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Many of us like the idea of a guard dog who helps to keep the house safe. What better deterrent from criminals than a big, scary guard dog with a booming bark?
But at the same time, we live busy lives. We want a guard dog who can hold down the fort while we’re gone or sleeping, but who will also happily accept family and friends in the home, cuddle with our nephews, and politely greet strangers on walks.
It’s a tall order – and it’s our topic of discussion for today’s Ask a Behavior Consultant. Let’s get into it!
How can you teach your dog to be friendly with strangers but protect your home while you’re not home?
– Sincerely, Wannabe Guard Dog
Let me start with a disclaimer here: I’m not a protection dog trainer. I have not trialed or competed in IPO, French Ring, or any other protection sport. I certainly haven’t trained professional protection/guard dogs. But I have a solid grasp on how dogs learn and how to teach them, and I have trained several dogs to get between their owners and an oncoming person on cue.
What’s the Goal Behavior?
It sounds like Wannabe Guard Dog has two different so-called target behaviors:
- Teach the dog to politely ignore or greet strangers. What does this look like? Maybe the dog is able to quietly walk past other people and dogs, focusing on the handler with loose body postures, soft eyes, and a relaxed tail. This might also mean that the dog approaches people and dogs with a relaxed tail, soft eyes, and loose body postures and accepts scratching.
- Teach the dog to bark when people approach the house and the dog is home alone. My guess is that this is what Wannabe Guard Dog wants. If they want a dog that will bite or seriously pursue the oncoming person, that’s outside my area of expertise.
Carefully and specifically defining our target behavior is really important here – we need to know exactly what we’re working towards so that we can break it up into smaller steps.
The challenge of #2 is teaching the dog to think through and problem-solve on his own. From the dog’s point of view, what’s the difference between a friendly dog walker and a would-be burglar? How do we teach the dog to be friendly to a dog sitter or dog walker, and ferocious to a burglar?
How Do I Teach My Guard Dog to Accept Guests?
German Shepherds are genetically predisposed towards being suspicious of strangers. They’re quick to bark and are very alert to changes in their environments. Our solution might be to teach the dog a “quiet now, it’s ok” sort of cue rather than asking the dog to make a distinction on his own.
We might not want the dog to assume that he should bark, only to be told to be quiet. I don’t like that plan much.
But we don’t have another option, since you won’t be around to give the cue and the burglar isn’t exactly going to tell the dog that he should be driven off!
My quick-fix solution for this problem would be this: teach your dog that meeting people outside is great, but people entering the home is not.
Here’s how we’d do it:
- Whenever you want to greet guests, take your guard dog outside with you. Put him on a leash and go for a brief walk around the block with your guests. Do this every time guests come over.
- If your dog is barky with strangers out and about, see our training protocol for that problem here.
- If you’re still having problems with meeting guests politely, check out our e-book on polite greetings.
- Enter the home together with your guests.
- Have the guests toss your dog a few treats, but ask your guests to otherwise ignore the dog unless he asks them for attention. They should toss treats behind your dog and otherwise pretend he’s not around.
- Give your dog a puzzle toy to work on while the guests are hanging out.
- When you can’t complete this protocol (say, with the mailman or an elderly relative), put your dog in a crate in a back bedroom with a puzzle toy. Play some music and leave your dog in there until the guest leaves. If you need help with this, check out our resources on crate training.
This approach teaches your dog to greet people politely outdoors. It also teaches him that guests who he meets outdoors, give him food, and enter the home with you are A-OK!
This is the protocol we used when we fostered an aggressive German Shepherd. She did NOT like people entering the home if she was indoors, but was friendly if she met them outside first.
How Do I Teach My Dog to Protect the House From Danger?
If you already own a German Shepherd (or truthfully, most dogs), odds are your dog already naturally barks at the door. For the vast majority of intruders, the loud bark of a German Shepherd will be plenty of deterrence.
Unless you’re willing to work with a professional protection dog trainer, I’d suggest leaving it at barking. Encouraging your dog to chase, growl, or bite without the help of a highly experienced professional is a risky proposition!
It’s one thing if your dog barks at a guest – not a big deal.
But if your dog miscalculates and bites a guest, you could get sued and/or your dog could get seized and euthanized. This is not a joke, and protection training isn’t good for beginners or uncommitted owners.
