top of page

Human Guarding-why, what to do?

This is a hard topic for owners with a dog who may act aggressively towards someone or another dog who approaches them.

The problem and the solution of this tricky situation often lie in very tiny daily moments which usually look really innocent.

There is a fine line between when the human initiates affection to the dog versus when the dog initiates such demand by exhibiting claiming behaviours to the human.

They can be very difficult for a lot of people to differentiate or resist, please allow me to elaborate.

If the dog is not exhibiting any guarding, reactivity and defensive behaviour around the human, it is probably not something the human needs to worry about; but l would recommend owners to be a lot more mindful and proactive if they start seeing display of aggression when someone or another dog approaches them or when the dog has a tendency to use his body to block other dogs or people from coming close to the human or when the dog like to insert his body in between the human and another dog when the owner tries to pet another dog or be physically close to another human.

A simple way to look at it is by looking at it through the lens of human intimacy. I am sure we all agree that intimacy needs to be consensual. It is not a mutually respectful relationship if one party always feels very entitled to demand and expect to get it whenever regardless of how the other party may feel about it. In the animal world, personal space is like that, too.

When the dog feels very entitled to demand attention whenever he wants and can never wait, for example, if the dog is always putting his head on the thigh of the human, sitting on the human’s feet, leaning on the human’s leg, and bark or paw at the human until he gets petted whenever he wants it, when the dog has learned that he can always invade the human’s personal space to demand affection and the human is always indulging, such a response from the human can reinforce the obsession and validate a compulsive mindset which will make the guarding behaviour worst.

Often, such a dog may act very “anxious” if they cannot get the attention they want right away. That is not an “anxiety” that is based in fear, this “anxiety” is related to a compulsive mindset — like when a human is addicted to getting intimate and gets really frustrated when the other party says no. With a dog, this will often look totally innocent, is very cute and adorable, and therefore very hard to resist. But if we keep allowing this, the guarding will become more and more intense, and other people and dogs could get injured, not to mention we will end up greatly limiting where we can take our dogs to.

We all love to pet our dogs. So, what should we do?

Building a solid routine is important. Our relationship with our dogs is built upon little interactions we have with them throughout the day. Little moments can snowball into big issues if we are not being mindful. By being mindful of our daily interaction, we can reset our relationship so we can pet our dogs a lot but they won't become obsessives and protective of us. It is a win-win.

When you want to pet your dog, but please consider doing it with a different sequence.

For example, if you are sitting down on a bench, and you have asked your dog to stay down, you need to enforce this "down" until you, the human, have released the dog. It is very easy for the human to start petting and unintentionally rewarding their dogs for breaking the "down" on their own (eg the dog gets up, puts the head on the human, stares at the human with watery eyes, asks to be petted, and the human complies). Many people may think it is not a big deal especially when there is nothing else going on that warrants the dog to hold the "down", right? But there is actually a big difference to the dog in how we handle such a situation. The decision making behind the premature breaking of the command is a similar mindset behind the outburst of guarding (i.e. I will respond impulsively whenever I want to without prioritizing what my human may want me to do instead). If we keep rewarding that, we are essentially encouraging the dog to keep making decisions based on this logic, and human guarding, which is also rooted in this same logic, will become much harder to break.

So, what should we do instead?

We can switch the sequence around. You can release the dog and then pet the dog instead of allowing the dog to break command and demand petting at the time of their choosing. This way, you can still enjoy petting your dog but the dog will no longer think that ignoring your instruction to break command whenever he wants will be rewarded by you with affection.

It is the same when you have put the dog on “place” (i.e. go to your bed), and he slowly creeps towards you and ends up leaning on you. I understand it looks very adorable and is very hard to resist, but please correct the breaking of "place" as soon as it happens (i.e. put the dog back to the bed). You can release the dog to come to you for affection when you want to, but you should not encourage the dog to make that decision on his own whenever he feels like it.

You can release the dog to get up and come to you - so you can take the time to give your dog as much affection as you want that makes both of you happy - but it should be done on your terms. You can pet your dog very often. There is nothing wrong with it. But the dog with a guarding tendency should not be encouraged to unilaterally initiate this without your release. Your release is like your consent to intimacy. It needs to be respected.

You should not let a dog with an aggressive guarding tendency to believe that he is entitled to invade your personal space whenever he feels like it. You want the dog to understand that he needs to wait for an invitation before he can get inside your personal space. There is a very big difference from the dog’s perspective. Who initiates this process matters to the dog. The sequence matters.

When you are the one initiating the reward sequence, your dog will get into the habit of waiting on your invitation for intimacy patiently. This will change how the dog looks you at and how he makes his decisions around you, which will in turn change how he behaves around you.

Otherwise, the dog can become compulsive to demand and get frustrated when he is not getting it whenever he wants it - which will really fuel this dog’s desire to guard and defend you whenever he does not like to see other people or dogs approaching you.

Hope this makes sense.

Thank you.

Reactive dog board and train dog training with Vancouver dog trainer behaviourist Richard Chan


bottom of page