If you ask people in the dog training and protection dog industry, “Can protection dogs also be service dogs?”, the answer will likely be “No.” Why? Because most industry professionals do not see how a dog can possibly perform both jobs. After all, protection dogs and service dogs have very different jobs, right? In one job they must be alert, attentive and protective. And in the other job they must be focused, neutral and ready to work at a moment’s notice. But are those two jobs so different after all? The industry believes one dog cannot do both jobs – safely and well – and I disagree. I disagree with the industry’s assumption of what a dog can and can’t do. Both jobs have remarkable similarities with only one difference – intentional protection training.
Key traits of protection dogs and service dogs
Let’s take a closer look at some of the key traits required for dogs to thrive in these two very specific lines of work:
Protection dogs and service dogs must have impeccable temperaments. They must be calm, social and neutral depending on what the situation warrants. When they are out with their handlers in public places, they must be calm, no matter how crowded, chaotic or stressful the environment is.
When they are in a social setting – like a child’s birthday party or a holiday dinner – they must be social and comfortable with anything and everything that happens. Screaming children. Toys being thrown back and forth. Families laughing and joking with each other.
And when the unexpected happens – like a drunk or disorderly person walking through the streets or an off leash dog approaching without warning or maybe a busy waiter stepping on their tail – both protection dogs and service dogs must be neutral. They learn this neutrality through training; over the course or a year or two, with the right training program, they see it all and do it all before going to their handlers. Nothing is a surprise, and nothing phases them. Not many dogs are able to be calm, social and neutral to this degree – it’s an unattainable goal for most dogs – but well-trained protection dogs and service dogs encapsulate these traits with ease due to their extensive training and good upbringing.
Protection dogs and service dogs must have the right amount of drive. I have found that dogs, on average, with moderate drive – not low and not high – are typically best-suited for the job. Moderate drive dogs have enough drive to get the job done without being ‘too much dog’ for their handlers. Let’s break down the types of drives needed and how they function within the job.
First up in prey drive, also called play drive. In protection work, when the dog is working, prey drive is utilized for chasing down bad guys. And when he’s not, prey drive is how we teach fun activities like fetch and tug. It’s the dog’s desire to play, chase, grab and shake prey. In service work, moderate prey drive is used for task training. Tasks like object retrieval like picking up a dropped phone or credit card, push/pull functions like opening the refrigerator or pushing a life-alert button all rely on the dog’s prey drive to motivate and reinforce the dog’s desire to do the task, whether a physical reward is present or not. And, of course, when service dogs are off-duty they use prey drive to let loose playing fetch or chasing their favorite toy.
Food drive is a key drive used in protection training and service dog tasking. It’s how we shape obedience, teach tasks and reinforce desirable behavior. A dog with moderate (or high) food drive is motivated to train, enjoys the work he’s doing and can be easily conditioned to continue working even after the food reward is faded out. So long as high food drive is not coupled with food possession (also called resource guarding), which, left unchecked, could lead to conflict, it’s a highly desirable drive. Used correctly, food drive is a highly desirable training motivator.
Pack drive is a dog’s desire to be with his person or people. It’s the glue that bonds dogs and humans. It’s the reason protection dogs stay close to their people and would defend them at a moment’s notice. It’s the reason service dogs are attentive to their handler’s needs, both physical and emotional. It’s how they recognize and alert to changes in heart rate, insulin levels, anxiety and panic attacks. Pack drive is essential; it bonds the team and helps them operate as one unit.
And lastly, there’s defense drive. All dogs have defense drive. The question is, if you think of genetics like a deck of cards, you must consider this: “Through genetics and training, where in that deck of cards does the dog’s propensity for defense lay?” Is it at the top of the deck? Is the dog highly defensive? Or at the bottom of the deck? Or in the middle?
A safe and discriminating protection dog has moderate defense drive. And through proper training – protection training based on that defense drive – you can quickly default to that natural defense drive to rise to the occasion, should someone threaten his home or family. But when it’s not in use, that defense drive is dormant. And the dog is clear-headed, calm and controlled.
A good protection dog has the ability to defend his home and family, but he isn’t picking fights and stirring up problems. He has a sort of calm confidence. That’s what makes his presence a deterrent in and of itself.
So, what then, about service dogs? The only real difference between protection dogs and service dogs, when it comes to the concept of defense drive, is that protection dogs are selected for moderate defense drive – and that drive is brought to the surface through training – whereas service dogs generally possess low defense drive. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have it. It’s just lower in their genetic deck of cards, and it has not been called upon in training. That doesn’t mean the dog isn’t capable of defending itself. It just means he or she is not trained to react to threats and threat scenarios. This could be a positive or a negative, depending on how you look at it.
Anyone can pick up a gun and hold it. But that gun is safest in the hands of someone who his knowledgeable and experienced with guns. Someone who understands what it can do and handles it with caution and care. A protection dog who has been trained properly in defense and is safe and discriminating is much safer than a dog who may have more defense than you realize but hasn’t been trained to use it correctly. Both dogs have the same ability to bark, bite and protect – it’s in their DNA.
The question is, which one is trained to recognize it, control it and handle it safely?
And finally, both protection dogs and service dogs must be bombproof environmentally. They must possess a level of confidence that is out of this world. Why? Because a well-loved protection dog is going to go everywhere (that he can legally go) and do everything that his family wants to do with him. This might include busy parks, boat rides, flying on a private jet and everything in between. Planes, trains and automobiles.
A well-versed protection dog must believe he is bigger than any situation or location or obstacle that crosses his path. And in the moment of truth, if duty calls, he must stop at nothing to protect his loved ones.
