Part I: Defense

By Gary Patterson

Unlike most dog events, working dog competitions are not so much a test of how well a dog can do a particular exercise, but a more fundamental examination of the dog's temperament. Whether it is Schutzhund, Ring Sport, herding or service dog trials, the points may be determined by how well a dog does each exercise, but the exercises, collectively, are a test of the dog's temperament and behavior. In AKC matches, a dog is expected to perform a series of unrelated exercises in only one discipline (i.e., obedience, tracking, or agility). In working dog competitions, the exercises cut across many disciplines and are usually placed in an order designed to identify the less than perfectly temperamented dog. While all animal trainers should understand the foundations of the behavior of the subject they are working with (how many of us complain that our bosses don't have good sense), it is imperative that those who hope to be highly skilled working dog trainers understand the forces that are at work in the minds and genes of their dogs.

What follows in this series is an examination of the basics of dog behavior as they relate to training. I hope to keep it as unscientific as possible, but everything is based upon solid scientific research and conclusions. I only ask that you consider this series in light of how these ideas apply to our training, and not what some alternative thesis might argue in light of non-dog training experiences in a more sterile environment.

Dog training, by definition, must be unscientific. We, as trainers, deal with hundreds of variables that no self respecting scientist would tolerate. The personalities, life experiences and relationships with either humans or other dogs are often unique to an individual dog and not controlled by any abstract protocol that is designed to come up with ultimate truths. Dog trainers only deal with relative truths: what works with one dog, works, but may never work on any other dog. It is this one characteristic of dog training that makes it exciting and challenging, but serves as the undoing of many trainers who believe that with each dog, you reinvent the wheel. The truth is that there is a long history of dogs,now some twelve thousand years,that helps us define their behavior. The trainer who doesn't understand this history of development of the modern dog is truly reinventing the wheel, meaning he is doomed to repeat the failures of the past. Over one hundred years ago, the English researcher, Lloyd Morgan, warned: "Never attribute animal behavior to a high mental function, if the behavior can be explained with a more simple process." The dog trainer who doesn't have a good theoretical base to his training is often guilty of exactly this mistake. His is a constant routine of trying to explain the dog's mental processes or, even worse, forcing the dog to conform to the trainer's wishes. This is the trainer who explains dog behavior in human terms ("The dog is defying me.") or is totally indifferent to what behavior is really driving the dog.

On the other hand, the trainer who understands behavior seems to do things so easily; a light correction and a soft word are extensions of an active mind that really understands what is going on during training. A mistake in training is little more than a challenge to this trainer who, upon reflection and drawing from a reservoir of knowledge about behavior, finds solutions to what others might find an impossible task.

Defense Theory

In this first installment, one of the most difficult characteristics of animal behavior is examined. Defense theory would not be so difficult, except that defensive reactions in the animal world can take so many forms, at so many levels. Further, they are interwoven into virtually every other kind of behavior an animal displays. No matter what behavior an animal exhibits, it is always capable of instantly shifting into defense and that is a good thing. Defense is a basic survival characteristic built into every higher animal; it is the means by which each can survive and procreate. In general, it can take many forms that are ideally suited to protect a particular species in a certain environment. Defense can be built into the animal's physical form as with a turtle or porcupine or, in the case of canines, an active display of behavior that improves the chances of living for another day. It is these types of behavioral defenses that we are concerned with and even these can take many forms.


An animal does not run away, but moves to a safe place, such as a rabbit to its hole.


While mistakenly included with submission and appeasement to be described as avoidance, these characteristics reflect social behavior, not defense. Flight is simply getting away by running and trickery.


This behavior makes the attacked confront its adversary and, through displays and posturing, it is often made to seem too great a threat so the attacker quits the battle. It is often a war of nerves. Defense is most often shown by prey against predators and we should remember that the first rule of the predator is to avoid serious injury; an injured predator is a dead predator. Therefore, these displays are often important in breaking off an engagement where the attacker, not the prey, fears injury.

