Dogs "Protecting" Their Owners
Inside Edition recently posted a video on their YouTube channel. The idea was to test whether dogs would “defend” their owners during a home invasion. It was posted on April 26th and as of today, May 4th, it already has 7.6 million views. It’s certainly an interesting video and does a great job demonstrating how most dogs would respond in a high stress situation. I’m sure most of us would like to think we’re a team with our dogs. I defend you, you defend me, we keep everyone safe. Unfortunately, that isn’t how it usually happens.
If you haven’t watched the video yet, you need to! Take a look:
When I first came to work with Dr. Pike in September 2016, I thought I was well on my way understanding canine ethology. One of the first things I learned, however, is that dogs don’t protect their families. It was a bit of a mind blower. Protection dogs need to be specially trained to attack and release on cue; guardian dogs are taught to chase off anything that isn’t part of their normal social group. I know that sounds like protection but try and bear with me for a minute.
Let’s look at Schutzhund training first. These dogs are specifically selected for their stoic nature, their play/work drive, and their ability to work closely with a handler. In traditional Schutzhund, these dogs don’t bite work until they’re 2 years old. They focus on nose work, searching, and obedience skills first. When they do get to bite work, they shape the response just like we would any other behavior. Over time, handlers work to increase the arousal of their dogs so the bite is harder and more intense. This, however, is a cue-response behavior. It has nothing to do with “protecting,” they’re just performing a behavior that is rewardable and on cue.
Next, livestock guardians. They are raised very closely with their flock so that the dog considers them to be part of their social group. Guardian dogs tend to be described as “aloof” and “independent.” Basically, that means they aren’t friendly to anyone they don’t know. These dogs aren’t necessarily defending the flock, in a traditional protection sense, it’s more defending the territory from strangers or otherwise attacking the cause of a kerfuffle. These dogs are highly territorial and have a strong social bond with their animals.
Finally, let’s take a look at our house pets. Most of us strive to have calm, relaxed, non-aggressive, social animals. Those words are the exact opposite of the high arousal Schutzhund and aloof guardian working dogs. As a general rule, aggression and biting is caused by high arousal and/or fear. I’m highly aroused so I do my bite work, I’m fearful that my territory is invaded, I’m scared that this person will hurt me.
Dogs are defending themselves and their own self interests. If they are aggressive in specific situations versus others, it’s typically because they’re emboldened by their environment. What I mean by that is we can have a dog who is aggressive in their home, but keeps to themselves outside. He’s emboldened because he’s in a familiar place, this is his bed, his food, his stuff: don’t touch it. When he’s out on a walk, however, he may be a little less inclined to duke it out with someone. The same thing happens at the vet clinic. In the room with the owner, the dog is emboldened and acts aggressive. We remove them from the situation and they stop aggressing. It’s because they don’t have their owner there to back them up anymore. They’re no less uncomfortable, they’re just less comfortable demonstrating their discomfort.
Aggression can be divided up into offensive and defensive aggression. Most of the dogs in this video would likely demonstrate defensive aggression. The attacker is going after the human. This is a weird situation, they investigate, are worried because of the noise, become aroused, fearful, and run away. This is a completely normal response. I would hope that all our house pets respond this way. Now, if the invader went after the dog and cornered them, I have no doubt they would act aggressively to defend themselves. This is defensive aggression and it is 100% appropriate. Some dogs, however, will demonstrate offensive aggression. During a highly arousing event, they’ll seek out the cause of that arousal and aggress towards it even if it has nothing to do with them directly.
As much as I would love to think my little Corgi knows when I’m in danger and would swoop in to the save the day, I have no doubt that she would high tail (high nubbin?) it out of there in a heartbeat. She’s looking out for numero uno and, unfortunately, that’s not me.