This same requirement for enormous confidence – a level of self-esteem that only a small percentage of dogs possess – is also expected of service dogs. That confidence is required in drive, and out of drive, during everyday life and in compromising situations when their owner is at-risk and needs them to alert and work for them. Service dogs must ignore everything in the environment and focus on their handler, first and foremost.
I believe that dogs must be born with this kind of confidence. Protection dogs. Service dogs. It’s either in them or it’s not. A dog who lacks a little bit of confidence, but has a quick recovery rate, can overcome any minor issues and reach a satisfactory level of confidence for service work, but to do both jobs, I believe high confidence must be part of that dog’s DNA. The dogs doing both jobs need to believe they are bigger than the world around them. And that’s not something that training can do sufficiently. Training can mask fear and it can help overcome confidence issues, but it cannot make a dog something it is not.
Both jobs require dogs that are the best of the best.
The million dollar question
But protection dogs are trained to bite people! So how can a protection dog possibly be a service dog? Here’s the thing- all dogs can bite. We are not teaching protection dogs how to bite. We’re showing them situations in which it is allowable, and their duty, to protect their handler. We’re showing them how to bark on command and deter a threat. Where to bite and when to release. We’re putting control on their natural protection instinct and teaching them to think and respond to commands in drive. And we’re doing so very carefully, with just the right amount of protection done at just the right time – not too much, and not too little.
And the right dog, the dog who has good genetics and has been raised as a social, calm and neutral dog, can safely do both jobs. They can size up a situation in a split second and discriminate between friend and fo. After all, good protection dogs are going to be neutral 99.99% of the time. And most service dogs are going to look twice and size up a threat. The difference is that – with the right training and with the right dog – you can have both: A safe and sound protection dog who is also task trained to be a safe and sound service dog.
Done right, a protection dog can “turn on” and “turn off” to a threat. Like flipping a switch. He can bite the threat if you say so, or he can get petted by the guy too. It’s all on your command and based on the dog’s intuitive ability to read body language and size up the situation.
After all, protection training is simply bringing out a dog’s dormant protective instincts. There are plenty of service dogs – be it Labs, German Shepherds, Poodles, even Goldens and Chihuahuas – who have defense drive naturally. Protection training is simply taking that ability, bringing it to the surface, and honing it for possible future use. Again, you are not teaching any dog to bite. They already know how to do that. You’re simply teaching them that, possibly someday, they will need to use this training to protect and defend their handler.
It takes the right dog with the right DNA to do both.
It also takes a trainer who understands that, yes, you have to know exactly what you’re doing. You have to have years of experience working with puppies, social dogs, aggressive dogs, protection dogs and service dogs – to read and understand a dog well enough to teach that special dog to do both jobs.
I firmly believe that the vast majority of trainers (99% of them, perhaps) cannot teach a dog to do both. And I firmly believe that the vast majority of dogs (90%?) cannot do both. That means that only 1% of trainers can teach 10% of qualified dogs to be a strong, social and safe protection dog and a go-anywhere, do-anything task-trained service dog. And that’s probably why the industry believes it can’t be done.
And let’s not forget the final piece of the puzzle. It takes the right handler who understands and respects their dog’s many abilities. A protection-trained dog should never go to a child to be his or her service dog. A physically capable adult who is a good handler, and wants both, can have a dog that can do both.
The bottom line
It takes a special dog. And the experience of a thousand dogs for the trainer to know when she has that special dog. And the best way to do it is to do it intentionally- with a carefully selected puppy from sound lines who is then raised and trained by a professional who has experience with all aspects of working dogs. Make the dog a lover first, then a fighter, and carefully measure the right amount of training to do at just the right time. Think service dog first. Then bring out the protection drive.
A puppy must be extensively socialized and exposed to the good world around him, and must have a talented trainer who can show him both jobs thoughtfully and appropriately. And, once the protection is introduced, focus exclusively on service work. Let protection be something that’s in the back of his mind, and prioritize neutrality and tasking.
Expecting a dog to do both is difficult, but not impossible. With the right dog, and the right training, a dog can be “dual purpose” – both a protection dog and a service dog. Our German Shepherds are living proof of it. Every single one of them can do both jobs. And I don’t say that lightly; my standards are extremely high. But our protection dogs have blown me away with their intelligence, temperament and abilities. And a couple of them are cross-training into service work.
I am speaking from first-hand experience on this topic, because my personal service dogs are also protection trained. Zoey and Havok are calm, confident and neutral and possess the correct level of drives to do both jobs and do them well. And I know numerous other protection/service dogs who do both.
They are special dogs.
When you consider the temperament, drives and confidence needed for protection work and service dog work, you’ll realize that there are many similarities and only one reason difference – intentional protection training. And let’s be honest, if someone needs a service dog due to PTSD from harassment or physical or sexual assault, that someone could absolutely benefit from the peace of mind that comes from knowing that their service dog is also protection trained and will have their back if someone with bad intentions approaches. Or, if someone has mobility issues, wouldn’t they want a dog who can protect them against an attacker? A protection-trained service dog could meet many needs.
An extra set of very capable eyes and ears.
A service dog with added abilities.
A threat deterrent whose bark alone could be enough to stave off a threat.
A dog who won’t hesitate to step between the bad guy and his loved one.
A dog that can prevent harassment and assault from ever happening again.
So, why is it that the dog training industry limits a dog’s potential?
I understand and fully support the notion that most dogs cannot do both. But that does not mean that no dogs can do both.
We need to open our minds to the possibility that dogs can do more than we think they can do.
It’s time to break through the glass ceiling.
With the right dog, the sky’s the limit!