Passive Behavior or Freezing

Most often seen in young mammals and birds, this behavior requires the animal to simply remain motionless in hopes that the threat will go away or fail to see it. It is also a behavior we will see in beginning protection training, where the dog's temperament gives it neither the motivation to escape or attack.


While I have never been able to find a clear, all inclusive, definition of the word, aggression will be defined as hostile or attack behavior against animals of a different species, beyond the displays and posturing of bluffing.

In later installments, I will attempt to differentiate defense aggression, in those cases involving different species, from social aggression, where the dog's handler or another dog is involved, but it is important to distinguish between the above behaviors in defense from similar behaviors we might see during social interaction. While social responses can be similar to those we see in defense, the motivation behind the behaviors is what makes them different. In defense, behavior must be directed against a predator or an animal of a different species (excluding a human's relationship with his dog). In social behavior, responses are driven by the fundamental social status among animals of the same species. Social behavior requires that the animal's acts be controlled with no behavior leading to the destruction or significant injury of any pack member, although things can go wrong with resulting serious harm. Any alternative would lead to the destruction of the social order of the pack and its ability to produce future generations. Therefore, when watching dogs, make sure that you always understand this important distinction between basic defense and social behaviors, no matter how similar they may appear.

Defense and Dog Training

Among all of the defense strategies we have examined, only a few are experienced in dog training. Flight, displays, freezing and aggression are experienced in week to week training sessions with different dogs and, in fact, it is all these characteristics that must be identified and worked on to produce a top working dog. If a dog attempts to flee, display instead of attack or simply becomes passive during training, the protection trainer must work to eliminate these responses. If the dog shows aggression, the character of the aggressive responses may be improper with the dog either out of control in its defense drive or displaying the wrong kind of aggression. Aggression is not a simple process of the dog willing to attack an adversary, but can take two entirely different forms.

Let's examine two different situations in which a dog might find itself where aggression is the result. In the first, a dog is trained to patrol a farm and stop any intruder from coming onto the property. It freely patrols the farm until it finds a bear entering the farm to invade the farmer's bee hives. The dog will first display through barking and making its body apparently larger (raised hackles, stiff front legs, ears extended forward, deep barking and quick, but aggressive, advancement against the bear.) If the displays don't work against the bear so it continues to advance, the dog must then make a decision to shift to another form of defense behavior, either flight or aggression. The important point is that this is a voluntary act by the dog; it either runs or fights. Either behavior is a legitimate defense, so the dog wins no matter which way it reacts.

Using the same example, we will now chain the dog to a post next to the bee hives so it cannot escape. Here, when the bear advances, the dog has no alternative but to fight for its life. Thus, instead of willingly engaging in a fight, it takes on an entirely different body posture as the bear approaches. Its ears may go back, barking will be high pitched and shrill, its tail may tuck under the belly and its lips will pull back to show its teeth. In other words, the dog is experiencing stress at the highest level, a total fear reaction. In the first example, the dog is showing true defense, a response where the dog voluntarily attacks and is rewarded. In the second example, self defense, the animal has no choice but to try to save itself and will inflict injury in any way to avoid the threat. Self defense always results in fear and stress with the dog never being the winner. It is this type of dog that, if it should show this kind of behavior in training, we often describe as sharp or sharp/shy. While it is difficult to say with certainty, sharpness comes most commonly from the basic temperament of the dog, but I have seen cases where it seemed that poor training or imprinting was the cause. In either case, it should be understood that the overly sharp dog is never a qualified candidate for any protection work as it exaggerates any experience to the point where anything can become a threat. It may bite a protection sleeve harder than any novice dog should only to pop off or it may as easily bite the helper's face, club members or family friends.

It must be understood from the outset that all defense is stressful, in the sense that defense only arises from a perceived threat, real or otherwise. If we train a dog in the same way each training session, the defense drive will slowly wane and then die, as the dog sees only a patterned, predictable environment to which it must respond with no real threat to its existence. When trainers and breeders talk about nerve in a dog, it is really the dog's ability to cope with and conquer this stress that distinguishes the outstanding temperament from the rest. Therefore, good protection training must involve new experiences for the dog if it is to maintain a strong defense drive.

