Myths About Protection Dogs

Reprinted courtesy of the North Texas Schutzhund Club
Myths About Protection Dogs
by Gerald Smith


Despite the fact that thousands of protection trained dogs are in use by the
Armed Forces, police departments, security services and private citizens, and
despite a good deal of written material on this kind of training, certain myths and
misconceptions persist among the general public and, oddly enough, among dog
fanciers. Part of the problem may well be that some of these myths contain that
grain of truth, no matter how small, from which incorrect or exaggerated
conclusions are drawn and the myth therefore lives on. I suspect, however, that
in the case of trainers, clinging to these myths provides a comfortable way of
avoiding serious consideration of a type of training with which they are not
familiar. If "all protection dogs are vicious" or training of this kind is "cruel" then,
at a stroke, one is relieved of having to think further about the subjects. Perhaps,
even more serious, trainers themselves help to perpetuate many of these myths.
In an attempt to convince the public of the merits of protection training,
exaggerated claims are sometimes made by those who are active in the field.
Trainers who fear, disapprove of, or misunderstand this work often disseminate
the unfavorable myths. In either case, the average dog fancier all too rarely
questions either viewpoint; their trainer is, after all an expert - isn't he.
"The times they are a changin" though. Not only is the Schutzhund training
movement becoming more and more popular, but we also see in the Gazette that
the AKC is at least considering the subject. Mr. Dearinger has confirmed to me
that the AKC might, in the foreseeable future, institute some sort of working dog
trials that include man-work. It is becoming increasingly clear that larger and
larger numbers of people are going to be training and exhibiting protection-trained
dogs. So whether our personal breed is Miniature Poodles or Great
Danes, we will be in contact, either in our classes or at the shows, with a growing
number of these dogs. It behooves all trainers to have at least an objective,
workable understanding of this kind of training.

No Training Required
One of the myths I hear repeated most often is "My dog doesn't need to be
trained - he'd protect me when the chips are down". To me this statement is quite
similar to the one we hear from "breed ring only" types who tell us their dog
would be a 200 scoring dog if only they had time to train him. To the experienced
person, either statement usually shows such abominable ignorance that it's hard
to know how to answer. Of course, one's first thought is "That may be true, but
how the hell do you know"? But, being a typically diplomatic dog trainer, I
wouldn't ask that question right away. However, let me offer this analogy; just
because a person has an aggressive outlook, would you necessarily expect him
or her to win a fistfight - particularly if they'd never been in one before? Of course
not! And the same thing applies to your dog. (Yes, I know that's an
anthropomorphism and no, I don't approve of that sort of thing - except in this
instance, it happens to be true.) For the dog to bite and fight a human being
efficiently takes training and practice. Most dogs have to develop a hard,
efficient bite.

Assuming that the dog will respond at all in a real situation is taking a lot for
granted. One of the problems most often encountered in training dogs and their
owners, for instance, is that the dog won't "turn on" at first because of concern
that his handler will react unfavorably to any show of aggression. This is
especially true with dogs that have an extensive training in some obedience
classes that resemble nothing so much as Sunday School classes taught by a
little old lady. "Now children, you must display proper deportment at all times. Sit
up straight and don't bark. Any aggressive beha vior will be dealt with harshly”.
May I point out that dogs of "guarding" breeds are supposed to be aggressive
under certain circumstances. I don't advocate letting dogs terrorize either the
handlers or other dogs, but if he is put down too hard every time he shows
aggressiveness, that dog may well not respond quickly when he's needed.
Another possible pitfall to consider - did you ever take the advice of the idiots
who advocate disciplining puppies with a rolled-up newspaper? If so, your grown
dog may still be extremely wary of acting aggressively toward a person with a
stick, whip, club, etc. in hand. Has your dog ever been exposed to gunfire at
close range? If not, and amazingly few "working dogs" have been, he may be put
off the first few times, but with practice and training learn either to ignore it or
overcome his fears of it while doing man-work.