Most dogs will bark at the door and bark at guests without any additional training. If your dog doesn’t naturally bark at the door or bark at guests, I’d suggest getting help from a trainer who can help you build that behavior in a careful way.
Your training plan for this will involve building up the dog’s frustration by tying him down and teasing him with something that he wants. If he barks, he gets the thing he wants.
Eventually, you’ll transfer that training over to teaching him to bark when people enter the house – that’s the part that requires professional help!
Again, training this on your own could lead to a dog who bites, charges, or growls at the wrong time – or just barks at EVERYONE and EVERYTHING! Not fun!
A barking dog is a great deterrent. If you like your dog’s barking but want your guard dog to be friendly with guests, the trick is teaching your dog that guests outdoors are friendly, whereas people inside the house without that initial meeting are not!
Kayla founded Journey Dog Training in 2013 to provide high-quality and affordable dog behavior advice. She is a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant who’s worked with hundreds of private clients, thousands of shelter dogs, and dozens of working detection dogs. Kayla’s dog and cat behavior advice has been featured in NPR, the Chicago Tribune, and Pet MD. She’s an avid adventurer who is currently doing #vanlife on the Pan-American Highway with her two border collies and a cat. Aside from running Journey Dog Training, Kayla also runs the nonprofit K9 Conservationists, where she and the dogs work as conservation detection dog teams. You can get 1:1 advice with a Journey Dog Training team member here.
Hi! We have a guest house for missionaries in Haiti that currently has two excellent but aging English mastiffs who somehow know how to do welcome stranger guests with the owner present, and even frequent visitors without the owner present, while also guarding the property very well. We are about to get two puppies in hopes that they learn from the two aging dogs. The puppies are lab cane corso mixes. Do you have a training books and/or videos for this unique situation? And are you open to any live virtual training appointments with the guesthouse owners who live there full time? (I live in Chicago and am a frequent visitor there with the organization). Thanks for your time!
Hi Jen! I don’t know of any good books or resources for this topic. I’d be happy to talk over video, but as I said in the article this really isn’t my area of expertise.
Hello Kayla. I’ve got a problem and need your expertise. 3 weeks ago, I started renting a room from a lady who owns an English Mastiff as a Service Animal/ Guard Dog. Ever since I moved in, the dog barks at me and has even lunged at me a few times every time he sees or even hears me down the hallway. The owner has instructed me to keep a low volume, not make any quick movements, and to just ignore the dog as I walk by in hopes that he will eventually get used to me and not bark or lunge. I am seeing zero results and I’m getting very frustrated, and even a little worried about my safety. I understand that the dog is trained to react to someone who appears as a threat. I am no threat and have not done anything to the dog or around him to make him think I’m a threat. I don’t know what to do, hence why I’m emailing you now. I very much look forward to your response and advice, as soon as you possibly can. Thank you.
Hi Dan – there are always issues with attempting to train someone else’s dog without permission, but what I’ve done in the past with guard dogs (I once lived in an AirBnb for a month with a very persistent rooftop guard dog) is to toss treats at the dog, avert my gaze, and move slowly and consistently. The treat bombs worked like a charm very quickly, but you need permission from the owner…
First of all, I am sorry that you have to live like that. 🙁 Service dogs are not allowed to be dual trained in guard/attack/bite or anything that heightens their prey drive. It invalidates them as service dogs. (Go to ADA.gov and search for service dogs so you get the most current info. There is a hotline there at the bottom and maybe they can help you.)
Good point, thanks for bringing that up!
Who would be a good person to talk about anti-protection training? Our dog (noreweigian elkhound) has always been very vocal but seems to be getting more aggressive as he ages (just turned 2). We were doing the outdoors meet and greet as you suggested and it generally goes well but there are certain people he won’t even accept outside. I feel I need to have a “stand down, it’s okay” command but he is too riled up in the moment. Then when not “in the moment” he’s very responsive and good at obeying commands. He is quiet away from home in the car and out on walks. Our older dog is the opposite. Very quiet husky cross who would go home with the delivery man if he let her.
Hi Jenn, we have a few articles on stranger danger and reactivity that I think you’ll find helpful!