Sunday, June 21, 2009

Opinion Time: "Guard Dogs"

There are a few things that we encounter while volunteering at an animal shelter that I have very strong opinions about. Although they're just personal opinions and observations, hopefully they'll give you things to think about without my being too annoying.

Few statements get to me quite like the old chestnut, "I'm looking for a guard dog."

Let me explain what that phrase translates to in extended English: "I'm looking for a dog that I can treat like it's a piece of furniture, ignore, yell at, incite to be aggressive, then return it to the shelter when it bites me/my kid/my neighbor's kid/my neighbor's dog/etc. Then it will have to be euthanized because it's too hostile and volatile to trust around people or animals."

A bit harsh? Absolutely. True? Far too often.

If you feel that you need extra protection around the house, a dog can be a great assistant. They've been helping keep humans safe for about 14,000 years thus far. If you want a non-stop, low-maintenance anti-intruder device, though, I'd strongly recommend a burglar alarm system. If you want something to be a lawn decoration to keep ne'er-do-wells away, build a scarecrow. If you want a devoted member of your "pack" or family who will put themselves between you and potential danger, stop thinking it has to be a "guard dog". That's a frequent mistake.

A few of the exceptional "dog guardians" I've known. Not the fiercest-looking bunch.

My favorite recommendation to someone looking for a "guard dog" isn't a Pit Bull Terrier or a German Shepherd. It's not a Doberman Pinscher or a Rottweiler (though they are all great breeds of dog). It's the humble, strong - and extremely friendly - Labrador Retriever. Seems an odd choice? It isn't, and I'll explain my logic.

Labs are, as a breed, famous for being devoted family dogs. Their affection runs deep, and their temperament is usually quite forgiving. If someone is thinking they need exclusively a "guard dog," there's a good chance that there's a feeling of insecurity; specifically, one that will subtly show when interacting with the dog (especially if security is the main reason for having the dog). Dogs often pick up on that, as subtle as it may be, and possibly read it as reticence to be the alpha of the pack. One quality shared by popular "guard dog" breeds such as Shepherds, Bulldogs, etc., is an above-average sense of independence and responsibility; if they think it's necessary, they will step in as pack leader. (Seen a lot of "out-of-control" dogs? Odds are it's the opposite, and they're "in-control" dogs.) More companion-oriented breeds (such as retrievers) are much more likely to encourage their alpha instead of replacing them outright.

Even more integral to the security equation is how you interact with your dog. A dog will protect you and your home if it feels it must, true. Fear of repercussions and a sense of duty will carry them far, but potentially leave them socially stunted. Back to the "Labrador factor." They aren't famous for their ferocity, but people wax poetic about their love, adoration and devotion to their family and friends. At one point, I temporarily fostered an 80-pound black lab. The first day he was at my house, we played fetch, ran around, and just generally did fun "dog-and-human" things. When I came home the next day, he heard my car pull up and footsteps approaching the gate. Believe me, I would not have wanted to be a stranger; Ajax instantly turned into an 80-pound barricade of teeth and muscle. And as soon as he saw that it was me? Back into the unstoppable fetching fiend, all slobber and admiration. When I was growing up, my Irish Setter, Red, was exactly the same; nothing but affection until someone threatened his family. Even Remo, who only stands about 18 inches tall, threw himself between me and an aggressive Bulldog without hesitating.

I've seen dogs be aggressive. And I've seen dogs be protective. There's no contest.


tcsteger said...

Golden Retrievers can make good "guard dogs" too. When everyone was at home, Harvey would be his happy go lucky self but when Bryan was out of town he considered himself the man of the house and Mom must be protected.

btw, I love your descriptions of all the animals you encounter at the shelter.

Kathi said...

This is great! Sense I live with a house of bullies that could posibly lick someone to death, a springer that barks at his shadow, and most gaurd like is my blind aussie Lexi,if she finds you your in trouble. lol