So far, we've taken it for granted that the dog in question has the necessary
courage, if not the training, to protect his owner "when the chips are down." This
is assuming far too much. I'm sorry to say that a very large percentage of dogs
haven't the necessary courage at all. (I've seen too few attempts to train
members of all breeds to be able to make such a generalization. I suspect,
however, that it is true in any breed where, over a long period of time selection
has been based solely on the ability to win in the breed ring.) Perhaps the worst
part is this: it is extremely difficult, if not downright impossible to ascertain the
true level of a dog's courage by observing him in ordinary situations. (The very
shy dog being an obvious exception.) This is particularly true in light of the fact
that most of us aren't very objective observers of our own dogs. Even trainers
with years and years of experience find that predictions about how a given dog
will do at man-work are often incorrect. Without valid testing techniques, one
simply does not usually know if his dog will really protect him or not. All of the
popular indicators cited by owners mean practically nothing. The mere fact, for
instance, that the dog barks at the door or growls at the neighbor through the
fence says absolutely nothing except that the dog puts on a good show when
well-protected himself. Even such stuff as "He once bit the meter-reader" doesn't
provide any information - unless, of course, your mugger happens to be sent out
by the power company. The plain truth is that however the dog acts in other
situations has little bearing on how he would act if confronted by a determined
aggressor. In addition, the instinctive desire of "good old Shep" to protect his
owner is vastly over-rated in popular folklore. While you may own the exceptional
dog who actually has what it takes, don't be too sure unless there is some hard
evidence on which to base such a conclusion.

If one does own this exceptional dog, training him is still very worthwhile not only
to develop his expertise but also to gain competence in handling him. Don't
depend on the dog's sense of discrimination - this is probably his most over-rated
quality. Folklore has it that "faithful Fido" will immediately recognize the
dangerous situation and the "bad guy." Baloney! No two people even perceive a
situation the same way, much less a human and a dog. It is entirely possible for
the dog to ignore completely a potentially dangerous situation. The greater
problem however, is that the untrained dog will perceive many innocent situations
as ones which call for his intervention.

Protection training will not, in all probability, lessen the number of these times
when the dog alerts unnecessarily, but it does accustom him to obeying your
directions in these situations quickly and without question. Most important,
participating in training teaches the handler to be aware of the dog's aggression
and familiarizes him with the proper way to cope with it. I don't agree with those
who view protection training primarily as a method of increasing the dog’s
discrimination; that is only a small and rather incidental side effect. On the
contrary, the primary purpose of protection training as I see it, is to channel the
dog's aggression to work for the handler on command, which is actually quite the
opposite of depending on the dog's sense of discrimination, and to train the
handler to work efficiently with the dog,

At the other extreme from the person who's certain his dog would come through
in a real situation is the person who believes his dog is too easy going to be of
any use and because of this, couldn't be trained. I repeat that the behavior of the
dog in ordinary times is a poor indicator of his real potentials Many times I've
seen people absolutely amazed when their "lambchop" turns on beautifully when
confronted in a training setting in which the dog realizes that the owner approves
of his aggressive actions. Often the very friendly tail-wagger or the dog in which
the natural instincts have been repressed comes up very strongly when that
certain chord is touched in agitation.

All this doesn't mean that I think every dog should be protection trained or that
every person should participate in this work. What I do advocate is seeing our
dogs for what they really are - let's don't suppose he's something he isn't. Unless
the dog is placed under pressure, one cannot know what that dog is made of.

Part II
Another frequently voiced concern about protection training is that it may "change.
the dog's personality." This is one of those myths with the tiny grain of truth at its
center that is magnified into something totally erroneous. When used in this
context, "change the dog's personality" has an undesirable connotation. The real
meaning is “it makes them vicious." Nothing could be further from the truth.
First, let us define some terms. Webster's Dictionary defines "vicious" as wicked,
depraved, faulty, malicious, spiteful, etc. None of these (except faulty, perhaps)
really applies to canine temperament. However, I think we can agree that as it
generally is used, a vicious dog is one that bites without provocation. Now, for a
dog to literally bite without provocation, that is, outside stimulus, he must be
insane or the canine equivalent thereof. Protection training certainly does not
affect a dog*s sanity - an insane dog is of no use to anybody.

