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How To Work With An Overly Protective Dog

By Kayla Fratt

Many of the dog breeds we cherish today were bred for hundreds of generations to help protect us. Whether they guarded our flock of sheep, patrolled our lawns, kept our carriages safe, or protected and warmed our laps, our ancestors valued our dogs’ ancestors for their protective instincts and skills. When Fluffy barks and lunges at Rover across the street, or when Spot growls at your dishwasher repairman, it’s important to remember that our ancestors strengthened the very genes fueling that behavior!

If your dog is overly protective, there’s hope yet. Your dog’s genetics may fuel the behavior, but how you train him and change his environment can resolve the issue. Here’s how to work with an overprotective dog.

Disclaimer: This is one behavior consultant’s tips and serves as a basic overview. Dog Whisperer HQ is not responsible for any problems caused by your dog. Please seek professional help from a trainer near you for specific guidance.

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1. Define the problem.

As with any training problem (or really any problem), it’s hard to fix it without knowing exactly what you’re fixing. For example, your dog barks and lunges at other dogs when they’re on walks and within 50 feet. Or your dog growls and snaps at your partner when they try to climb into bed. Be as specific as possible with what your dog does and when it happens! 

Key note: Knowing why your dog acts protective isn’t necessary for your training plan. However, in the vast majority of cases, your dog is acting protective because he’s nervous as well. He finds the repairman or dog across the street threatening, and his goal is to get them to leave by putting on a big blustery show! Reminding yourself that your dog is probably just freaked out can help give you some empathy for the behavior problem.

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Reminding yourself that your dog is probably just freaked out can help give you some empathy for the behavior problem.

2. Identify your dog’s triggers.

If you’ve followed Step 1 to a tee, you’ve already identified some of your dog’s triggers. A trigger is simply what sets your dog off. For most protective dogs, this is going to be a combination of proximity and another being — a dog or person, usually. You may also notice that small spaces, sleeping areas, a tight leash or certain times of day are riskier. Make a thorough list off the top of your head, then watch your dog for a few days and make notes on anything else you’ve missed. Many dogs are okay with other dogs off-leash in a large open area, but bark and lunge if the other dog is near a resting area or if their owner is yanking on the leash. Failure to notice these factors can slow down your training plan.

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A trigger is simply what sets your dog off. For most protective dogs, this is going to be a combination of proximity and another being — a dog or person, usually.

3. Decide on a goal behavior.

My clients often say, “I just want him to not bark!” However, that’s a difficult skill to teach your dog. It’s much easier to instead teach your dog a specific thing to do when they encounter their triggers. Personally, I like teaching client dogs to notice the trigger, then look away and move on or away. If the triggers primarily happen indoors, I may teach my dog to go to his bed or crate to help teach him to take the high road and avoid a confrontation. If the triggers often happen outdoors on walks, I’ll usually teach dogs to look at the trigger, look away and then perform a U-turn with me to move away from the trigger. Sometimes you won’t be able to perform a U-turn, but you usually can cross the street or otherwise create a bit more space. Over time, you may be able to eliminate the U-turn, but starting with that extra space will make your training far more successful in the long term.

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Personally, I like teaching client dogs to notice the trigger, then look away and move on or away.

Key note: Many trainers suggest “sit” or “down,” but I find that this is tricky to teach and frustrating in some contexts. Do you really want your dog to sit and stay whenever you pass another person on a walk? No, that would be annoying! On your dog’s end of the leash, he may also feel trapped and vulnerable by sitting or lying down around a trigger that stresses him out. Choosing a difficult replacement behavior like sit or down can slow your training down.

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4. Avoid triggers in the meantime.

Every time your overly protective dog barks at the mailman and the mailman goes away, your dog learns that his unwanted behaviors “work” — he chased off the intruder! Adding in white noise or window film, avoiding other dogs on walks, and reducing the number of guests will help your dog relax a bit and stop practicing his protective behaviors. Remember, each time he behaves the way you don’t like, those neural pathways get stronger. Avoiding triggers is integral to your training plan.

