(R)overprotective: When dogs watch out too much
While part of a dog’s job is to warn us of potential danger in the environment, sometimes they can overdo it. A dog giving a couple of barks when the mailman comes by is fine, but if a dog barks constantly throughout the day, it’s not. Likewise, while it can be normal for a dog to be leery of strangers, they should never growl at familiar people or try to keep them away from you.
These are all signs of a dog being overprotective, but they aren’t the only ones. If your dog is always getting in your space or leaning on you, you may interpret it as them showing you affection, but they’re not. By showing dominance in this way, they are trying to shield you from what they perceive as danger.
Why dogs become overprotective
There are various reasons that a dog may become overprotective, but they all come down to a lack of leadership on the part of the humans. Remember: dogs want to follow us, but when they don’t feel like we’re leading them, then they naturally take over the position.
A dog can become overprotective if she gets too much affection. In this case, she comes to enjoy all the unearned attention and treats and sees you as the source — which she doesn’t want to share with any other dogs or humans. Anyone else coming into that space is a threat to the dog getting all the goodies.
A dog can also become overprotective if his human shows nervous, fearful, or timid energy. Dogs pick up on our energy states and reflect them, and if the dog feels like you feel threatened by everything, then he’ll go into protection mode. Submissive energy from the human, calm or not, will make the dog go into a dominant, assertive state.
Finally, if there’s instability among the members of the human pack, the dog will step in as a mediator, which is what happy-go-lucky, middle of the pack dogs do in the wild. If family members are constantly fighting, or there’s unspoken tension between them, the dog will try to fix things by protecting the humans from each other. This can turn into aggression against the family member the dog thinks is more threatening.
Correcting the behavior
Since overprotection in dogs is caused by a lack of leadership, the best way to stop the behavior is to become the Pack Leader. Rules, boundaries, and limitations are very important to a dog because they define what is expected and allowed.
When your dog starts barking at something to warn you, it’s up to you to set the limit by redirecting the dog away from that behavior as soon as you feel that it’s become excessive. Also, when a dog goes into this mode, react calmly and assertively. When a dog is being overprotective, the worst thing you can do is correct her by yelling, because this just increases her energy, making the behavior worse.
You also need to claim your space if you’re going to stop your dog from being overprotective by creating a boundary around yourself and not allowing the dog to invade it. The dog should not approach you when he wants to; he should only approach when you invite him. If he leans on you, gently push him away. If he nudges you, walk away.
Finally, only reward the behavior that you want to see. If your dog jumps up on you uninvited and you give her affection, then she’ll learn that this behavior gets her a reward. The goal is to teach your dog how to ask to come into your space by being calm and submissive and waiting for you to invite her in. In this way, rewarding the right behavior turns you into the treat, but one that your dog has to — and wants to — work for.