Sufficient Provocation
Most problems occur when a given dog - with or without protection training and
his owner don't see e ye to eye on what constitutes sufficient provocation. The
canine sense of situation discrimination is vastly over-estimated, so an
aggressive dog may well have a quite different idea of what constitutes sufficient
provocation from the people around him. This, then, is where the proper training
can make the difference between a useful dog and a dangerous dog. Protection
training teaches him that, except in case of a physical attack upon him or his
handler, the attack command is the only “provocation” to which he may respond
by biting. Some people, it must be admitted, simply don't have the necessary
physical or emotional strength (usually emotional) to "tell" their dog this and
make it stick. They then look for a trainer who will sympathize with them and
advise that the dog be "'put to sleep" because of his “viciousness”. Although that
dog may not suit them, it most often isn’t vicious at all and it’s the owner who’s at
fault – not the dog. Properly trained and handled, many of these dogs become
useful companions.

That Grain of Truth
For the average, somewhat “softer” dog, protection training can, indeed, change
his personality to a small extent – for the better. The very essence of this training,
especially for these dogs, is to build and maintain in them an absolute confidence
in their ability to deal with any human being.

Particularly in the case of a dog whose aggressiveness has been repressed to a
great extent, man-work can bring changes that are, to me, very pleasant and
desirable. It may become more confident, and therefore more outgoing, with
everyone with whom it comes in contact. I have seen visible improvement in
obedience exercises such as the Stand for Examination and in retrieving the
dumbbell from against a crowded ringside as a direct result of this new-found
confidence. He may show more interest in guarding his property by barking at the
door or in the car; he may even, for the first time in his life, stand tall and actually
growl at somebody he doesn’t like. His whole bearing may become a bit more
regal – in short, more confident. I do, however, want to emphasize that these are
minor changes of behavior, not changes in basic personality. Whatever the dog
is at the beginning, he remains basically the same – just more sure of himself
and more willing to express his real personality.

Many Breeds Benefit
It may be interesting to note in this connection that some of the dogs I’ve seen
benefit the most from beginning training were not even dogs of “guarding
breeds”. In one instance, a man whose wife was starting her Dobe in training
complained that, although his German Shorthaired Pointer had a CD, the dog
behaved in a shy, introverted manner and often shrank away from strangers to
the extent that he wouldn’t accompany his owner to answer the door. After a few
sessions of “dry agitation” during which the dog is encouraged to “turn on” and
bark at, but not bite, an agitator, that dog thought he was “master of all he
surveyed”. Although he will never actually bite anybody, probably not even with
the most dire provocation, his behavior improved markedly. One is now greeted
at their door by a master and his very protective looking dog sitting confidently
at his side

Cruelty in Training
Closely connected with the myth of changed personality is the mistaken belief
that protection training involves cruelty to the dog. Once again, let us begin by
defining our terms. Most dog people regard cruelty as the use of excessive
and/or unnecessary force in training. Any discussion along these lines is difficult
because every one of us has a slightly different idea about what is excessive or
unnecessary, but it seems to me that the use of force in training really becomes
objectionable only when it has a detrimental effect on the dog’s attitude and
behavior. As I mentioned earlier, building and maintaining confidence is the most
basic technique in man-work. This cannot be accomplished if excessive force is
used. It is often said that one cannot make a dog track; the same thing applies in
spades to protection training. The dog must enjoy his man-work to do it at all,
and the more he enjoys it, the better he is likely to be at it. Any trainer who uses
excessive force would be defeating his purpose very quickly and irretrievably.
Anyone who considers basic agitation to be cruel has only to see it done by a
competent trainer and watch the dog's tail wagging and his pride in his ability to
scare off the "bad guy" to change his mind. The dogs must, of course, become
accustomed in their training to meeting and overcoming some resistance from
the agitators. In Schutzhund Examinations, for instance, the agitator strikes the
dog twice on the withers (only) with a switch. This is certainly reasonable - he
wouldn't be much help to his owner if he doesn't take this much punishment. Let
me emphasize that the dog always wins - he is never subjected to more
resistance than he can overcome - and come back for more.