It has been my unfortunate experience the past several years, when giving seminars, to have someone say in the beginning, "I understand that you are a defense trainer and my dog really needs defense work". I am always dumfounded since any person who would only work prey or defense has a very poor understanding of what the working dog sports require. Defense is important for only one reason: the trial rules test defense behavior. If the trainer fails to prepare a dog for these tests, he is guilty of incomplete training. Instead, we should look at defense behavior as something that needs developing, just as much as prey or social behavior. It is the dog that is well balanced in all of these drives that performs well.

Before getting into the more practical applications of theory, it is necessary to examine one more area of behavior in defense, conflict. No defense strategy works in isolation, but constantly changes according to the dog's temperament and circumstances that face it. We have seen that an animal can show one type of behavior and then discard that behavior for another strategy that might work better in the survival game. But, what happens when an animal tries to exercise two strategies at the same time? The results are often strange and even baffling. Conflict only happens when two drives are competing with each other for domination. A dog may try to flee and attack at the same time. In bite training, it may try to stay clean and attack simultaneously and, in fact, this is a common experience in dog trials. The dog will out and then proceed to nip the helper or sleeve. Here the dog is remembering not to bite, until its other drives overwhelm the control and it nips, only to out and repeat the cycle. Clearly the dog that doesn't out isn't in conflict, but simply so strong in one drive that no other drive or training can control its behavior. But the dog that tries to do two things at once is in conflict. The answer should be only to show the dog the correct behavior and then reinforce the positive result. Once the dog is clear, the conflict should disappear, but in protection training, where drives can get out of control, the trainer must also work on developing the defense drive so the dog can control it. Only in these cases can conflict truly be eliminated.

There is another form of conflict that is not so apparent, with the most common experience being in young dog training. This form of conflict response is called displacement. The behavior results from a dog trying to do two things at once and because it can't satisfactorily do either, it finds some third kind of behavior. A common example is the young dog that, upon seeing the helper approach for protection work, barks strongly when he is at a distance. As the helper gets closer, the dog suddenly stops barking and stares at the sky or sniffs the ground. In this case the dog wants to both run and attack at the same time: an act it cannot do. So it finds this third type of behavior to handle the conflict. Many trainers become disgusted with this performance, preferring to describe it as avoidance or a weak dog. Yet, my impression is just the opposite. Clearly the dog isn't weak, for it barked and acted aggressively when the helper was at a distance. On the other hand, it didn't run away, for its temperament wouldn't allow it to do so. Actually, displacement is usually a good sign in young dog training. Often a young dog starts out showing signs of avoidance and it is the helper's job to make the dog strong with no thought of fleeing. It is not uncommon in later training sessions to see this dog start displacing when the helper comes close. This means that the dog is starting to think about attacking, not avoiding as it has in the past. It is simply a phase that the young dog goes through and, with proper helper work showing the dog the way, the conflict will disappear so the dog learns to think only in terms of aggression. It is another example of the trainer, who doesn't understand behavior, thinking the dog is weak when the response probably shows the dog is gaining strength.

Putting Defense to Work in Training

While the next installment will deal with prey or predatory behavior, it is necessary to introduce a few elements of prey work in this portion. There are a few simple rules of protection work that the trainer must keep in mind when first starting a dog in protection training.

The first is that a dog will willingly continue to work in a way that has brought success in past training. Therefore, if we start training a dog with only bites on the training field, it will soon identify protection training with bite work and the helper will only be the source of this bite training, not a threat by himself. Soon, protection training becomes a series of bite exercises where the dog is only working for the bite.

The second point is that all bite training is essentially prey work. What precedes or follows the bite may bring the defense drive into play, but bite work is founded in prey.

A sport trainer might say,"Okay, what is wrong with that. I want a dog only to bite in trial and if it does fine, why do I have to become involved in any defense training?" My response can be only the same as I mentioned earlier. If the rules require defense to be tested and the trainer fails to develop defense properly, then he is guilty of incomplete training.

