The Difference Between Dog Aggression and Protection

March 9, 2010

By Linda Cole

My Terrier mix Kelly (pictured) is my protector. It’s been a challenge teaching her it’s alright if a family member, friend or my other pets want to approach me. I have no problem with her actions if I need protection and she is as loyal as she could be, but protection can turn into aggression. And protection and aggression are not the same thing.

We have dogs for different reasons. They may be our hiking partner or a friend on our daily run or walk. Some want to own a dog who loves playing in water, competing in obstacle courses or snuggling next to you on the couch. Without thinking about our dogs protecting us, most owners would admit that’s one of the advantages to owning a dog. My dogs are great at alerting me to noises and smells they detect coming into the house from outside.

Protecting the pack is done without even thinking for most dogs. A female dog will protect her pups, and it’s as natural to a dog as it is for us to protect our family. A dog will protect what he feels is his, but only if he feels threatened. If a dog moves in front of his owner when an unfamiliar dog or a person approaches them or quietly steps between his human child and another kid fighting, that is protection. A dog who is assuming a protective position will do so silently with no growling or snarling. He will reserve judgment to decide if a more aggressive response will be needed. A dog who is being protective will only become aggressive if it is necessary to do so. Once the threat has passed and he determines the dog coming up to you is friendly or the person means you no harm, he will back down.

Aggression is a response where the dog will use force or needs to display dominance in every situation they encounter. It’s important to remember that aggression is not protection. A dog who is displaying aggressive tendencies may not have been properly socialized with other dogs, could be a dominant dog who is trying to show his dominance over others, or a dog who is fearful. That’s why it’s important to make sure a puppy is properly socialized when most aggressive tendencies can be avoided.

One way to tell if a dog is being aggressive is if they are growling when there’s no reason for them to do so. When your dog steps between you and another dog or person and they are growling or seem to be upset, it’s time to take him away from the situation. An approaching dog or human should not garner anything more than your dog paying attention to them. Growling is a warning sign that the dog could initiate a fight or bite. A dog that’s in a protective position will have the good sense and judgment to understand each situation and you most likely won’t even know he was in protection mode.

My mom had a medium sized mixed breed dog, Ben. Late one night someone jimmied her front door open. Ben was in the back of the house with mom as she was getting ready for bed. He heard the person trying to break in. Without a sound, Ben raced from the back bedroom and hit the front door just as the person was about to enter. The only time Ben let out a snarling bark was when he caught sight of the man in the window of the door before the man ran away. I have no doubt that if the intruder had made it inside, Ben would have protected his home and his person. A dog in protection mode should stop once the intruder or reason why a dog felt his protection was needed has passed or the dog or person surrenders and leaves. That was exactly what Ben did.

Aggressive dogs bite people and other dogs every year. Knowing the difference between protection and aggression can prevent a lawsuit or the possibility of having a dog declared a danger to society. Having a good knowledge of a dog’s body language can aid a dog owner in knowing if a dog’s reaction is protection or aggression. It’s always easier and safer to avoid a dog fight to begin with and no one wants to have the worry of a lawsuit if a dog bites someone. Knowing your dog can help you understand if he’s being protective or aggressive. To defuse a situation if you are outside or at a dog park and you have doubts, the best thing you can do is to calmly leave the scene. Dogs do signal their intent and it’s our responsibility to learn and understand how to listen to and watch what they are saying and showing to us.

Read more articles by Linda Cole

The personal opinions and/or use of trade, corporate or brand names, is for information and convenience only. Such use does not constitute an endorsement by CANIDAE® All Natural Pet Foods of any product or service. Opinions are those of the individual authors and not necessarily of CANIDAE® All Natural Pet Foods.

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  1. Terry says:

    I’m not sure I agree 100% with this article. There seems to be a missing piece, “fear”. You can have aggressive, protective and fearful dogs. Dogs with a fearful state of mind will act out when they believe they or their family members are in danger. This is not being protective nor is it aggression, it is fear. I have experienced fearful dogs that are not protective or aggressive. When the state of mind is changed the fearful behavior will diminish. Training confidence, structure, rules, boundaries and leadership can be used to alter a fearful state of mind. Fearful dogs are often labeled aggressive or protective when they are neither. We actually have three ways of looking at it, is your dog protective, aggressive or fearful. Regardless of which category your dog is in, they are all significant behaviors that need to be addressed by a professional trainer with experience in working with these dogs and behaviors.

  2. Jay says:

    So recently I was taking a walk and someone let my dogs off the porch (where they stay if i leave the house) honest mistake.
    They followed me a mile away and started calmly walking with me.
    out of nowhere two dogs popped up and i instantly started to freak out, as my older dog (hes three) doesnt do well around dogs that get near me (i should mention hes fine with dogs as long as my mom or myself isnt around)

    Surprisingly i tr turns out fine, and the teo dogs leave but I didnt want to risk it. So i start walking home. The same two dogs come back out, but a third one bounds out of no where and starts attacking my barely year old dog. So my older one starts attacking.
    flashing forward two leave and one of the dogs that had been there the first time are there pinned under my older dog, as its got a hold of my puppys tail.
    I pull my puppy away, then I grab hold of my older dogs collar and start pulling. (i know its recommended to NEVER pull apart a dog fight but I couldnt help it the other dog looked so scared)
    So i get my dog off and the dog runs away.
    The dog was pure white, i saw no blood or even puncture wounds.
    As soon as the dog was out of sight my dogs went back to loving puppers.

    What should I do about my older dog?
    I cant get him euthanized, And i know he was just protecting my puppy
    But i cant get the image of that dog out of my head it just looked so scared..

  3. Mary says:

    I had a situation at the dog park. A man had and I had some words and he kind of squared up to me. I saw him glance behind me and he backed off. My German Shepherd was behind/left side of me. She wasn’t growling but she was very stiff and just staring at him. I wasn’t even aware that she was behind me at first. Does she see me as the alpha dog? Waiting to see if I needed her? Is this a good sign or a bad one?

  4. Wendy says:

    My aussie is very protective also. Even as a puppy she wouldn’t let anyone get to close to me. She would also be protective of a close friend of mine who was around quite often. My friend would come over with her boyfriend and my aussie would sit right next to my friend on the couch and just stare at her boyfriend, as if saying don’t come close. Even though she never snapped or growled at him, he wouldn’t dare try to even sit near his girlfriend at my house. She wasn’t so nice though if someone she didn’t know tried to even walk by me, much less try to approach me. That was mostly when she was still a pup. She’s about 3 yrs old now and though she still wont let a stranger come into “our” room, she will let a familar face come in. But she stays right beside me the whole time or between myself and the familar guest.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Thank you Linda for this post, we are about to meet with a trainer to get on top of the Charlie thing. I love you rarticals and the fact that yo responde to my emails.
    God Bless

  6. Marg says:

    This is good information about the difference between protecting and aggression. I truly believe that taking a puppy to dog school really helps with the dog becoming social with other dogs. I have an Australian Shepherd that is very protective but she is not aggressive. But she does make people think before they come in the yard.