Home defense is a holistic concept. You want defensive architecture, including solid doors with solid locks, hard-to-breach windows and more. You want alarms. Many would strongly recommend secured but readily accessible firearms, with which the residents had gained responsible competency. Another important component can be a “protection dog.”
Why do we say “can be?” Because a truly effective protection canine is a more complicated concept than it sounds. Why is “protection dog” in quotes? Because, while most canines will be instinctively protective of their own human families, there are some which are simply too tiny and weak to do more than temporarily distract a violent human criminal, and because there are some that will run and hide rather than fight, a tendency also found in many humans. Let’s look at just what it will take to make a dog an effective part of the home-defense plan.
One thing those of us who work in the crime prevention and personal-defense field see constantly is the non-defense-oriented citizen who suddenly gets a brutal, unexpected reality check. They have come home to find their house burgled and torn apart. They have suddenly become the victim of death threats or a committed stalker. They have been attacked on the street for the first time. Suddenly, a line goes through their mind from a certain old movie: “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore!”
This is the person who raids the savings account and then calls the locksmith, the alarm company, the gun shop and the dog breeder and/or trainer. And it is very easy for them to be led down the wrong path.
That person can buy a lock, though they’ll have to have the personal discipline to use it. They can buy an alarm system, though they’ll have to actually remember to activate it. They can buy a gun, but if they don’t know how or when to use it, that can become problematic. And the same is true when they simply buy the dog. In short, commitment is required. Locks and alarms are fairly easy to incorporate into daily routine, especially when there has been a recent precipitating circumstance that puts the need for these security precautions in the forefront of the mind. Dogs, like guns, require more commitment.
We can’t just buy a protection dog. It’s not a furry robot. It lives with us, tries to love us and expects love in return. If we simply feed it and water it the way we’d recharge or oil some inanimate machine that served us, its love is unrequited. Anyone with life experience knows that unrequited love turns into hate. A protection dog trained to a level of Scheutzhund III has been taught how to tear human beings apart. It knows how to kill people. If we coldly teach it to hate us and it lives in our house, does anyone seriously need to be told where this is likely to go?
Thus, here’s the first commandment for the first-time owner of a serious, hard-trained protection dog: If you are not prepared to devote the same amount of time, attention and love to this animal that you would devote to an adopted child, you are not ready for this kind of dog.
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That said, how much time will it take? If you’ve ever had a household pet of any kind, you know it’s not hard to adapt to feeding and exercise time. But with this animal—a working-breed dog that has a job and has to maintain its on-the-job training—you are talking a few hours a week just to keep it current with the demands of that job.
And because you are likely to be working together when the time comes that the dog has to actually do that job, you are going to have to train with it. Well-off people can hire dog walkers to exercise their lapdogs and family pets. This is different. You and the dog have to become accustomed to working together, and the animal responding to your commands. The same is true of other family members you expect that dog to protect if and when the dog’s purpose must be fulfilled.
First, of course, the dog is a furry burglar alarm. Accept the fact that he’ll bark whether the entity on the back porch is a squirrel or a home invader. The first-time protection dog owner has to learn to adapt to that, and not become complacent and fail to take the canine alarm seriously. Second, you want the animal trained to take down a human assailant on your command, and to do it on his own command if you or another family member are physically attacked. This can get complicated, and it’s why you want the animal to have professional training.
I recall the day when a friend I hadn’t seen in years came to our home for a surprise visit. He looked at my toddler and said, “You’ve grown so much!” and suddenly, exuberantly, picked her up and swung her in his arms. The kid was startled and looked it—and our very large, very well-trained protection dog launched! I was able to get between them and stop the dog in mid-air before he took our friend down. (The dog looked at me as if to say, “You fool, what’s wrong with you? He was attacking the Little Mistress!”) No one was hurt, but I learned a lesson: Don’t let friends unknown to the dog do anything in front of such an animal that could mimic a physical assault.