The most continually refreshing and delightful part of protection work for the
trainer and the owner is in seeing the dogs do something they are bred for and
enjoy doing to the utmost. Unlike obedience, where most dogs must be
constantly motivated to do work which they have no natural desire to do,
protection training involves channeling his natural desires and abilities into useful
patterns of behavior.

Ah, Sweet Mystery
Many protection trainers promote the notion in books, articles and personal
conversation that man-work requires vary mysterious processes about which
only a chosen few have (or should have) knowledge. In an effort to magnify their
own importance, they would have people believe that they alone are capable of
this kind of training. What nonsense! Man-work is much like any other dog
training - it involves some talent, of course, along with experience, but mostly it
requires plain old common sense. I'm certainly not proposing that all of you grab
a dog and a friend and proceed to train your dog in the back yard, but don’t be
discouraged in seeking a trainer or a group with which to work by all the hokum
you'll get from some of the BS artists. One of the favorite refrains of these
trainers is that one must have a "reason" for wanting to own or train a protection
dog. What is usually meant by a reason is that one must have in mind some
specific situation in which to use the dog. These "reasons" are often the worst
possible motivation to participate in this kind of training. The simple desire to
work with your dog as another phase of training is in my opinion, the very best
reason of all.

Part III
The notion is being espoused by many trainers these days that dogs .perform
their function as obedience or protection dogs out of a deep love and affection for
their owners. I would guess that this is an effort to make either kind of training
more palatable to the public. While that is certainly a laudable goal, this "love and
devotion" bit is not only a demonstrably shaky base on which to build a training
"philosophy", but can also have a really pernicious effect on novices. After all, if
dogs work for their owners out of love and devotion, than the opposite must also
be true (says the novice): if the dog doesn't work well it must be because he
doesn't love me. I think we've all heard exhibitors leaving the ring g rumbling in a
hurt voice, "How could my dog do that to me?" Sounds particularly silly from that
standpoint, doesn't it?

Obedience and True Love
With regard to obedience, let's remember that even though a dog may have a
great affection for his master, its primary motivation is pleasing itself. Obedience
training is basically a matter of making it more pleasant for the dog to perform
certain exercises than it is not to perform certain exercises. It seems to me that
affection, devotion, and, at least as important, respect are products of obedience
training, not vise versa. Let us look at one example. My wife seldom actually
trains one of our dogs. She does tend them when they're sick, takes them places
with her, plays with them, etc., and they all love her very much. But, they are
only minimally obedient towards her because she has not established her
dominance and they don’t show the same respect towards her that they do me.
I'm their pack leader and the one they work for. They've learned that the correct
response brings then pleasure (praise) and the incorrect response brings them
displeasure (correction) - their affection for me is strictly secondary to their desire
to please themselves.

They Enjoy Their Work
An attempt to "sell” the public is especially apparent in the efforts of trainers to
convince us that the personal protection dog bites the "bad guy” only because of
a deep devotion to his master. It is in part, it seems to me, a response to the fact
that most people, in this country at least, are unwilling to accept the fact that
aggressiveness towards humans is a legitimate and desirable trait in certain
breeds. In that context the dog must be supplied with some overwhelming, and
people-oriented, reason for being aggressive. The simple fact is that the good
personal protection dog enjoys his work. He enjoys the body contact, the chance
to "let off steam", and especially the winnings. It seems to me that his motivations
are roughly similar to those of the person who enjoys boxing, wrestling, or
football. The dog's drives are primarily from within and are the result of a desire
to please himself, not his owner. It is also interesting to note that nobody claims
that sporting breeds or hounds hunt primarily out of a desire to please their
owner. It is considered perfectly acceptable for dogs to have an instinctive desire
to hunt as long as the prey isn't human.

Protect Who?
Although it is rather difficult to "prove" anything about what goes on in a dog's
mind, consider these facts for starters. Beginning agitation is directed almost
entirely against the dog. (Some trainers do not even want the owner present - the
dog is "staked out"; i.e. tied securely to a fence or agitation board.) He is
confronted and then insulted or threatened by the agitator. Only very rarely is an
attempt made to agitate the beginner by "attacking” his owner - and even rarer
when this technique works. In short, the dog is primarily moti vated by the desire
to "protect” himself. A trainer can test this thesis for himself - stake the dog out
(one that has never been agitated), have the owner stand twe nty-five or thirty
feet away, and "attack" the owner. Many dogs who later become quite good
protection dogs will simply watch with interest while you "beat up" their master,
and will offer no attempt to interfere. Next, approach the dog in the same
threatening manner and watch him come up with a fury. Now tell us he's primarily
driven by affection to his master.

