Protection training is essential if you want your large breed dog to provide personal and/or property protection. Otherwise, the natural protective instincts of some of the large breeds may result in an overprotective and dangerous dog.
And when it comes to protection dog training, timing is everything. Starting their specialized training too early or too late can undermine their ability to protect effectively, as well as being properly socialized and obedient adults.
While there is no one-size-fits-all answer, there are some general guidelines that professional dog trainers follow. These are based on maturity level, breed, and individual temperament.
Many large breed dogs are naturally inclined towards protection work and may be ready at a younger age, while the giant breeds require a bit more time due to their slower maturity.
Understanding Protection Dog Training
Protection training involves teaching dogs how to protect their owners, family members, and property. Typically, protection training is primarily for the larger and giant breed dogs, as size is an important component of the ability to protect.
This type of training is not for all dogs and requires careful consideration before starting. Some giant breeds, such as the Caucasian Shepherd, Anatolian Shepherd, and Cane Corso, are born with ferocious protective instincts which must be toned down and channeled properly with protection training.
It’s also important to understand that protection training is not the same as aggression training. Protection training seeks to bring out and enhance an instinct that to some degree is present in almost all dogs.
Aggression training seeks to remove an unwanted behavior, which is the tendency of some dogs to see everything as a threat and immediately go into aggressive mode.
Protection training involves teaching dogs to recognize and respond to threats in a controlled and disciplined manner. It is essential to ensure that the dog is well-trained and can differentiate between a real threat and a non-threatening situation.
But regardless of the breed, the most important decision to make with protection training is when to begin.
The Right Time to Begin Protection Training
Starting Too Early Can Backfire
Although protective instincts can appear in puppies as young as four or five months of age, large and giant breed dogs won’t fully develop until many months later.
Beginning protection training before a dog has reached adequate physical and mental maturity can result in unintended consequences. It can cause behavioral issues such as fear, aggression, and anxiety.
The stress and discipline of too-early protection training can actually be detrimental to your dog’s health. It must be mature enough physically and mentally to start the intense obedience and control exercises involved in protection work.
Their first 12 to 18 months should focus on basic obedience, socialization, and building confidence. This ensures they have a solid temperament and foundation skill set before adding in protection-specific training.
For giant breeds, such as Caucasian Shepherds, Cane Corsos, and Tibetan Mastiffs, 18-24 months may be needed to provide enough time for them to fully mature enough for protection training. The naturally protective instincts of these breeds can then be refined to produce the best guardian dog.
Starting Too Late Can Also Backfire
Just as starting too young can backfire, waiting too long to begin protection training for large-breed dogs can also be a problem. Their natural tendencies become ingrained when they mature.
For large dogs, after 18 months their temperament and behavior patterns start to solidify. It becomes progressively harder to instill the discipline and control required in a working protection dog.
It may become too late for them to properly learn how to clearly act in regard to protection and respond properly to threats based on commands, not just instinct.
This can be particularly dangerous with the giant so-called “guardian” dogs. Some of these are giant breeds whose natural instincts are to instinctively and immediately neutralize a perceived threat. They need intensive training to recognize a perceived threat from an actual threat.
For the giant breeds, beginning protection training at 18-24 months of age provides enough time for them to fully mature.
After that, it may be impossible to refine their protective instincts enough to prevent them from becoming dangerously protective.
The Exact Age Depends on the Dog
Bear in mind that these are general guidelines, based primarily on the size of the dog. The exact recommended age for beginning protection training depends on each individual dog.
The rate of physical and mental development can vary depending on breed, lineage, environment, and natural ability.
To determine if your dog is ready to start protection training, most experts recommend first consulting with your veterinarian and a professional dog trainer. They can conduct temperament tests and evaluate if your dog is ready emotionally and has sufficient obedience training.
If so, it’s best to begin protection training gradually. The intensive nature of this type of training is best when introduced slowly. This will increase your odds of success and help avoid risking your dog’s well-being.
