Good (Guard) Dog!

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A border collie without a job is like an NFL player with no football. With a flock to guard, this collie is in dog heaven.
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My home security system is large and black – and she pants when it’s hot and sheds hair every spring. In return for regular feeding, periodic veterinary care and grooming, I get a beloved companion who barks loudly when any strange vehicle enters my driveway. My dog also chases opossums from my deck and rabbits from my garden. But mostly, my watchdog makes me feel safe.

I am not operating under an illusion: According to the U.S. Department of Justice, 16 percent of American households were victims of property crime in 2003. Especially in rural areas, the theft pattern goes like this: Thieves make a quick visit to a house or farm to check for security, then return later to take what they want. But a barking dog often turns off potential burglars at the scouting phase.

It’s no surprise that, of the 68 million pet canines in the United States, most are expected to perform some kind of guard duty. Watchdogs look, listen and bark to sound the alert that something unusual is happening in their territory. After that, humans take over.

Dogs have performed this duty for thousands of years. In Tibet, the little Lhasa apso, called the “bark lion sentinel dog,” was bred to work as an indoor watchdog. In Belgium, schipperkes earned the nickname “little captain of the boat” because of their work as ship watchdogs.

“Dogs have coevolved with humans for at least 12,000 years,” says veterinarian Andrew Luescher, director of the Animal Behavior Clinic at Purdue University, West Lafayette, Indiana. “Dogs are better than any other animal at reading human body language, and they are the only animals that can follow something when you point it out to them.”

Wayne Hunthausen, a veterinarian and co-author of the Handbook of Behavior Problems of the Dog and Cat, says most dogs – including mixed breeds – can be trained as good watchdogs. The exceptions are calm, less-reactive breeds such as bloodhounds or Newfoundland dogs.

“You want a dog that will pick up on unusual things and then discriminate as to what’s unusual,” Hunthausen says. “Dogs that have been bred for territorial reactivity – Scottish terriers, Airedales and standard poodles – make good watchdogs, but so do many others.”

If you decide to adopt an adult dog, ask the previous owners how the dog performed as a watchdog. With a puppy, find out as much as you can about its parents, and if possible, spend time with the parents before you decide to take the puppy home.

Also keep in mind that some dogs are not content only as watchdogs. When they are not given appropriate work, herding dogs such as border collies or Australian shepherds can be extremely excitable, which is not a good trait in a watchdog. Predatory aggression is another bad trait that can be present in some aggressive breeds. But Luescher says even naturally friendly dogs can be trained as good watchdogs. “Dogs are quite good at realizing when something is amiss.”


Let’s say you adopt a mixed-breed puppy after learning the puppy’s parents are good watchdogs. Where do you go from there? “Don’t encourage too much barking at an early age,” Hunthausen says, because “territorial” barking often does not emerge until a dog is 9 months to 3 years old. Then, as the dog reaches maturity, teach it how to do its job.

“I like to teach the dog to bark when something unusual happens, and then go to a family member,” Hunthausen says. “To do this, tell the dog to be quiet every time it barks, and then call it to you and give it a reward – a treat or a chew toy. You want to develop a reflex so that when a dog senses something unusual, it barks and then goes to a family member and stops barking.”

One version of this technique is “clicker training.” As the dog carries out a request, the owner sounds a small clicking device to alert the dog it has performed the correct behavior and then gives it a treat. As a result, the dog learns to associate the sound of the clicker with the treat. Using the clicker is very effective; the device allows the dog to instantly recognize that it has performed the desired task because it immediately hears the clicking noise. As soon as the dog is comfortable with the requested behavior, a verbal command can replace both the clicker and treat.

Donna Mlinek, an animal behavior educator at the Dumb Friends League in Denver, says words and phrases, such as “quiet” or “enough barking,” should be taught as firm word commands. “If you yell ‘Shut up!,’ the dog may think you’re barking with it,” she says.

But some dogs get so carried away barking that owners have trouble teaching them a “quiet” command. In this case, it can help to use an “interrupter,” such as shaking a can with pennies in it, or giving the “quiet” command and squirting the dog in the mouth with water. The dog will stop barking to lick the water; follow that by giving it a treat. With these strategies, the dog eventually will respond to the command alone, and the noise or squirt won’t be necessary, Mlinek says.

“It’s important to understand that you’re using aversive conditioning and that the interrupter you use should fit the dog,” she says. “If the conditioning is too strong, the device will elicit a fear response, which is not what you’re trying to do. You also don’t want your dog to think that appropriate barking is bad, since that’s an important part of its job.”

When my dog wakes me up by barking in the middle of the night, I get up and look around before I tell her to settle down. I can feel her relief when she sees that I’m doing my part.


Security dogs take watchdogging a step further by aggressively defending their territory. Because they can be dangerous, security dogs require special training; owning one is a serious responsibility.

“I do not recommend that people buy or attempt to train a protection dog,” Mlinek says. “This requires a great deal of expertise and many years of training, as well as precisely the right kind of dog. A protection dog that is poorly trained or handled by an untrained person can be very dangerous.”

Luescher adds, “People want a guard dog, so they will encourage it to be aggressive because it makes them feel safe. Then things get out of hand.”

Aggressive dogs are more likely to bite, which occurs more than 4.7 million times a year in the United States – and that’s only the number of bites reported to authorities. In 2003, according to the Insurance Information Institute, dog bites accounted for a quarter of all homeowner liability claims, and the insurance industry paid out about $322 million for them. Note that these are civil claims, and 50 percent involved dog bites on the dog owner’s property. If a dangerous dog harms someone because the owner has allowed it to run loose, the owner also can be held criminally responsible.

With these kinds of numbers to back them up, insurance companies often ask questions about family dogs. When I applied for my last homeowner’s policy, I was asked about my dog’s breed, age and whether she had been spayed (she had). I eagerly answered my insurance agent’s questions, thinking that having a watchdog would reduce my risk of theft – and reduce my insurance premiums. Not so, because nobody knows how often property crimes are thwarted by barking dogs.

The bottom line is that insurance companies like deadbolt locks better than dogs; some companies even offer discounts if you don’t have a dog.

I personally want my dog’s job performance to fall somewhere between that of a watchdog and that of a security dog. I don’t want her to bite, but I do want strangers to encounter a dutifully territorial dog. We’re pretty convincing, I think.

When a stranger comes to my home, I often allow my dog to bark a little before I tell her to settle down. Not wanting to sabotage my own goals, I also avoid saying the dog’s name or using voice commands within earshot of strangers. Many dogs can be quickly neutralized if a stranger says their name and gives them a treat. (If a burglar said my dog’s name while giving her a treat, she might show the burglar where I hide my extra key!) Simply offering a treat will allow a delivery person to place a package by my door, but he or she would have to use commands and the dog’s name to get farther than that.

“People also need to be aware that once they start encouraging barking behavior, their dogs may not make a distinction between the kind of ‘intruder’ that their owner cares about and the kind that their owner is unconcerned with,” Mlinek says.

Some home security companies suggest putting up a “Beware of Dog” sign to deter would-be intruders, which might be a good idea. But good watchdogs don’t have to be scary, just smart barkers.   /G

Award-winning garden writer Barbara Pleasant suspects she has dogs in her blood – two of her brothers are veterinarians.

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