Many of us own dogs that display protective behaviors. Guarding is a biological imperative — something built right into a dog’s DNA. In the wild, canids that kept control of territory and its resources were better fed and had more surviving puppies than their laid-back neighbors. Those puppies would also be territorial, and pass the trait on to the next generation, and so on.
Wild canids began hanging around human settlements in order to root through our garbage — food that didn’t require hunting and couldn’t fight back. They would raise a ruckus in protecting their new “territory” from other scavengers — including strange humans. Scientists are of the opinion that the first selective breeding our ancestors performed on dogs was to keep the ones that barked loudest and so alerted them when danger threatened the campsite! (One explanation of why dogs bark so much more than wolves and other wild canids.) Add to that how many breeds have since been developed specifically for guarding — of sheep, cattle, homes, junkyards — and it’s not surprising when our companion dogs display these “protective” behaviors.
Most of us can’t help being gratified when our house-dog defends us from people and other dogs. Folks proudly talk about how Fluffy is “so very protective of me!” They realize that it’s not always desirable behavior, but they can’t help feeling touched and delighted when Fluffy takes on the world to keep his owner safe.
It’s not only the big, bad dog breeds who do this! Pint-sized pooches are some of the most protective; challenging anyone who approaches when they are on their owner’s lap, not letting someone sit next to the owner on the sofa, chasing off another dog the owner is trying to pet! Dogs will often display defending-type behavior when “Dad” wants to hug and kiss “Mom.” Many times Dad gets nipped in the behind as Fluffy tries to discourage him. Mom complains as loudly as Dad in these situations, but there’s that inevitable flattered feeling that the dog loves her so much!
I do not have any doubt that our dogs love us. They value us and we are precious in their sight. However, in these sorts of situations, the dog probably isn’t defending us because they are afraid for our safety. It’s far more likely that they are obeying that ancient biological imperative and guarding their territory. It’s true, humbling as it may seem, that we and especially our ATTENTION is a resource on par with Fluffy’s favorite bone. Our attention is actually the most precious commodity in a dog’s eyes, which is why withholding it is so effective in training!
You’ll often hear owners talk about how “jealous” Fluffy is. This is a little closer description to why Fluffy is warning off everyone else. Fluffy is possessive, but it’s not prompted by affection! Fluffy wants all the good things that he gets when you pay attention to him and isn’t willing to share!
I believe that dogs are capable of and often do exhibit unconditional love to their owners — but it doesn’t prompt them into displays of jealousy or guarding behavior. When Fluffy acts like that I’m reminded of Daffy Duck in the Warner Bros. cartoons, chanting, “Mine! Mine! Mine! Mine!” over some trinket he’s trying to keep away from Bugs Bunny! As much as it might prick my self-esteem, I have to admit that my dog sees me as a somewhat glorified squeaky toy — her personal property. However, acknowledging that makes it much easier for me to deal with the undesirable behavior! I don’t feel like I’m rejecting my dog’s love — only reminding her of just who owns whom, here!