Physical Maturity Should Also be Considered
All puppies require time for their bodies to mature before taking part in any activity that could stress their developing joints, bones, and ligaments. Protection training places intense physical demands on dogs, so starting before full growth could increase their risk of orthopedic injuries.
The large, and especially the giant, breeds are particularly vulnerable because they grow more slowly. For example, a Mastiff reaches full adult size at around 3 years old. Beginning intense training with them any earlier than 18-24 months would be detrimental.
Conversely, most large breeds like German Shepherds and Doberman Pinchers finish growing by 12-15 months old, making this a sensible age range for them to start.
Mental Maturity is Just as Important
Physical maturity alone does not mean a dog is ready for protection work. Their mental maturity is equally important in determining their readiness.
A dog must first have sufficient obedience training and impulse control. They must be able to think clearly and respond appropriately to commands during the stress of protection scenarios.
Large-breed puppies typically do not achieve the necessary mental maturity for training until at least 12–18 months old. Some breeds renowned for their working abilities, like German Shepherds and Malinois, may demonstrate enough mental acuity by 10 months old. However, it’s ideal to wait until 12 months or older before beginning protection exercises.
Regardless of Age, Two Things Must be Done First
Regardless of the right age at which to begin protection training, two things must be done first:
- Obedience Training
If your dog has not been exposed early to other dogs and people, it will be hard for them to learn what proper non-protective behavior looks like. This is why socialization is so important.
You should introduce your dog early, ideally as early as 7-8 weeks of age, to various environments, people, and other animals. This helps them learn that not all things are threats.
This is important to establish positive behavior and a well-rounded temperament. A well-socialized protection dog should not only be a fierce and loyal guardian but should also know how to exhibit restraint and gentleness when appropriate.
Before you train your dog to be protective, you must first train it to be obedient. Laying this important foundation helps create a strong bond between you and your dog, built on mutual respect and trust.
Basic commands such as sit, stay, and come lay the groundwork for the more advanced protection training. It can also instill confidence in your dog, enabling them to excel in their protection training.
A dog well-trained in obedience will be easier to manage and control. These become important factors during protection training.
What Breeds Make the Best Protection Dogs?
When it comes to protection training, not all dog breeds are created equally.
The Large Breeds
Some large breeds are naturally more inclined towards protection work. These include:
These breeds are known for their intelligence, strength, and loyalty, making them excellent candidates for protection training.
Other large breeds like the Great Dane, Saint Bernard, Golden Retriever, and Labrador may not be as common for protection work but can still be trained successfully with the right approach. These dogs may have a gentler temperament, but they still possess the size and strength required for protection.
The Giant Breeds
Then we have giant breeds, particularly those known as “guardian” dogs. This comes from their background, where they were originally bred to guard livestock against large predators. They include:
These massive breeds can weigh upwards of 175 pounds or more and are basically mountains of muscle. They also have some of the strongest bite forces of any breed.
Due to their guardian backgrounds, these breeds have intense natural protective instincts. Considering their size and immense strength, very specialized protection training by an experienced professional is required.
Properly trained, these giant breeds are far and away the best protection dogs you can own. That said, you should carefully consider if you are willing to take on the responsibility of managing a dog this strong.
Experts will tell you that giant protective breeds are not a good choice for 99.9 % of the population.
Who Should Do Your Protection Dog Training?
For the large breeds, a very experienced dog owner may be capable of doing basic protection training, especially if they have prior experience with a protective breed. However, we feel it’s always best to use a dog trainer for this type of work.
For the giant guardian breeds, it’s essential that you use a professional dog trainer who has extensive protection dog experience.
In addition to their size and strength, the giant guardian breeds tend to be stubborn and independent. They react based on their instincts, rather than instruction. It takes a significant amount of training to overcome this.
If you don’t, there’s a good chance you end up with a dangerously overprotective dog that won’t let anyone near you.
Finally, if your primary goal is for a protection dog, it’s best that a professional trainer also does your obedience training. This way, the proper foundation can be laid before protection training begins. This gives you the best chance for protection training to be more successful.