Key note: Bonus skills like treat scatters can be a real lifesaver at this stage. Simply teach your dog that when you say “find it” you’re about to toss 5-10 treats on the ground near him. Then if you see a trigger nearby, you can say “find it” and throw some treats on the ground. Your dog will learn that instead of barking and lunging, he can simply eat a tasty snack until the trigger moves away. Feel free to use “find its” liberally, even if your dog is already barking and lunging. Eating food will help soothe your dog and help him relax; it won’t teach him to bark and lunge in exchange for food. Trust me, over time feeding your dog near the triggers will reduce the protective behavior even if your dog is already barking when you feed him. This is thanks to a process called classical counterconditioning.

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Bonus skills like treat scatters can be a real lifesaver at this stage. Simply teach your dog that when you say ‘find it’ you’re about to toss 5-10 treats on the ground near him.

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5. Train the behavior out-of-context using positive reinforcement.

Once you’ve decided on your target behavior, you need to work hard to train it in a distraction-free environment. You can find YouTube videos to help you through just about any replacement behavior you’d like. You’ll find this video on mat/place training and this video on looking at and moving away from triggers helpful. It may feel frustrating to not be able to use your dog’s new skills around triggers yet, but it’s important not to rush it! If your dog can’t go to his mat while you’re cooking dinner, or walk past one of his human friends without pulling, there’s no way he’s capable of performing those behaviors around his triggers.

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Once you’ve decided on your target behavior, you need to work hard to train it in a distraction-free environment.

Key note: Avoid punishing your dog for unwanted protective behaviors. If you yank on his collar, swat him on the nose, or yell “no” at him, he may stop the unwanted behavior in the moment. However, he’s also learning that being around the trigger is indeed quite scary! If other dogs make his owner turn mean, your dog is even more likely to bark and lunge at them in the future. Take a deep break, bring some treats, and do your best to keep your cool if your dog loses his head.

6. Fade in your dog’s triggers.

The “Can You Listen When?” game helps your dog learn to listen to your new cues around distractions. Start with a list of distractions you think will be easy for your dog, like a bowl of broccoli, a different room of your house or a fan blowing nearby. Then build up distractions until your dog is extremely good at the replacement behavior. Only then can you start to layer in your dog’s triggers. Keep them innocuous at first — so a dog across a soccer pitch rather than a dog passing you on the sidewalk. Over time you can get closer and closer to those triggers.

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Build up distractions until your dog is extremely good at the replacement behavior. Only then can you start to layer in your dog’s triggers.

Key note: Many of my clients find this stage fun! Suddenly they’re excited to find a trigger rather than dreading it, because it’s an opportunity for practice. Try to be patient at this stage rather than rushing through; it’s better to go slowly as you reintroduce triggers and build a strong response from your dog rather than going too fast and risking your training falling apart.

7. Practice, practice, practice!

You’re never really done teaching your dog not to be overly protective. It’s important to keep practicing in new environments, around a variety of triggers and in different contexts. Your dog may feel differently about a dog in his yard versus on a hiking trail, a dog wearing a coat versus one without, large versus small dogs, or even different breeds of dogs. A group of people entering your home may be more upsetting than a single visitor, and different clothing, activity or age will also factor into your dog’s response. It’s important to remember that just because your dog is comfortable with one person in one context doesn’t mean he’ll behave the same with a different trigger in a different context. Keep at it!

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It’s important to remember that just because your dog is comfortable with one person in one context doesn’t mean he’ll behave the same with a different trigger in a different context.

It’s challenging to avoid punishment and avoid triggers, but both of those are key components of the training plan. Use lots of treats mixed in with your dog’s meals, and reduce meal size if you’re worried about calorie intake. 

If you are feeling overwhelmed with this training plan, check out the IAABC consultant locator for a qualified dog behavior consultant near you. They’re extremely skilled and knowledgeable to help you and your dog through the training process.


Kayla Fratt is a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant and the owner of Journey Dog Training. She’s passionate about helping owners prevent and treat behavior problems in their pets. She also works as a conservation detection dog trainer with her border collies in Missoula, Montana. She’s an avid runner, cross-country skier and a budding agility competitor.

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