6 min read


Why Do Dogs Protect Themselves



6 min read


Why Do Dogs Protect Themselves




You're out enjoying your daily walk with Fido when all of a sudden you see a large dog barrelling straight toward the two of you. Fido is normally a gentle soul, more of a lover than a fighter, for sure. But at the sight of this potential attack, you feel him start to tense up and dig his heels in with anticipation of what might be to come. As the other dog picks up speed, you hear a low growl emanating from Fido's throat. His ears go back, and his body begins to descend into a crouch. It will only be a few minutes before the dogs are face to face, and you see Fido's teeth emerge in a fierce grin as the low growl turns into a menacing bark. What has just happened? When our dogs find themselves confronted by a dog they consider to be a potential threat, they brace themselves for a fight. If you happen to be on the end of their lead, this instinct becomes that much more intensified. After all, you are his most cherished possession in life. Nothing is going to harm his family. He is your protector, and you, his best friend.

The Root of the Behavior

To truly understand the amazing canines we share our lives with, it is important to consider the history of the modern dog. Canines in the wild faced very different lives to what our pampered pooches experience today. The wild dog needed to be concerned about survival. Predators often surrounded them, and it was a daily struggle for the wild dog simply to stay alive. Just as in the beloved television show, Survivor, the wild dog needed to outwit the other animals set to trap him in order to outlast and outplay them in the game called life. The stakes were too high if he were to lose. The wild dog had no choice but to learn to protect himself and his pack. He lived his life in a kill or be killed environment. Because of this, it was necessary for the wild dog to learn to stand his ground and defend his territory when the occasion warranted it. Dogs by nature do not want to fight. Most dogs would much rather avoid confrontation if at all possible. 

Unfortunately, when hunger and shelter enter the equation, the dog in the wild was ruled far more by instinct and raw canine need than by compassion. Finding shelter to camouflage the wild dog's sleeping area and that of the other members of the pack was a critical part of his survival strategy. Mother dogs would often need to leave the den to procure food for their young. A den that allowed her puppies to be hidden from view and that provided scents that would mask the presence of animals would afford her the freedom to hunt to source food for the pack. Without these things in place, her young could become a predator's next meal. But unexpected things could happen while a mother dog was on the prowl for a food source. If she were to come home to find a hungry animal snooping around her territory, she would need to be prepared to defend herself and her babies. This protection instinct is hardwired into our dogs. Though many dogs do not live in multi-dog homes or have puppies to defend, they still very much identify as being part of a "pack." You, as the person who controls all of the resources, are the leader of this hierarchy. Dogs understand that there is an authority structure in every family, and they have a powerful need to fully comprehend their role in it. 

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Encouraging the Behavior

Structure is a positive thing in the life of a dog. It provides the framework your dog needs to function happily within your home. Though in the wild, there was one pack leader who bore the responsibility for the pack, the dogs who were subordinate to this leader loved him and paid homage to him. This sense of loyalty compelled the wild dog to defend his leader when called upon to do so. How does this translate to the dogs we share our homes with today? Hierarchies exist within our homes as well. Your dog knows and accepts that you are the head of his household, and thus, the pack. He has pledged his undying loyalty and love to you. What does this mean? It means that your dog will give his life for you. If an animal is to walk past your property, Fido feels a need to let that animal know that it is his home, and you are his people, and if the animal messes with either, he will live to regret it. Your dog sees this as his responsibility. He takes very seriously his role of protecting his people and his territory. People don't always view this in the same light. 

We don't like what we perceive as nuisance barking, and we are perplexed when the normally jovial Fido turns into Cujo because the neighbor's Yorkie happens to run up on our front porch, or the mailman drops off a package. It is but one more occasion when canine logic and human common sense don't see eye to eye. What is interesting to note is that dogs all have different approaches to defending their territory and their people. This may or may not be affected by personality. The one thing that is always consistent is that when in the presence of a threat, whether real or perceived, your dog WILL respond. Dogs with gentler personalities may opt to play the role of "peacemaker." Instead of showing more overly aggressive behavior, these dogs often choose instead to lower their body posture, avoid eye contact, and freeze in position. This is an attempt to communicate that the dog does not want to engage with the aggressor and is sending the signal that he means no harm and will not fight if the opponent is willing to drop his "offence" and walk away. Some dogs respond to worrying situations by heading for the hills. After all, you can't get into a fight if you aren't around to fight with! 

Other Solutions and Considerations

Still, other dogs will take root steadfastly in position and prepare to take on the perceived attacker. This type of behavior begins with posturing. The dog will resort to any number of factors that yield the desired response. Make no mistake; though a dog who is displaying aggressive behavior will attack if necessary, he would still much prefer to scare the threat away. Dogs who like to employ this mode of protection will bare their teeth, attempt an intimidating "stare down", emit a low warning growl, and even bark aggressively. A dog who is exhibiting these behaviors means business, and if pushed too far will bite and even kill to protect his family and his home. It is important to note that many of these naturally ingrained behaviors have been tempered by domestication. 

However, dogs do still bear the imprint of their roots as wild dogs, and ancient behaviors sometimes rise to the surface in the face of frightening situations. Witnessing their dogs in protection mode can be very scary for owners. For dogs more prone to extreme territorial behavior or prey drive, it is critical that the dog is securely contained for his own safety and the safety of others. But more than this, a dog that exhibits extreme reactions to threats needs intervention from a reputable professional dog trainer. Dogs who frequently exhibit aggressive responses to low-level stimuli are dogs who are struggling, and they need help. Dogs defending themselves and their families is very normal behavior for them. As their owners, it is wise for us to limit the situations our dogs find themselves in where they feel the need to respond in a reactive fashion. Sometimes, it is not possible to avoid these things. Life is messy, and things happen. But if you are aware of something that always triggers a negative response in your dog, it is best to simply remove it from your dog's repertoire of things or places to visit. Your dog will be much happier for it!


Our dogs take their roles as our protectors and most faithful friends very seriously. Since each of them is an individual, they respond in their own unique way to perceived threats. While this behavior is quite natural for our dogs, we want to limit the amount of exposure our dogs have to situations that produce an unwarranted reactive response from them. Fido will protect us, and he takes his role of keeping us safe very seriously. We are blessed to be so loved!

Written by a Parson Russel Terrier lover Jason Homan

Veterinary reviewed by:

Published: 03/26/2018, edited: 01/30/2020

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