Dogs as Personal or Home Protection?
I was asked to write about this subject, as it is something that comes up fairly frequently in the South African context, where crime is fairly problematic and many people are looking for ways to feel safer, both at home and out for recreation. This is a bit of a complex topic and people could very well look at me and say: “You have two Rottweilers, surely you can’t deny that dogs are useful for security?”
I certainly can’t deny that I enjoy the sense of security that my dogs provide. The reality is that potentially “dodgy” people generally give them a wide berth, and no one ever enters our property, regardless of whether gates are locked or not. I had to do an emergency ER trip the other night and I took Cruz with me, as I knew I would be driving through a lonely area at 1am and wanted “back-up”. We go on holiday where there are no locks on the doors and don’t think about it with Rosie and Cruz sleeping with us. We have crime on our mountains, so as a keen hiker, I cannot deny that Rottweilers suit me very well from a point of view of increasing my safety during recreation and that it is one of the reasons that I would continue to want this particular breed.
Having said this, I think we need to draw a very clear distinction between dogs that provide a sense of security (real or imagined) and act as a deterrent for the average criminal, BUT who are primarily family companions and dogs that are obtained for security purposes only. Here are some of the problems encountered with obtaining a dog purely for protection or with this as the main goal:
1. People are attracted to dogs with undesirable levels of aggression 2. People believe that not socialising the dog will make the dog better at the job 3. People may actually abuse or treat the dog harshly in order to increase aggressive responses 4. People do not allow the dog access to their home and family and the dog is treated like an alarm system, when it is in fact a sentient being that needs human companionship 5. People allow “trainers” to attempt to train the dog in “protection”, which often involves creating a mistrust of people, making the dog potentially dangerous and unpredictable 6. People buy “ready trained” dogs from companies who claim to raise and sell dogs for protection, without any clue what has been done to the dog to ready them for the job 7. Due to all of the above, the dog cannot be handled by anyone out or taken out in public and the dog ends up living like a prisoner on the property: Fed and given water, but otherwise neglected to the point of utter cruelty. It is dogs in these situations described above that end up doing serious damage to someone – and very often not a criminal, but a neighbour, visitor, passer-by or even a family member or the owner himself.
So, what about getting a dog as a family companion and then taking them for “protection training”? This is honestly a minefield. Most people don’t really understand what this entails. What many see as “protection” is actually the sport of IPO/VPG/Schutzhund. This is a sport that has a component of “bite work” where dogs are required to bite a sleeve under certain specific circumstances. Trained correctly, the dogs view the sport as something fun and do not feel threatened. Bite work trained with positive reinforcement is just a complex game of tug of war (the sleeve is the toy) and certain behaviours result in the opportunity for the game to begin. While bite work can certainly increase a dog’s confidence, when trained positively, it does not mean that a dog will bite a person who threatens you, because the dog is not in the same emotional state during training as they would be during a real life attack and the dog is learning to bite a specific object and not part of a person.
You do of course get people who will train bite-work using compulsion and will use fear to pressure the dog into biting to stop bad things from happening. I am sure that I don’t need to explain in great detail, the effect that this is likely to have on a dog’s emotional wellbeing and their ability to be safe around people in general. Where a dog is taught to distrust and to bite to get out of harm’s way, the dog will become defensive around people and be likely to injure the wrong person. Dogs that operate out of fear and defensiveness do not think clearly – they can generalise fears easily and react to things that one would not necessarily expect. In other words, they become “unpredictable”. One also has to bear in mind that even training bite-work positively for sport can have side-effects. It can increase and develop a dog’s desire to chase, grab and tug, which unless you have the skill to channel properly, you may not want in your dog – to that extent at least. Doing things like this halfheartedly is never a great idea. Added to that, trying to find a trainer for this type of work, who actually has a science-based understanding of how dogs learn and emotional states, is like looking for a needle in a haystack. Unless you are a behaviourist yourself, will you be able to identify correctly how your dog is feeling during the training and what effect it is having on him and will you know if something the trainer is doing is inappropriate or potentially detrimental to your dog? Again, for a family dog, this is not something to mess around with if you do not know what you are doing.
So, if it is cruel and potentially dangerous to get a dog purely for protection and extremely difficult to actually do any constructive training with the family dog so that they can “side-line” as your body guard, is there anything we can do to improve the chances of our dogs being a good deterrent for criminals? I think there are things we can do:
1. Socialise your dog! This might seem counter-intuitive, but you want your dog to be as confident and comfortable around people as possible. This will enable you to take your dog out with you safely, so that they can actually be there when you might need them and it will ensure that they are unlikely to run away when someone approaches you. It will also make them good at discerning normal vs abnormal behaviour - they need experience in observing human behaviour to be good at reading when something is wrong. 2. Train positively: Again, you want your dog to be confident going into any situation and to trust you completely. You do not want a dog that is worried and anxious and stressed and wanting nothing to do with you! 3. Allow your dog to sleep in your room: The closer your dog is to you at night, the less likely someone will get access to you and the more likely your dog will be able to alert you to a problem. Dogs outside can be harmed or let out of the property while someone enters your home. 4. Develop a strong relationship with your dog: Dogs that are bonded to their families are more likely to react if there is a threat to the family. If your dog really has no interest in you, he or she is unlikely to stick around when there is a problem. So, spend time with your dog, love them and make them part of your life and activities. Above all, remember that your dog is not here to serve you. If we bring dogs into our lives, we should be prepared to fulfil their needs – that should be our first priority. It is not our dogs’ job to protect us and, while they may be able to do so in certain circumstances, I still believe that it is first and foremost our job to protect them. While my dogs may be an excellent deterrent and they have indeed responded appropriately when the need has arisen, I would never knowingly and intentionally walk them into serious danger.