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Protection and aggression are not the same

Not long ago, a woman called me, very upset. She'd just dropped her dog off at a shelter — the same shelter from which she had adopted him only a few weeks earlier.

When I asked why she had returned him, she described what were obvious signs of severe aggressive tendencies.

When I asked why she had taken him home with her in the first place, she said, "For protection."

OK. "For protection" makes sense. A lot of people bring a dog into the family for protection. But protection and aggression are not the same things.

You don't want your iron-jawed protector protecting your home and belongings from you and your family. And you don't want to have to protect yourself and your family from little Cujo.

Crime is a reality, and we all want to feel safe. And we all have our ideas of how to secure that feeling of safety. Politicians and pop stars hire bodyguards for protection, but that'll cost an arm and a leg. There's the home alarm system — just a notch above the car alarm in effectiveness. And some folks keep a gun near the nightstand — intimidating, for sure, but not for everyone. Still others get a dog.

If you're leaning toward the latter, there are some things you should understand before diving in.

First, protection dogs should be social, friendly and loving — with everyone. What? What about growling? Snarling? Frothing at the mouth?

Anyone who argues that Cujo was just doing his job should be forever banned from the privilege of dog ownership. Protection dogs are not mean. They're highly trained, physically conditioned and mentally alert. They're also incredibly loyal and loving — when properly trained, socialized and treated with love, praise and affection.

Which brings me to my next point: Protect your protector by keeping him inside the house at night, when those with bad intentions are most likely to lurk in nearby shadows.

Dogs will be dogs, and even the most sophisticated and intelligent watchdog finds it hard to resist a juicy sirloin. If some ne'er-do-well drops an enticing hunk of beef seasoned with arsenic over your fence, your pal and protector won't be around to help you when you need it. So keep your dog inside — where he can keep you safe and you can keep him safe.

In thinking about a dog in terms of protection, ask yourself what you really want and what you really need. Do you want a protection dog, trained like a police dog, or do you really want a burglar alarm with a heart?

Unless you're in some serious hot water but don't yet qualify for the Witness Protection Program, what most of us really need is a dog who will raise a little Cain if someone's scratching on our window in the dead of night. As Waylon Jennings once sang, "You wanna get the rabbit out the L-O-G, you gotta make a commotion like a D-O-G."

Mr. Burglar makes a small noise, little Fluffy makes a big ruckus, and Mr. B has to pause and ask himself, "Do I feel lucky?"

But if you think you really do want and need a protection dog, first carefully consider the breed. Certain breeds are better suited to provide that kind of service than others, and you might be surprised by what you find.

A 90-pound Bloodhound asleep at the foot of your stairs might look capable of doing some serious damage, but chances are a clown car full of burglars could step right over him, empty your jewelry drawers and head out without so much as a "Woof!" A 7-pound, yappy Yorkshire terrier, on the other hand, could easily be Mr. B's worst nightmare.

Do your research. Decide what kind of protection you need. Be aware that professionally trained protection dogs are more expensive. Your local police station may be able to provide additional information on this option if you feel it's the one for you.

Whatever you do, know the difference between protection and aggression. Protection is a legitimate reason to get a dog, but there is no reason at all to live with aggression.

Woof!

Dog trainer Matthew "Uncle Matty" Margolis is co-author of 18 books about dogs, a behaviorist, a popular radio and television guest, and host of the PBS series "WOOF! It's a Dog's Life!" Read all of Uncle Matty's columns at the Creators Syndicate Web site at www.creators.com, and visit him at www.unclematty.com. Send your questions to dearuncle.gazette@unclematty.com or by mail to Uncle Matty at P.O. Box 3300, Diamond Springs, CA 95619. © Creators Syndicate Inc.