Do Dogs Instinctively Protect Their Owners? (Lassie lovers, please don't read this)

What was really going on here? Were the dogs ‘protecting’ their owners or was it something else?

©Scott Sheaffer, CPDT-KA, USA Dog Behavior

I was recently taking a walk with my wife, Barbara, at one of our favorite parks. We came upon an older couple that was sitting on one of the park benches with their two beautiful German Shepherds. I asked if it would be okay for us to approach their dogs. The husband replied, "No. They are highly protective of us. You know how German Shepherds are."

We, of course, respected his wishes and walked away as their two dogs started to show some aggressive behavior toward us.

What was really going on here? Were the dogs "protecting" their owners or was it something else?

I have categorized three types of dog behaviors below that are frequently misinterpreted as dogs protecting their owners.

1) The majority of aggressive behavior by dogs is motivated by fear. Fear of dogs, fear of thunderstorms, fear of vacuum cleaners, fear of humans, etc. Many dogs learn that a strong offense is the best defense. These dogs know that an aggressive display will get the scary thing to go away. And every time the scary thing goes away, the dog is reinforced.

How do these fears develop? Genetics, poor puppy socialization, bad experiences. Owners oftentimes unintentionally reinforce these fears with their own anxieties about how their dog might react to these triggers. A vicious cycle is created.

The couple with the two "protective" German Shepherds might have two dogs that are human aggressive. These dogs were uncomfortable with the approach of unfamiliar humans and wanted my wife and me to go away. Since the owners were holding the leashes and were behind the dogs, they assumed that the dogs were watching after them. In actuality, the owners were probably the last thing on these dogs' minds.

2) Dogs sometimes guard people in the same way that they guard their food, toys, bones, etc. Guarding things is called resource guarding or possession aggression and, in reference to food, is frequently called food aggression.

In the case of the couple's dogs that we saw while on our walk, it is also possible they may have been resource guarding their owners. In effect, the dogs were saying, "We own these people and they belong to us; you are not welcome to share." The well-being of the owners was not of concern to the dogs in this context either. They simply did not want to share.

3) We've all seen the news on TV that talks about the heroics of a family dog who saves the family from a home fire that occurs in the middle of the night.

It generally goes something like this, "The house was burning down in the middle of the night and the whole family was asleep and completely unaware; Max jumped on everyone's bed until someone finally got up. He saved four lives that night!"

Here's the short version of the slightly-less-than-heroic reality. Max knew the house was on fire and wanted to get out ASAP before he unwillingly became a hot dog. He knew that the way out was with one of the human occupants. He kept going to each bedroom until someone finally let him out of the inferno. While Max was primarily concerned with his own safety, there was in actuality a symbiotic benefit to the owners in that he woke them up and they were able to get out too.

I hope I didn't just ruin 99% of all the Lassie reruns that you have ever seen or ever will see. We love our dogs more than anything, but we should keep in mind that their motivations are more primitive than the motivations of humans. This awareness can actually make us better dog owners and trainers.