This seems to leave us with the only alternative of not doing any work on the dog until it fully matures, not something that most trainers would tolerate. The problem with waiting until the dog matures can also be that we, as trainers, might have something important to teach the dog when it is still young, a period of intense learning for any dog. In other words, we may show the dog some of the basics of future protection work, by training in the beginning.

If this still seems impossible, it may be that the trainer believes defense can only come about with direct confrontation between helper and dog. It is true that the temperament of any young dog is too undeveloped for full scale pressure to be applied in training, but there is an alternative where the dog learns to initiate aggressive acts by itself. Remember the earlier example of the bear and the bee hives, where any dog is capable of showing two kinds of defensive aggression. The helper who applies pressure on the young or inexperienced dog, without thought to the problems of what form of defense behavior the dog may show, may end up with a dog that shows only self defense, a reaction full of stress. But, if we can use a method where the dog thinks in terms of only true defense, then its acts are voluntary. Through skilled helper work, the dog voluntarily becomes aggressive, and doesn't consider the legitimate alternative of avoidance.

When training any beginning dog, especially young ones, I simply have the handler stand with the dog on the training field while a more advanced dog is working. There is no helper agitation, nor does the handler do anything to encourage the dog. For a time the dog will do little or nothing and then, one day, some noticeable change takes place. Instead of doing nothing, the dog starts to pay attention and even barks. Over time this behavior strengthens to the point where the dog is pulling on the lead and willing to chase a decoy who threatens it at some distance away. What have we taught during this period before a dog even gets its first bite? First, it learns to start the action, not respond to some helper trying to get it to come out through pressure. Secondly, its actions become very similar to true defense reactions, where it postures and is willing to become aggressive against the helper. Thirdly, it sees the helper as a threat and not the source of a bite. It is only after the dog is strongly willing to be aggressive against the helper by chasing him away that we start formal bite training. There are two additional benefits from this work. The dog is doing the work voluntarily; no one is making it bark or become aggressive. Thus the stress that we worry about in young dogs is minimized in this beginning work, yet we are teaching some valuable lessons. The other benefit is that the dog will tell you when it is ready to advance to more demanding training. Since the work is voluntary, its temperament and maturity will clearly show the handler when it is time to move on; there is no guess work. Even though all of this is true, the trainer must be patient and let the dog's maturity dictate when it should move on to bite training. In some cases, handlers have waited through this phase with the dog giving little or no reaction until one day when the dog seemed to have put on a different temperament. The fact that a dog is slow during this early training means nothing and several slow beginners I have trained later became "V" winners in protection.

When the dog starts formal bite training, important elements of defense training come into play. Imagine a large circle with the dog and handler at the center. At some distance from the dog is a point where the dog will become aware of the threat of the helper and raise a warning. Beyond this point, the dog perceives no threat and will not react. This point is on the circle that forms the alert zone and its distance varies from dog to dog depending on maturity and temperament. Because of the earlier training, described above, the dog has learned to start the action by alerting to the helper on the edge of the alert zone. The beginning actions of the dog will be similar to those I described in the earlier example of true defense against a bear. The dog should bark, confront the helper head on and even show strong body posture. If the helper would move toward the dog, in a straight line, from the alert zone, we would see the dog continue to show aggressive like displays until some point where things start to change. The dog might stop barking, stop staring at the helper or even back up. This point, called the critical zone, is where the dog is considering shifting to another type of defense behavior, usually avoidance in the form of backing. We must remember that, to the dog, aggression and flight are legitimate defense responses, with either resulting in success for the dog. Unfortunately, avoidance is not an acceptable alternative for the dog trainer so we must find some way of teaching the dog that aggression is the only acceptable response. But, the trainer who understands defense behavior and the importance of both the alert and critical zones is able to capitalize on what he sees. In the first instance, he recognizes that the initial responses of the dog to the helper on the edge of the alert zone are only bluffing or displays that must change as the threat becomes greater. By carefully reading the dog, the incoming helper can read these changes and adjust his work to keep the dog strong and aggressive. Strangely enough this will involve bringing in prey work, the subject of the next installment.

Visit author Gary Patterson's Sirius Trainers web site.