A second fact to be considered is that, generally speaking, the better a dog is at
man-work, the easier he adapts to multiple handlers. Most really capable
protection dogs will work for any handler who uses the proper commands and
techniques. I have even, on rare occasions, had one of my fully trained dogs
handled by a virtual stranger to the dog and taken the dog on the sleeve myself.
I’m not recommending this arrangement and it may horrify some, but it is
interesting that the dog shows no hesitation whatever to bite the "bad guy" - me.

Protection Dogs as Guard Dogs
Another popular misconception is that protection trained dogs are automatically
good guardians of home and property. In reality, there seems to be only a
moderate relationship between the two. Different dogs have widely varying
degrees of "territorial sovereignty". At one extreme is the dog who will only
protect his food dish or a favorite toy; at the other end of the spectrum is the one
who could be tied to a cactus in the middle of the dessert and would bark at
anything within the range of his senses. In either case protection training seems
to have little affect beyond a slight tendency to increase the size of the dog's
personal territory. Those dogs with some sense of sovereignty can be trained to
protect the car or house, but they need to be worked in that specific situation for
best results. Moreover, unless a dog has a natural tendency to protect a specific
territory, such as the car in which he's left, he'll require constant refresher
courses to maintain even minimal efficiency at it.

Miss, Mr., or Ms.
Many believe that only males are capable of accepting serious training as
personal protection dogs. While I have to admit that if I were a police officer, for
instance, I would prefer the larger, harder to hurt male, to accompany me in
dealing with very dangerous situations, there is also no question that bitches can
be very capable, effective protection dogs. They are often the ideal choice for the
less experienced handler or the handler of small or medium stature because they
are usually somewhat easier to control and require a bit less "muscle" to work. I
would also have to say that bitches generally are less likely to go looking for
trouble and have somewhat less of a tendency to "turn on" at an inappropriate
time. On the other hand, bitches tend to be more serious about their training and
don't usually regard it as a game as males occasionally do. The biggest problem
with bitches is that the trainer must use a certain amount of finesse in working
them on the sleeve. Remember that in training, the agitator is protected so that,
unless he's careless, the dog cannot hurt him, whereas he can hurt the dog with
rough agitation or injudicious use of a stick, etc. And it is obviously easier to be
too rough on a fifty or sixty pound bitch than it is on a hundred pound male. In a
real situation, however, the fifty pound bitch can still inflict such excruciating pain
on the bad guy that he isn't capable of doing much of anything; so the difference
in size between bitches and males becomes a good deal less important.

Part IV

Responsibilities of Owning a protection Trained Dog
One must always remember that the dog has been taught to respond not only to
outright agitation, but also to gunfire, loud voices , suspicious movements, etc.
While the ideal is that the dog should "turn on" only on command, one must
admit that no dog is ever 100% reliable on any command - either in obedience or
in man-work. In addition, the really good protection dog loves his work with a
passion and is always on the lookout for a chance to indulge in this passion. So
the foremost responsibility of the owner is to be fully aware of exactly what his
dog is doing and thinking at all times, particularly in public. One cannot, in good
conscience, allow the dog to get into a situation where a mistake on the dog's
part could lead to tragedy. No longer can the dog be left with an inexperienced
person at a show while the owner goes to the restroom. No longer can he be left
unattended in an exercise pen. In any of these situations he might see, for
instance, two people begin to argue or people playfully slapping one another.
Either might resemble agitation and could appear to the dog as a chance for him
to do his stuff. Without a competent and watchful handler present he could get
himself in serious trouble.

If you're one of those people who stand around talking at shows while your dog
roams freely at the e nd of a six foot lead, either change your habits or forego the
ownership of a protection dog. He can indeed be dangerous and must be under
control at all times. Perhaps a couple of personal experiences will help to
illustrate my point.

