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How protection dogs "Earn a living"

What They Do

Protection dogs by definition are trained to alert to and deter human or animal threats. The job of protection often demands that the dog works closely with its handler to assess a situation, react and move quickly, remain determined in the face of danger, and possess a balance of stamina, power, and agility. Protection dogs could be required at any point to sprint, jump over obstacles, turn sharply at top speed, scale walls and fences, move on unstable surfaces, and perform powerful bite and hold maneuvers, all of which can produce both significant mental stress and the physical stress of excessive biomechanical forces on the dog’s mouth, joints, and spinal column.

Breeds typically used for protection are highly intelligent, energetic, and reactive and have the body conformation to develop the fitness capacity necessary to meet the physical demands of the job. A common scenario for a protection dog is for law enforcement backup and possible apprehension of a fleeing suspect. The handler typically loads the dog (if not already on patrol riding in the back of the police car) and heads to the scene. The dog may become increasingly excited for the anticipated work and the thrill of the chase, which could lead to stereotypic behaviors such as rapid circling in the travel kennel and excessive vocalizations. Once on the scene, the dog may need to approach the situation slowly and methodically with the handler or may be required to move explosively into action. The dog may have to sprint long distances and conclude with a physical encounter engaging the suspect, which may include bite apprehension. The hours of proper training and physical conditioning come into play at this time, and the goal of the team is to successfully meet the needs of the situation without injury to dog or handler. Once the situation is resolved, the team then must return to a calmer, cooled-down state and prepare for the next challenging situation.

Characteristics and Handling

The characteristics needed to build a successful protection dog can present a challenge for the veterinary personnel caring for the canine team. These dogs may have behaviors such as increased reactivity or potential aggression in response to treatments that may cause discomfort. Always incorporate the handler, use low-stress handling, and consider preemptive sedative and analgesic drugs as necessary, knowing that they could collectively temporarily influence the dog’s working performance. For the safety of the veterinary team, muzzles should be used when working with protection dogs to help avoid bite injuries. Even a muzzled dog may strike with full head force (known as “muzzlewhipping”), which can lead to some painful concussive injuries to veterinary personnel. In light of these risks, the inclination is to often overhandle protection dogs, which makes them more reactive and aggressive. This is a common scenario that emphasizes the importance of low-stress handling techniques. Experienced veterinary personnel and dog handlers will develop a coordinated and calm flow of movements around the dog while performing the physical exam and various procedures and treatments. The handler should be consulted frequently in developing a hands-on plan for working with the canine partner. For example, it is particularly important to discuss rewards or any food or treat techniques to be used during the visit. Furthermore, it is critical not to separate the handler from the dog unless absolutely necessary. If so, the veterinary team should plan to administer sedative drugs before separating the two parties and to ensure the handler is present during recovery.


These guidelines are supported by generous educational grants from the AAHA Foundation,
Boehringer Ingelheim Animal Health USA Inc., CareCredit, Merck Animal Health, and Zoetis.

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