I never set out to have a protective dog, but soon after I adopted Chowder, my orange* Chow, I realized that I had one nonetheless. He had certain behaviors that revealed this. He would become extremely agitated on a walk if we encountered another dog and I was closer to the dog than he was. When tradesmen (and it was always men, since Chowder was a unrepentant sexist who rarely viewed women as threats) came to the house and were showing me diagrams or estimates, Chowder would wedge himself between us, no matter how little space there was. Considering that Chowder didn’t like a lot of proximity to humans, this was telling. When we fostered dogs, Chowder was the meanest to the ones that I liked the most and ignored the ones I could barely tolerate.
I made sure these behaviors were not encouraged, but what surprised me was that deep in the pit of my heart, I LOVED the idea that there was a dog who was willing to protect me, even if sometimes he had an odd idea of what made someone a threat. (For example, he had an active dislike of yoga teacher Rodney Yee, whose videotapes featured soothing sounds, slow movements, and Yee’s soft, calming voice; he would bark angrily at the screen when Yee spoke.) People who didn’t know Chowder were scared of him, and my introverted self really enjoyed that, too, since it meant I had fewer encounters with strangers.
The recognition that I appreciated the traits that would make a dog more dangerous and less adoptable was an eye-opener for me. It helped me to understand myself — I had never really had anyone stick up for me before, and in fact, during the times when I really needed protection and support, I’d been consistently disappointed. When Chowder did it, it felt right, even though it shouldn’t.
Recognizing this made me realize I needed to figure out why I wanted to be watched over, because the feeling was seductive, and that made me more dangerous than my dog would ever be. I knew the consequences: I’d seen what happens when people allow their dog’s protective instincts to take over. I knew that some of the big breed-specific rescues had to euthanize dogs for behavioral issues. I’d seen dogs end up in the pound who would never make it out of there because they had shown signs of protectiveness and were big breeds, even if those behaviors were only quite mild. They wouldn’t be shown to prospective adopters, and they wouldn’t be given to rescues to rehabilitate. (In contrast, small dogs who show an enormous amount of protectiveness are often given chance after chance to change their ways. It’s not fair, but that’s how it is.)
It also helped me to understand the temptation a lot of people might feel with a dog who made them feel safe and made people keep their distance. So when people expressed interest in a protective breed (e.g., GSDs, Dobies, Rotties, Chows, Akitas, and Pits), I would read their applications carefully for any signs that the prospective adopter might want the dog for the wrong reason. It takes one to know one, I guess.
That’s why I urge you to ask yourself honestly why you want a big breed. If you have even an inkling that you want it because you enjoy the sense of security the dog gives you, please be aware that encouraging that behavior, even accidentally, is a death sentence for your dog. You can still adopt a guard dog, but you must watch your dog and yourself carefully to make sure you aren’t letting things get out of control. In other words, you need to protect your protective dog, not the other way around.
Chowder is gone now, and he’s been followed by a beagle who has no interest in protecting anyone — her priorities are food, napping, sniffing things, and playing with her family members. I’ve learned that I need to protect and watch over myself. Maybe someday I’ll have another dog with the same guarding tendencies that Chowder had. If I do, I’ll remember my responsibility is to keep him or her safe, and that means I do the guarding.
*Say what you will, but the dog was orange, and not red.