Personal Protection Dogs: Finding The Right Dog For Your Family

Protective dogs
John Walton
Written by John Walton

Finding the right companion for your situation is critical if you are searching for a dog. This is true if the dog is a pet, or if the dog has a job, like protecting you or your family. It is important to do your research on breed characteristics, and to learn as much as possible about a dog’s personality prior to bringing it home. Within every breed there are variations. Just like humans, every dog is a unique individual.

In addition, the correct training can make or break your relationship with your new dog. A protection dog can be either a boon or a curse to you and your family. This is not a decision to be taken lightly. All dogs have teeth, and all dogs will protect themselves when threatened. When searching for a dog to protect you and your family, you need more than teeth.

Protection dogs of the World-infographic

You need a dog that has a high prey drive, is alert, altruistic, and is interested in you. All of these traits must be in the correct balance for your dog to be successful in protecting your family.

Choosing the best dog for personal protection

Prey drive is an animal’s desire to chase prey. All dogs have it, but not all dogs have it in the same way. Herding breeds like collies and shepherds have been carefully bred to guard animals they would normally hunt. This makes the larger, more menacing ones very good dogs for personal protection and perhaps the most protective dogs available. But that prey drive must be something that we humans can harness. We must be careful that selective breeding has not made their prey drive so powerful that they cannot be controlled.

Alertness is another quality that the herding breeds have in spades. Like many of the animals they guard, they seem to remain alert, even when at rest. A protection dog should be alert enough that he can be roused when a prowler is around, but not so aroused that he goes crazy when a leaf blows across the yard. Hypervigilance in certain breeds, especially the herding breeds, can sometimes impede training.

In his book, Why Does My Dog Act That Way? by Stanley Coren, PhD, takes a look at altruism (the drive to help others in need) in dog breeds. He finds that the majority of altruistic acts towards humans are performed by herding breeds. German Shepherds have a higher number of reported altruistic acts, with collie type dogs coming in second. Dr. Coren does point out that over time the number has dropped for German Shepherds despite their continued popularity. This may be due to an increase in issues of fearfulness and anxiety in the breed.

Black Shepherd

Working breeds can also make very good personal protection dogs. While known for all the qualities needed for a good protection dog, herding breeds can be very anxious, and need a lot of exercise, training and stimulation or they can become huge problems for some families.

Herding breeds can also be difficult to train in bite work due to their long history of cooperation with humans, and their natural tendency to control the power of their bite. Not every dog fits into every family. Many owners may choose breeds that sacrifice some of these high alert, high drive qualities in exchange for a dog that needs less exercise and stimulation, and that may fit better into a less active lifestyle. With training, breeds like the Doberman, various mastiff breeds, and the Rottweiler (among others) can all make very good personal protection dogs.

Brief summary of most popular protection breeds

Everyone has their preferred breeds when it comes to dogs. Just because a dog is good at protection doesn’t mean it is the dog for you. Carefully consider breed traits, temperament, and the temperament of the sire and dam prior to purchasing a dog. Visit the breeder or the rescue and meet their dogs. Make sure puppies are handled and socialized prior to being sent home with their new families. Research breeds that appeal to you and find out what genetic testing is available to breeders of that breed, and make sure those tests are done.

It is not impossible to get a good dog from a backyard breeder, but you are taking a chance that the puppy may grow into an unhealthy or ill-tempered pup. Having an AKC registration is no guarantee of the quality of the puppy you purchase. You should always go and visit, ask questions, and be completely satisfied with the answers. You are making a commitment that can last well over a decade, and should not be taken lightly.

Protection dog

Here are some of the most popular breeds for protection:

  • German Shepherd: this is perhaps the dog most thought of by those seeking a dog for protection. In most cases they get along well with children, other pets, are easy to train, and are very loyal. They require a lot of exercise, and training should not be considered optional. These dogs’ personality can run the gamut from very calm and laid back to anxiety ridden and hyperactive.
    Looking at pictures taken over the years, one can see that they have been selectively bred for a curved rear end which may contribute to hip problems, so pay careful attention to the stacking of the breeding pair. The breed is also prone to elbow dysplasia and epilepsy among other disorders.Champion bloodlines do not guarantee health, so look for genetic testing and structural issues in the lineage. Know what you’re getting into by first reading up on the German Shepherd.
  • Belgian Shepherd: considered to be one breed except inside the United States, where it is divided into four distinct breeds. These include the Belgian Malenois, the Belgian Turvuren, Belgian Sheepdog, and the Lakenois. These dogs are similar in temperament, but differ in coat type and area of origin.
    The Belgian Malinois is fast becoming the dog of choice by many police departments in the United States. The short coat on a Malinois requires less care than some other herding breeds. This breed should be considered only by very high energy people who are ready to devote a lot of time to training and exercise. When confined, these dogs tend to circle and pace. Like the German Shepherd, the Belgian Shepherd dog can be prone to hip dysplasia. They can also be sensitive to anesthesia, and are prone to epilepsy, cancer, and thyroid disorders.
  • Doberman Pinscher: Unlike the Shepherd dogs, the Doberman Pinscher was created specifically to be a guard dog and to live well with humans. These dogs are active, intelligent, fearless, and can be quite playful. Like the herding breeds, these dogs require a lot of exercise and do well with room to run. Positive training and early socialization is a must for these powerful dogs. Their smooth coat makes them easy to maintain. These dogs can be prone to osteosarcoma and hypothyroidism, and should be tested for Von Willebrand disease. You can check out more info on this breed by reading our detailed article on the Doberman Pinscher.
  • Rottweiler: a large, solid dog that has historically been used for protection and herding cattle. They tend to be wary of strangers but are affectionate to their family members. Rottweilers suffer from hip and joint problems, as well as other medical issues typical of large dogs.
    Rottweilers have also been known to suffer from neurological problems, which might explain why there are reports of unprovoked aggression by members of this breed. Anecdotal evidence does cause some concern as to the temperament of some of these dogs. Choose your breeder carefully, and start training early! See if this is the right breed for you by checking our info on the Rottweiler.
  • Mastiff: There are several dogs that fall into the category of Mastiff, most of which would make very good protection dogs. Giant breed dogs tend to be lower in energy than some of the smaller breeds, which can make them easier to deal with. They do, however, require training. Even if your dog is calm, if your 100+ pound dog attempts to pull you down the street, he is probably going to succeed.
    In recent years, the Cane Corso has risen in popularity as a type of mastiff trained in protection work. These dogs certainly make formidable foes, and would make anyone with nefarious intent think twice.