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Third, there are other situations that can make us all glad we made such animals part of our lives. Friends in the fire service can tell you many stories of families who escaped house fires because the dog (or even the family cat) awoke them to give the alarm that smoke was flooding the sleeping area.
I remember the long ago night as a young dad when my wife and I were wrapping Christmas presents, and our elementary-school-age daughter and her friends had promised to keep an eye on our toddler (famous last words). Through the doorway of the second-floor room where we were wrapping, I saw the little one running down the hall toward the staircase, looking over her shoulder to see if the other kids were following her. They weren’t. Uttering an expletive, I jumped up, knocking over the table with the gifts, knowing I couldn’t reach my youngest before she fell down the stairs—and I saw the brindle blur of our protection-trained Great Dane run between her and that staircase, blocking her path. She bounced off the dog and fell on her butt and, startled, began to cry. Her mom ran to her and hugged her, and I ran over and hugged that big ol’ dog.
Personally, I don’t buy by breed any more than I select my friends by race. In either case, you’re looking for individual character and capability. There can be exceptions to that. If I still had little kids, and if I lived by a body of water, I might look for a Newfoundland, which by most accounts have an innate instinct to pull small children out of water too deep for them. If one member of the family is strongly invested in a particular breed and is likely to bond and train with them more, that’s one good reason for going with that particular breed.
Because of my heavy travel schedule, I’m currently between dogs, but if that should change, a German Shepherd is likely in the cards. Why? Because my significant other loves them. She looks at a nice Rottweiller and says, “She’s cute,” but she looks at a German Shepherd and exclaims, “She’s so CYOO—OO—OOT!” A three-syllable “cute” tells you mistress and dog are probably off to a good start.
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Otherwise, I’m looking for intelligence, trainability and strength. Why is intelligence first on the list? Because protection training is simply a very high form of obedience training with different tasks in the job description. In a protection dog, I want a canine big enough to take a large adult man off his feet with a bit of a running start. I’m looking for an animal weighing 50 pounds minimum, but 70 or 80 pounds seems better, and more is even better yet.
Big dogs intimidate more than little dogs. I learned that from the criminals themselves more than 30 years ago when I went into a prison to interview them for my book The Truth About Self-Protection. None of them are intimidated by a Paris Hilton purse Chihuahua they can kick across the room. The only thing that scares them more than big dogs is victims with guns. The ability to intimidate criminals is a huge component with any personal protection entity.
Breeders and trainers? Let’s talk. There may be more phony dog trainers and backyard breeders than there are unqualified firearms instructors and incompetent hand-to-hand combat teachers alike. Incompetent breeders produce bad-tempered, low-intelligence dogs with hip dysplasia, and those who torture animals until they become “junkyard dogs” haven’t created anything we’d want living with our children.
Plan A is to find someone with excellent dogs and ask them where they got them and who did the training. Unfortunately, those sources are thin on the ground. Plan B is a more circuitous route, but one worth taking. Call your local police department or sheriff’s office, ask to speak to one or more K9 officers, and ask them who they recommend as a veterinarian. Police dogs are often donated, so the K9 officers themselves may not be in a position to recommend breeders, and their training may be in-house and unavailable to private citizens.
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However, the local vet those K9 officers bring their animals to is usually the best in the area for working-breed dogs. Now, go to that veterinarian and ask him or her about local breeders and trainers. That vet is the person who “sees the results”—they will know who has to put down poorly bred animals, and which breeders and trainers produce animals they would use to protect their children.
Purebred dogs can be expensive, as in “five figures” expensive. If cost is an issue, go to your local ASPCA. Those people love animals, and they know if they give you a dog that turns bad, you’ll never save another. They can steer you to big, strong, intelligent, loving canines who are trainable. In the end, you don’t need Lassie or Rin Tin Tin; Old Yeller can get the job done well enough, if smart enough to learn.
If it’s going to be your first such animal, give it lots of serious consideration first. If it isn’t something you can do, that’s OK, too. But those of us who have had good protection-trained dogs will be the first to tell you that it’s an experience worth every moment, and every penny, that you put into it.