On one occasion several years ago, I took my first trained Dobe bitch with me to
the camera shop to pick up some photos. On the way back to the car, three boys
about 11 or 12 years old stopped me to admire her. Now this bitch is an absolute
sweetheart who loves everyone including children, so while they admired her she
was getting lots of petting and enjoying every minute of it. Suddenly, with no
warning of any kind, one of the boys yelled, smacked her hard on the nose, and
jumped back with his hands in the air. He caught me totally by surprise and had
the bitch been on anything except a short walking lead, her lunge forward could
have netted her one playful, but foolish youngster. I still suspect that had she
really meant to bite the boy, rather than only warn him, she could have done just

On another occasion, I had a trained dog on a down beside my lawn chair while I
watched the obedience ring at a specialty fun match. As a young man walked
briskly by, the dog jumped up and snarled. As I was giving the dog what I thought
were his just rewards for such "unprovoked" aggression, another exhibitor came
over and explained the reason. The guy had been standing behind me (where I
could not see him) staring and "stalking" the dog in a deliberate attempt to
arouse him.

You may feel tha t these are odd unlikely events, but believe me, people do some
incredibly stupid things around dogs. Of course, in either one of these instances,
an untrained dog might have responded in much the same way, but the
experienced dog is that ins tant quicker and if he does bite he'll do so in a much
more efficient manner. And if someone is bitten, the dog, especially one trained
for man-work, is immediately blamed. The moral, o f course, is that one has to be
alert and in control at all times.

Children and protection-trained dogs can also be a problem area. This is a
particularly touchy subject and whatever one says about it, there is certain to be
some disagreement. None the less, I’ll "give it a go”. Of utmost importance is the
attitude of the children toward the dog. Parents have an obligation to teach their
children a certain amount of respect for dogs. This respect must, of necessity, be
greater for large, "guarding” breeds. If the dog is trained for man-work the n the
respect must be greater still. It is quite unrealistic to expect that a dog with the
intelligence, courage, and strong will necessary for this work to submit to
disrespectful or abusive treatment from either children or adults. One must
remember also that dogs are basically pack animals and generally submit only to
those humans who have established themselves as dominant. This dominance is
nearly impossible for a child to establish toward the type of dog in question. It is
more likely, therefore, that the dog will regard the child as no more than an equal
within the "pack”.

This is not meant to say that protection-trained dogs are unreliable with children.
On the contrary, nearly e very trained dog with which I'm personally acquainted is
a family dog. They all co-exist quite nicely with children of all ages. But, I repeat,
they are treated with respect.

In most cases, however, it is particularly unwise to allow children to "roughhouse"
in the presence of these dogs. Not only does this resemble training agitation, it
also brings the dog's protective instincts to the surface. Running, shouting,
wrestling children and protection-trained dogs is definitely a dangerous
combination. Each dog is an individual, of course, so one should proceed with
caution and common sense until a particular dog-family relationship is
understood; with all concerned well aware of the limitations involved in that
particular situation. A protection dog is definitely not suitable for those parents
who subscribe to the notion that a child should be able to do anything whatever
to a dog without fear of retaliation.

The owner of a protection dog also has the responsibility to use him only in the
most dire circumstances. I don't believe, for instance, that one is justified in
inflicting injury upon someone, be it with a dog, a gun, or whatever, simply for
trespassing on one's property. A dog should be used only as a last resort to
protect oneself or one's family from personal harm. The braggart or the person
looking for an excuse to hurt somebody has no business with a dog of this type.
Needless to say, the dog should be "turned on" only in a real situation or during
actual training; never for the benefit of friends and neighbors who ask, "would he
really bite me if you told him to?" This type of dog is a serious weapon; fun and
games have no place around him.

Trainers of personal protection dogs certainly have an obligation to see to it,
insofar as possible, that the dog's owner is a competent handler. A great deal of
a trainer's time should be spent instructing the handler to make sure he knows
how to control his dog. This is particularly important (and often neglected) in
those instances where the dog is boarded and trained or where trained dogs are
sold to the public.