Select the breed that is right for you. Carefully vet your breeder, and make sure they provide evidence of any necessary genetic testing before you buy. Or, if you choose, adopt from a good rescue that provides continued support to adopters throughout the life of the dog.

Training the protection dog

All dogs require training, especially if they are being used for personal protection. With the wrong training, your dog can do a lot of damage. You should train your dog in a way that not only increases your bond, but also increases his desire to make sure that you and your family are safe.

Training begins with basic obedience skills like walking with the handler, sit, down, stand, and come when called. These skills must be well trained before the chase and bite are trained or the handler will have no control over the dog.

Dog protection training

Dog training has a long history with written evidence of police dogs dating back 300 years. It is only in recent decades that any scientific study of dog behavior was conducted. We have discovered that much of what we thought about dog behavior is untrue. For example, the theory that all dog behavior can be tied back to the pack hierarchy (known as “dominance theory”) is actually false. Our dogs are individuals who are shaped by genetics and past experiences just like we are. Aggression and anxiety are most often a symptom of poor socialization early in life.

Socialization of a protection dog should occur very early in life. The period when your puppy learns that the world is not a scary place is over at around twelve to thirteen weeks. This gives most new owners a very short window of time in which to introduce the dog to all sorts of new stimuli like people, places, sights, surfaces, and sounds. Do this in a positive way. Pair low intensity noises (from a distance or on a recording that has been turned down) with treats and play.

Gradually increase the intensity so you don’t scare your pup. Have special treats that only appear during new experiences or when meeting new people. Contrary to popular belief, your dog should be well socialized so that he can walk through life with confidence. A fearful dog is more difficult to control and train. You do not want your dog to protect out of fear, but rather because he has been well trained to do so.

The relationship you have with your dog should be one of partnership and mutual respect. From a young age, reward your dog when he pays attention to you (as long as he is not exhibiting unwanted behaviors such as jumping). Hand feed your puppy for a few weeks when you first get him to teach him that you are the source of good things.

Never greet your dog with anger – always make sure when he approaches you to greet him with affection and joy so that he learns to love being around you. Teach your dog to say please by requiring a sit or down before you give him the things he enjoys. Be fun. Play with your dog. Keep his attention by being the best thing in his life. Do this, and your dog will listen to you when you call him, and defend you when you need him to.

Schutzhund: the sport of protection dog training

If you decide that you would like to train your dog for personal protection, one of the best ways is to become involved in the canine sport of Schutzhund. Schutzhund is a sport based on protection training that was first done with German Shepherds. Schutzhund consists of three parts: obedience, tracking and protection work. Schutzhund training is a fun way for you and your dog to work as a team and to teach your dog the control he needs to be a good protection dog.


There are many clubs that work together to train. Many of them use outdated and even damaging training methods that will damage your relationship with your dog and cause him to be more fearful and less confident. It is best to find a trainer that will work with you without inflicting pain or fear during training so that your dog wants to work for you instead of against you. According to the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists, you should not choose a trainer that uses choke, shock, or pinch collars to teach obedience.

You should also reject any training methods that encourages you to be the “alpha”, or that attributes behavioral problems to “dominance”, or encourages you to “alpha roll” your dog. These methods are outdated, and have been shown to lead to behavioral problems including owner directed aggression. Instead, choose a trainer that uses methods that motivate the dog with positive reinforcement and allow him to have fun while he trains. If he enjoys his job, he will do it well.

Selecting and training a protection dog is a huge endeavor, and it should be taken on with the knowledge that it will require a commitment of time and financial resources. Done right, it is well worth the effort. It is important that you follow these simple guidelines when entering the world of protection training:

  • First, choose a dog that fits your lifestyle, be it a rescue or a puppy from a reputable breeder
  • Next, choose a knowledgeable trainer that fits the guidelines outlined by the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior and the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists
  • Finally, work hard, and have fun with your new companion!

Recommended readings

Gerritsen, Resi, Ruud Haak, and Simon Prins. K9 Behavior Basics: A Manual for Proven Success in Operational Service Dog Training. Brush Education Inc.

Gerritsen, Resi, and Ruud Haak. K9 Schutzhund Training: A Manual for Tracking, Obedience and Protection. Calgary: Detselig Enterprises.

About the author
John Walton
John Walton

John Walton lives in Somerville, MA, with his two dogs, two sons, and very understanding mate. He is a Certified Pet Dog Trainer, a member of the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants, a mentor trainer for the Animal Behavior College, an AKC Certified CGC Evaluator, and the Training Director for the New England Dog Training Club.