Understanding Guardian Instinct in Aussies

The first Australian Shepherd I ever met was a beautiful little blue merle named Jelly Bean with two blue eyes.

Jelly Bean lived in a house that shared a chain link fence with the path on my walk to elementary school. She saw hundreds of people pass by her yard every day and had developed a knack for scaring the crap out of us by attacking the fence as we went by. It was unavoidable, though. She was the house that was literally bordering the school’s parking lot.

Liking dogs, however, after passing her enough times, I started talking to her as I went by and eventually, after two years as we both matured and came to understand each other, Jelly Bean and I were friends. She would flip over along the fence to get her belly scratched and when her owners moved, I missed her not being in my neighborhood anymore.

I tell you this story because you’re probably reading this because your dog is barking at strangers from the house, the yard, or the car like he or she is a wild animal and you’re frustrated.

What is Guardian Instinct?

Like most things, this instinct exists on a spectrum. There are Aussies out there that would show an intruder your valuables, and there are Aussies that would do everything in their power to stop what they perceive as a threat – and sometimes what a threat is to them is not a threat to you.

Guardian instinct is the feeling a dog has of possession and protection of space or things. Generally Aussies have a strong understanding of the borders of your home or property. Beyond that, depending on the strength of their instinct and the messages they’ve received from you they may identify other territories: their crate, food dish, a room in your house, your car, your child, you.

How Does Guardian Instinct Manifest?

Some have no guardian instinct, some activate it only in times they perceive to be truly threatening (aggressive animals, aggressive people), but I find that most Aussies have a little bit more than that. Most times, in the way that Jelly Bean did – by protecting her fence line from people passing by. Your dog may want to bark at people in the car, or passing by their crate at a dog trial.

This scale continues all the way up to being too aggressive to manage – the dog identifies anything different as a potential threat and does everything it can to neutralize it, with or without owner assistance. Dogs on this end of the spectrum are undesirable, whereas dogs on the other (with no guardian instinct) are increasing because many people find no use in the guardian instinct in today’s urban/suburban environments.  People get into trouble when they see one kind of dog and get one on the opposite end of the spectrum expecting that type.

What is Ideal Guardian Instinct – As Manifested in Aussies?

Honestly, to each his or her own on this – many people are happy to see it go extinct, and some want more aggression than warning, but the more universally appropriate guardian instinct is what would be most useful in the majority of situations:  a dog that alerts threatening situations (ie, not just someone walking by), stands its ground, and is willing to back up the threat if it is escalated. Ideally, there is space for the owner/family to react before the dog does, even in escalated situations.

How often do you see this in Aussies? Not that much – Aussies are not bred specifically for this behavior, which is why the instinct exists on a spectrum – it’s in there, but how much or how little you end up with depends on the dogs’ background. Things can get really complicated when guardian instinct interacts with fear/defense aggression, as well.

What Do You Do With Guardian Instinct Inappropriate to Your Lifestyle?

1. Accept that this behavior is not “your fault” most likely, but something that’s a part of most Aussies’ temperament. Most dogs with this kind of “fence fighting” behavior really don’t mean it – it’s a game because they are restrained from truly interacting with the strangers. It certainly becomes a problem if your dog is more on the “backing up the threat” end of the spectrum, but the vast majority of barking Aussies are just having a good time with the instinct they have to both alert and drive away strangers.

2. Understand that’s a part of your dog. Aussies were developed on ranches in wide, open expanses where that barking, charging instinct was super valuable. It kept invaders off the ranch and the family and livestock safe.  It still does, too. A burglar is less likely to target your suburban dog-barking house than a quiet one.  Aussies who back down from threats are not useful in these situations, so I believe you will find a lot more problems on the aggressive end of the scale than the terribly shy end.

3. Yes, it can annoy the neighbors. If this is something intolerable to you or your neighbors, specifically mention the need to have a dog on the lower end of the guardian spectrum when you look for a puppy or adult. Breeders should know their lines and adult dogs should display the behavior (or lack of) quite readily if put in a situation where they have something to guard.

4. Don’t breed your dog if it’s unacceptable to you – guardian instinct is most certainly inherited and the dog will pass it on.