Friday, July 4, 2014

Phrases We Can Retire: "My Dog is Protective"

Another phrase that grates on my nerves is "protective", as in "my dog is so protective" or "he's just being protective" when a dog shows signs of aggression.

This is not a sign of aggression, it's just silly.

When my dog spazzes out and throws a barking fit because he saw another human on the street, he is not trying to protect me. My dog is being reactive, the sight of the other person causes him stress and anxiety, and he puts on a big loud display to tell the guy not to come any closer.

When my dog is ok with other dogs at the dog park, but attacks them when on leash, he isn't trying to protect me from the other dog. He is feeling vulnerable because the leash prevents him from retreating in a confrontation.

I think the reason that hearing bad behavior dismissed as "protective" bothers me so much is because it puts a positive spin on something we should be discouraging. There is absolutely nothing good about a dog that turns into a sputtering ball of rage every time another living thing gets within range. There is no reason to put a positive spin on a lapdog chomping anyone who sits down beside its favorite lap.

A lot of people I've talked to claim that their dog's protective behavior is a bad thing, but I feel that the word itself lends a subconscious positive cast to the word. Sure, I do feel at ease walking Brisbane through the bad part of town at 2am because I know he will eat anyone who gets within leash range, but I never call him or his behavior "protective". Briz is reactive, when he's feeling anxious he is likely to go off at anyone no matter how nonthreatening. On a dark street at 2am when I'm feeling antsy and the tension is going right down the leash, Brisbane would probably chomp a baby.
Happily, Brisbane does not guard non-edible toys.

This is why I greatly prefer the term "resource guarding" and "reactive" to describe the vast majority of "protective" behaviors. When my chihuahua shows his teeth because another dog or cat hopped up on the couch while he was sitting on my lap, he is guarding me as a resource. I can help improve this behavior by giving him treats when the other pets get close by, so he develops a positive association.

Brisbane used to throw a fit every time he saw a jogger, I improved this behavior by giving him treats every time he saw someone jogging. Eventually he learned that joggers meant tasty treats, and now he doesn't care about them anymore. Had I viewed this behavior as Brisbane protecting me from joggers, I may have tried to discourage it through aversive training.

When we call aggression and anxious behavior "protective", it gives us a reason to avoid dealing with it. Without consciously realizing it, we may write it off as something potentially positive. We may also attempt to remedy it the same way we might remedy other overly enthusiastic behaviors like jumping up to greet people. A knee to the chest might discourage a bouncy dog from pawing my clean shirt, but a leash correction or a harsh word when he's growling at a jogger across the street could be enough to convince him that everyone in sweats must die.

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