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Guarding, Herding, and Scenting Behaviors

Why do some dogs protect their territory, others round things up, and still others lead with their nose? The answers to these mysteries can help you see your pet in a whole new light.

Guarding Behavior -- What's Mine is Mine
The need to protect is a quality that dogs inherited from their ancestors, who had to defend their territory and limited food supplies from trespassers. Being naturally territorial, domestic dogs today will guard their dens, or homes, from strangers. Some breeds of dogs have more of this instinct than others, and that is why Boxers, Doberman Pinschers, Rottweilers, Schnauzers, and German Shepherds make excellent guard dogs.

Whether you have a Mastiff or a Maltese, most breeds possess the guarding instinct to some degree. So, the more you understand about your dog's territorial urges, the better you can train him to defend his pack when needed but still get along with everybody.

Don't Bite the Hand That Feeds
If there's one thing that brings out a dog's possessive tendencies, it's food. This can extend past the actual kibble in his dish to the entire eating area surrounding it. Guarding food dishes or toys can be an early sign of a dominant dog. If your dog growls, snaps, or bares his teeth when you approach his food bowl, you must deal with it before it becomes a nasty habit. If you ignore it or accommodate it, your dog may one day attack a family member or a friend.

Train him to love the hand that feeds him with the following routine:

  • Eliminate his bowl and feed him bits of food by hand.

  • Once he's used to this, bring back his bowl, and put a small amount of food in it.

  • When he finishes what's in the bowl, put in another piece, until he eats his whole meal this way.

  • When you feel he's ready to eat out of his bowl again, sit by him while he's dining. Pet him and praise him for being a good dog.

  • Finally, move his bowl around to different rooms when he eats to stop him from guarding the space around his food.

He will be reminded that you control his food (and bowl) and will cease to see you as a competitor for his lunch. He will also learn to associate human hands near his food with positive emotions.

Warning -- Solicitors May be Eaten
Some dogs make excellent watch-dogs. If your dog barks up a storm when strangers approach, you can take advantage of his protectiveness by cultivating his "bark alarm." Make sure you've completely obedience-trained your dog first, however, so you are in control, not your dog.

  • Protecting the house. Here's a simple way to teach your dog to bark when someone comes to the door: Have a friend knock on your door, while you call out, "Who's there?" If your dog starts barking, praise him so he knows it's okay to make noise when someone knocks. Have him sit while you open the door. Whenever your dog barks at a stranger approaching your property, praise him. Say "Good speak!" When he's barked enough (when your ears start to hurt), say "Enough!" Then praise him again for being quiet. By positively reinforcing the behavior you want, you're teaching him to be a confident watchdog.
  • Protecting you. If you've let someone in your house, but suddenly become afraid or uncomfortable, you can train your dog to bark on cue with a secret hand signal. To teach him to do this, give the "speak" command whenever he barks. Once he's learned to respond to the verbal command, move your fingers and thumb up and down in a "talking" motion when you say "speak." Eventually, your dog won't need the verbal command, just the hand signal, before he begins barking away the unwanted guest.
  • The secret touch. If you're outside and a stranger approaches, you can train your dog to protect you with a secret signal that cues him to bark. Start by holding on to your dog's collar, while a friend knocks on your door. Gently twist his collar and simultaneously command him to "Look out!" With enough rehearsal your dog will put two and two together and start barking when his collar is twisted and he hears the command. When he's ready to perform, practice out on the street. Make sure he also knows the command to stop barking: "Enough!"

  • Care and control. Never train your dog to attack. Attack dogs have a much higher level of aggression than a pet, and require special handling and supervision if the aggression is to be kept under control. Do teach your dog basic obedience and make sure he understands his boundaries. Always assert that you are the "pack" leader so your dog never thinks he has the upper hand.

Herding Behavior -- Walk This Way
Does your dog nip at your heels when you're walking by, or run in a circle around your family when you're out in the yard. Don't call the vet! This is natural herding behavior, which has been cultivated by shepherds for thousands of years. Herding dogs were bred to keep herds of cattle or sheep together, round up strays, and get them safely to market.

Natural herding breeds include the Australian Cattle Dog, Bearded Collies, Belgian Sheepdogs, Bouvier des Flandres, Border Collies, Old English Sheepdogs, Shetland Sheepdogs and Welsh Corgis. Different breeds exhibit different styles of herding behaviors. Dogs such as Border Collies use what is called "eye herding," staring down the flock to get it to move in the right direction. Some dogs nip or bark to move the flock. Corgis, for example, are known for darting in and nipping the heels of cattle. Other dogs, such as Rottweilers, are drovers. They physically butt up against the sheep or cattle to move them.

Herding dogs are extremely intelligent. They can also be very aggressive because they've been bred to control animals much larger than themselves through barking and nipping. If you have a herding dog, you'll need to give him plenty of exercise. Moreover, you'll need to challenge his mind with obedience, agility, and other training. He'll always find a job to do – and it's better for both of you if it's one that you select.

Scenting Behaviors – The Bionic Nose
Dogs have a remarkable sense of smell and can usually detect animals, people, and food at distances much farther than a human can. That's not surprising when you consider that a German Shepherd has 220 million olfactory sensory cells in his nose, compared to a mere 5 million in a human's nose. His discriminating nose is one of the qualities that makes him such a good protector and hunter.

Some breeds have such an acute sense of smell that they've been recruited by the police to find missing persons, fugitives, and survivors buried in avalanches or destroyed buildings. These breeds include Scenthounds such as Basset Hounds and Bloodhounds.

Hunting dogs, such as Pointers and Retrievers, will often zigzag from right to left and back again while sniffing the air. Their path ever shortening until they uncover their prey. According to experts, they hunt this way because smells travel downwind in a triangular shape.

You've also probably heard the term "smelling fear." This ability is second nature to dogs. When a person gets scared, adrenaline makes his heart pump harder and he begins to perspire. Dogs can smell this, and they sense that something is amiss. This is why they will bark, growl, and sometimes attack a frightened person.

Dogs rely on their sense of smell to inform them about everything from hormones to moods. Since their noses are so necessary to "meet and greet" as well as to assess new situations, you will want to give your dog some "sniffing" room – take him to new places and socialize him to new sights and sounds.