At this time of year there are nights when the air is still and there’s nothing more peaceful than a quiet stroll in the moonlight – especially if you’re lucky enough to have a dog to accompany you. I find that going for a walk after dark is a very different experience with a dog by my side. For one thing, I relax and breathe more deeply than when I’m alone, which allows me to appreciate the fragrance of new-mown grass or whatever is blooming. Without an animal companion, I find myself walking with my arms crossed and my antennae on full alert. With a dog – whose “antennae,” I’m sure, are a hundred times more sensitive than mine – my arms swing freely and I take in whatever scents and sounds the summer breeze carries my way.
It doesn’t really matter if I’m walking down a country road or on a city street. And it doesn’t really matter if the dog I’m walking is a German shepherd or a poodle. In fact, when we had no dog in our own household, I used to “borrow” two poodles from a friend when the full moon gave me wanderlust. Something about the dogs’ presence just made me feel more secure on my walk.
Security is just one of the many gifts we get from our generous canine companions. For many people, it ranks right up there with their gifts of love, loyalty, comfort, and companionship. In fact, security has become one of the reasons new dog owners give for wanting a dog. Whether they come along to escort us on walks or stay behind to guard the house, dogs add to our peace of mind in a way that dead bolts and mace spray can’t these days.
So how do you train a dog to be a watchdog? The beauty of it is that you don’t have to. A dog’s territorial instinct and pack loyalty make it a natural at protecting both people and property. Dogs’ guarding abilities are probably the reason they were first domesticated some 10 thousand years ago.
When dogs became privileged members of the human “pack,” they became finely tuned to our whereabouts and state of being. They learned to register the subtle warning signs that people display when in distress or possible danger.
Dogs’ territorial instincts also lead them to patrol and protect whatever area they identify as theirs. They possess keen senses of hearing and smell along with a sharp ability to catalogue sounds and scents. They let us know with a bark when they register a whisper or whiff of anything unfamiliar in their territory. A friend of mine who lives alone says that before she had a dog, a noise in the night might leave her awake and nervous for hours. Now she feels more secure. “When my dog is calm I know not to worry,” she explains. “I know he’ll go investigate anything unusual.”
Some dogs perform better than others at both patrolling and warning. Older dogs, for instance, may not respond as early or as often as younger ones: As they age, many dogs suffer hearing loss, and they may also become sound sleepers that are hard to rouse from their rest. Dogs we describe as “high-strung” may respond to more than we care to know about, while mellower dogs may miss things. And certain breeds tend to define their borders in different ways than others. Some retrievers, for instance, will zealously guard a small area while remaining oblivious to activity beyond it. Collies and Dobermans, on the other hand, are famous for regularly patrolling the perimeter of “their” property. Behavioral differences are also a factor. Training a dog not to bark (admittedly not an easy task, depending on the breed) can keep a high-strung dog from voicing its distress when less than legitimate, but may also prevent it from warning you of real danger.
How a dog looks and sounds certainly makes a difference. Yet, though a large dog with a loud bark is more off-putting than a wee pup with a high-pitched yelp, police say that even a small dog can discourage would-be intruders.
The day after someone tried to break into her home, a neighbor of mine came home with a dog. The police officer investigating the crime recommended it. “He told me a barking dog was the best protection I could get,” she said. Domino turned out to be a friendly Labrador-shepherd mix. So gentle was Domino that if an intruder offered him a hand, my neighbor suspected, the dog would probably wag his tail and lick the stranger’s hand.
But Domino possessed two key qualities: He was a light sleeper and a loud barker. Sometimes all it takes to discourage a burglar, law enforcement officials say, is the sound of barking. Many a dog’s bark is truly worse than its bite – but few thieves want to test the theory. The sound alone will dampen the spirits of most burglars and send them looking for easier pickings elsewhere.
It’s not simply the fear of being bitten that stops intruders from breaking into a house protected by a pooch, one police officer explained. To escape detection, prowlers depend on the cover of silence and want to avoid the sudden attention a barking dog may bring. Thieves have no way of anticipating who might respond to the barking by turning on a light, sounding an alarm, or calling the authorities.
That’s why it doesn’t take an attack dog to secure your home. A watchdog doesn’t have to be vicious or trained to “sic ‘em.” The potential villain’s fear of being stormed by your canine companion is threat enough. In fact, trained guard dogs make problematic pets. An animal trainer once told me that having a trained attack dog is like keeping a loaded gun around the house – there’s always a chance it could “go off” accidentally. Training a dog to cause injury is contradictory to nearly everything else that we train companion animals to do.
That’s why, as good as dogs are at boosting our sense of security, security alone is not reason enough to keep one. An electronic alarm system is certainly easier, and probably cheaper, in the long run. Feeding, exercising, cleaning up after, and providing regular veterinary care for a dog are much larger commitments than simply paying bills and pushing buttons. Companionship is probably the only reward that can justify the time and energy it takes to tend a dog through its entire life. The sense of security a dog provides is just one more of the many rewards pets offer us.