People may sometimes think it's cute when little Gidget, the Chihuahua, growls when people come near the owner, but guarding the owner can be a troublesome behavior that can end up with a trip to emergency room when somebody ends up getting bitten for getting too close. Not only, when a dog bites a person. the owner can be liable for medical bills easily amounting to thousands of dollars and the dog can even end up being put down, and at that point, this scenario is definitively no longer cute!
From Rover's Perspective
What is really going on in a dog's head when he decides it's time to protect a certain person? The dog barks, growls and lunges to anybody who tries to come near. It's as if the dog was saying "paws off my favorite person!" and the behavior tends to escalate the closer the person moves.
Anytime we wonder why dogs act in certain ways, it helps to ask ourselves what's the inner reward the dog is gaining from the behavior. As many dog professionals say: "Behavior is reward driven."
Behaviors that are rewarded tend to strengthen and repeat so little Gidget must have found the behavior of guarding his favorite person rewarding in some way.
A List of Pawsibilities
What rewards can a dog gain from guarding a person? There can be several. If the dog perceives the owner so valuable, he likely cherishes any form of attention from his favorite owner and that often includes the negative type.
If every time Gidget growls at people coming near the owner, the owner may likely laughs, try to sooth him or perhaps scold him. Since Gidget values the owner's attention so much, it works as a reward that will keep the behavior of barking, growling or lunging at anybody that comes near, alive.
If the owner takes Gidget on walks and Gidget doesn't like that the owner stops the walk and diverts her attention to other people, he may have found a way to make the people go away, so he gets the owner's attention back to him and resumes the walk. Win-win!
Sometimes, it seems like a dog is guarding the owner when in reality the dog simply feels uncomfortable or is fearful of having people walk near. In this case the inner reward is mostly sending the people away, so that dog feels safe again. Several dogs have space issues and may get increasingly uncomfortable with people invading their person "bubble." They may be fine with people several feet away, but if they come too close for comfort, they will start barking, growling and lunging which can be easily perceived as guarding the owner when the dog is on walks or close to the owner. It's important to have a professional evaluate the dog to determine exactly what is triggering the behavior so that it can be addressed accordingly.
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Food for thought: Sometimes, if the owner carries treats on walks, it could be the dog is actually guarding the treats and not the person. In this case the dog's inner reward is sending people away from the goodies the owner is carrying!
Tackling the Issue
Once the dog's inner reward is recognized, an appropriate behavior modification can be initiated. For instance, if the dog's inner reward is the owner's attention, removing attention the moment the dog engages in the undesired behavior would likely be most effective. This is known as "negative punishment" and it has nothing to do with use of physical punishment! To the contrary, negative punishment is pretty much force-free, all the owner is doing is removing the reward (the attention) that fuels the behavior.
So if say Gidget the Chihuahua was on the owner's lap and were to bark when a person came too close to the owner, the owner would immediately say in a cheerful tone of voice "Ooops!" as she stands up and places Gidget on the floor. After several repetitions, Gidget will eventually notice that barking at people, no longer grants him owner's attention, but instead makes the owner go away! What a loss!
In the case of dogs who instead bark at people because they're uncomfortable having them around them, standing up and leaving them alone to fend for themselves can make them feel even more fearful. In this case, these dogs may benefit from desensitization and counterconditioning, a behavior modification protocol where we make good things happen in presence of the scary stimulus presented very gradually.
So if Rover is given tasty tid-bits every time a person is approaching starting at a distance, he may eventually learn that great things happen when people approach. The end result may be a dog who is more comfortable having people nearby or even a dog who is eager to have them around as their presence equals treats! Of course, these are just examples, and since every dog is different, they may benefit from personalized behavior modification methods, which is why seeing a professional for these issues is so important!
"All living things repeat behaviors that are rewarding and avoid behaviors that are not, if you remember this simple concept, you can teach every behavior that you want your dog to do and change every behavior that you don't want... You accomplish this by rewarding the behaviors you want and ignoring or preventing those you don't want." ~Pat Miller
Disclaimer: this article is not meant to be used as a substitute for professional behavioral advice. If your dog is showing signs of guarding people, please consult with a professional for a proper hands-on assessment and treatment.
Positive Perspectives: Love Your Dog, Train Your Dog, by Pat Miller, Dogwise Publishing; 1st edition (September 21, 2004)