Dogs."

Why Is My Dog so Protective on Walks?

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 “turnoff”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 to accomplish all this? You can do it with just a treat pouch full of goodies and a good training tool such as 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 specialized 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. Same goes with 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. 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.

© 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

The most common problem with aggressive behavior in boxers is territorial and dominance aggression toward other dogs of the same sex. This is especially true with female boxers. Although they generally get along fine with male dogs, female boxers tend to pick fights with other females. Male boxers who haven’t been neutered, meanwhile, can be aggressive toward other male dogs. Boxers also tend to hold grudges once one becomes angry with another dog, he might consider that dog to be a lifelong enemy. It’s generally best to never place a female boxer in a home with another female dog and to make sure male boxers are neutered early to keep them from developing aggression toward other dogs.

Boxers need to be exercised regularly unfortunately, being on-leash sometimes brings out their territorial nature, causing them to behave aggressively toward other dogs they meet. Boxers also sometimes become more protective and defensive of their owners while on leash. A head collar with a loop that goes over the muzzle can give owners more control and help to keep this sort of aggressive behavior in check. In the event that it goes too far, such a collar can help the owner to regain control of a fighting boxer without getting in the middle of the fight.

  1. When off-leash and in their own environment, dogs naturally greet from the side (in an arc) and sniff each other’s genital area. They don’t approach head-on and make hard eye contact unless a fight is about to start. Greetings typically last only a few seconds.
  2. When our dogs meet on leash, they are typically forced to approach head-on and are often unable to turn their bodies. Their forced body language, and our own, tell our dogs that we want to fight with one another. Most dogs don’t want to fight, so they display a number of behaviors designed to prevent it. These distance-increasing behaviors includes barking, lunging, or growling — anything to make the threat go away.
  3. If the dog owners decide to visit, or let the dogs say hi, the problems may get worse. On-leash, both dogs feel trapped, unable to get away from each other. Often, owners have their dogs on tight leashes, thinking this will help if anything happens. Unfortunately, a tight leash tells your dog you're stressed, making your pup more stressed in return. As a result, both dogs may start barking, switching from their flight instinct, to fight.
  4. Many owners don’t recognize rude behavior in their dogs, thinking they’re just overly friendly. They may let their dog charge up to another one, get in their face, or jump on them. This is extremely rude behavior among dogs and is sometimes the result of a lack of socialization past the puppy stage. Adult dogs, while patient with puppy antics, will usually start to discipline puppies once they reach 5-6 months. The discipline isn’t violent and usually takes the form of a bark or growl. If a puppy never experiences these corrections, he may continue this inappropriate behavior in adulthood. When an adult dog inappropriately greets another one, the other dog will react with a loud bark or growl. It can be embarrassing and it may be assumed that the reaction means your canine companion is aggressive, while the dog’s inappropriate behavior was the issue in the first place.
  5. Many people correct their dog for any perceived display of aggression. Some may force them to sit or lie down in an approaching dog’s path thinking this will help correct the behavior. This can be dangerous for several reasons. First, this teaches your dog that other dogs, and potentially other people, cause punishment. Remember any punishment — yelling, jerking the leash, grabbing your dog, or saying no — increases their anxiety level. Second, correcting a dog for growling or barking may prevent them from growling or barking in the future. Growling and barking are warning signs that the dog may bite. If your dog is afraid to bark or growl, it may mean they’ll bite without warning when they’re stressed or uncomfortable. Third, correcting a dog who is highly aroused or stressed may cause them to redirect their aggression to the handler.
  1. Practice getting your pup's attention before you go out. Say their name and reward them for looking at you. Start in a low-distraction environment, like your living room. Gradually move to busier areas as you're able to get your dog's attention regardless of what's going on around you. This will teach your dog to look at you regardless of the environment.
  2. When you're out on your walk, as you see another dog approaching, wait until your dog notices them. When they do, get their attention and reward. Don't wait for them to react! This will teach your dog to associate the presence of others with something wonderful. When they look up at you for more, go closer and repeat.
  3. If they bark or lunge at the dog, you went too far, too fast. Or you just didn’t realize a dog was nearby. Simply add more distance and repeat. Don’t punish your dog for barking or you’ll undo the work you’ve done.
  4. Manage your dog’s environment for everyone’s safety. Keep them at a comfortable distance from other dogs. Don’t allow others to greet (at this time), or let them invade your dog’s space. Every negative experience will set your progress back, so it’s best to avoid them if possible. If you live in an area with lots of dogs, consider taking your friend somewhere less canines are present.
  5. If you find yourself approaching another dog head-on, simply go around them in an arc, keeping your dog's attention as suggested above. If the other dog starts to lunge and bark, keep your pup's attention and reward more often. As soon as the other dog is gone, so are the treats. This will reinforce the idea that other canine companions mean good things, like treats!
  6. If your dog has harmed another person or dog, we recommend using a basket muzzle for walks. This will keep everyone safe while you're working on this behavior. We also recommend seeking professional assistance. Please call our free Behavior Helpline at 763-489-2202 for additional information.

For more tips on your pet's behavior and training, contact the Animal Humane Society's training school at 763-489-2217 or send us a message.

Why Is My Dog Being Territorial?

Territorial behavior, such as territorial barking, is an entirely normal reaction for most dogs.

Even a well-socialized pup will often bark in response to unfamiliar guests in and around his space. Barriers, such as fences, windows, and doors, tend to exacerbate these behaviors.

In fact, the majority of dogs on my street will bark excessively at windows and gates when I walk by their house. Our neighbor across the street had a dog that spent her entire day outside in their yard barking at the fence until they called me for help!

While territorial behavior (like barking) is fairly normal, for some dogs, this increase in arousal or anxiety levels can lead to aggressive behavior. If your dog is exhibiting territorial behavior, you’ll want to take steps to address the issue before it potentially escalates to aggression.

In fact, dogs that exhibit territorial aggression are often the ones who are the most insecure.

Remember the bully on your childhood playground? She was likely feeling pretty insecure about herself, in reality.

Being able to control who has access to his space is a way for your pooch to stay safe and survive. Any unwanted visitor to his territory is seen as a threat to his safety and he reacts accordingly.

There is also a strong genetic component to aggressive behavior. Fear and anxiety, which can contribute to territorial aggression, can not only be passed through your dog’s genes, but some breeds have been selected over the years for this purpose exactly.

So, what does territorial behavior look like? Below are some signs that your dog may be exhibiting territorial behaviors and what you can do to help.

Watch the video: STOP Human Resource guarding

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