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History of Guard Dogs | Protection Dogs Worldwide

At some point approximately 40000 years ago, wolves began to undergo a process of domestication resulting in them evolving into dogs. While the Oxford Dictionary defines domestication as “The process of taming an animal and keeping it as a pet or on a farm”, a potentially more expansive way of viewing this process is humans selectively breeding wild animals in a way which preserves specifically useful characteristics. For example, wild ass were domesticated into donkeys for their ability to travel long distances carrying heavy loads, whereas sheep, goat, and cattle all provide meat, milk, leather, and fur. In dogs, it is likely that the earliest and first desirable features which led to their domestication were their ability to hunt, and potential for guarding and providing security.

Although it was initially believed that humans took wolf pups from their litters and proactively trained them to fulfil certain roles, it is unlikely that wolves were domesticated into dogs in this way. Wolves are significantly less trainable and sociable than modern-day dogs. Unless they are first exposed to humans and socialised from approximately nineteen days old, they become virtually untrainable. Given how time intensive training young animals is, and how early humans in this era were hunter-gatherers whose primary concern was basic survival, this thesis makes little sense.

A more realistic thesis is that as humans gradually became more settled, they began to discard food waste and scraps on the fringes of where they lived. As wolves will naturally scavenge to obtain food, human settlements offered a potentially attractive source of food. However, given how wolves are naturally scared of humans, how was this fear overcome? Most wild animals possess a “flight distance”, which is most simply defined as how far they will allow a potential danger to approach them before they flee it. While predators are this stimuli’s most common trigger, unknown scents, sounds, and sights may also cause it, even in predatory species. To this end, it is not unreasonable to assume that wolves’ flight distance is triggered by humans as they are an unknown entity rather than an inherently dangerous one.

At any rate, flight distances mostly kept wolves away from humans and human settlements. However, it has been suggested that what began to bridge the gap between wolf and dog were wolves with weak flight distance instincts, meaning that they were not inhibited from approaching humans. It is also believed that these wolves were naturally both the more sociable of their species, and able empathise or engage with humans. As they were already relatively physically close to humans, these tendencies made them more appealing to us, potentially explaining why we were drawn to one of nature’s apex predators. While merely a theory, this is seemingly supported by experiments where scientists seeking to domesticate wild foxes observed that the subjects most comfortable with approaching humans were also good at picking up on social cues.

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As this domestication process continued over the course of thousands of years in different parts of the worlds, the utility and working potential of wolves – and dogs as they were becoming – became ever more apparent. One example of this is how as a form of warning to members of their pack, wolves will bark. If channelled correctly, this behaviour offers obvious benefits to humans, and is likely to have contributed to the decisions to train guard and watch dogs.

While the point at which humans actively decided to use dogs for guarding and security purposes is unclear, it can be said with a degree of certainty that they have existed since the classical antiquity. Ancient epic legends originating in Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq) describe large breeds used for guarding livestock against the often smaller local wolves, and are extensively featured in Mesopotamian art. Mesopotamian dogs are also known to have protected their masters’ homes, and featured on protective amulets. As dogs were common and revered in ancient Egypt (the death of a family dog was formally mourned by practices such as shaving eyebrows), it is not unreasonable to assume that they also fulfilled protective roles in addition to providing companionship and support while hunting.

It was in ancient Greece, though, that the recording of dogs for guarding and protective purposes was first made most explicitly. The gates of the underworld (Hades) were guarded by a three-headed dog called Cerberus, and the philosopher Plato references a good dog being able to distinguish between friend and foe in The Republic. One ancient Greek tribe in particular – the Molossians – is closely associated with guard and protection dogs, and was instrumental in developing the Molossus breed. Molossus dogs are now extinct, but were large pastoral guardians, and are the ancestor of today’s Mastiff-type breeds. Molossus dogs were used as both personal and home guardians, and also at times of war when they deployed alongside armies on the battlefield.

In Ancient Rome, guard dogs were not uncommon within the urban home setting either. When Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD, it destroyed and buried the town of Pompeii in metres of volcanic ash. One of the effects this had was to effectively preserve significant amounts of evidence of what daily life in the town and throughout that period will have looked like, and this included how ancient Romans related to dogs. In fact, one of the most artefacts recovered from Pompeii is a mosaic of a leashed dog and a warning stating “BEWARE OF THE DOG”. The Pompeii mosaic depicts a large black dog, crouching in what may have been preparation to bite an intruder. It is clearly intimidating, and likely supports the theory that guard and watch dogs were present in the town. Similar mosaics have also been found across the town, and it is highly likely that these dogs were Molossers. The remains of a dog chained to a temple have also been discovered, and archaeologists believe that as humans fled Mount Vesuvius’s eruption, they left a dog behind to protect their holy site.

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As the Romans colonised and settled parts of Europe, North Africa, and West Asia, they bought elements of their culture with them. As Molossers offered their owners a strong sense of security, it is also likely that they were transported across the nascent Roman Empire. This lead to a number of Mastiff-type dogs developing in these regions. It is also important to differentiate between “types” and “breeds” of dogs at this stage. The idea of discrete dog breeds only significantly developed in the 19th Century, so it is from that point where individual dogs we might recognise today first truly came into being.

One of the oldest breeds of guard dog which appeared around this period was the German Rottweiler. A large Molosser-like cattle-driving, the Rottweiler historically herded livestock to and from markets, but also protected merchants’ money at the same time. A combination of the Rottweiler’s intelligence, ability to be controlled by a handler, natural tendency to bond with humans, and protectiveness made them excellent at guarding and protection. In many ways, the Rottweiler offers a kind of standard against which other guard dogs can be compared against.

Even before the Rottweiler was recognised as a discrete breed, other Molosser-type dogs were evolving and being very successfully used across Europe. British gamekeepers had long kept Mastiffs to protect stately homes and their expansive grounds, while what eventually became the Cane Corso evolved as a general purpose farm dog in Italy, specialising in protection, hunting, and herding. A number of these guarding breeds evolved in an “organic” manner, that is naturally according to the working needs of the humans who employed them. A number of these breeds and types share common backgrounds in bull-baiting and dog-fighting, as these employments required high levels of tenacity, pain resistance, and controlled aggression, which all have a transferrable application to guarding and protection. Concurrently in northern Europe, pastoral guardians were slowly evolving, especially in the borderlands between France, Belgium, Germany, and Holland.

As breed standards became more commonly accepted in the 19th Century, breeders either sought to create entirely new types of dogs, or refine pre-existing ones. For example, the Dobermann Pinscher is one “new” dog breed, and was specifically created by a German tax and debt collector who sought a guardian to accompany him during his unpopular work. To this end, he created a new breed by crossing Rottweilers, Weimeraners, Greyhounds, German Pinschers, and the Beauceron. The end result was a formidable protection dog, which is still popular today. Similarly, the first modern German Shepherd Dog was only formally registered as late as 1891, and followed standardisation efforts among generic local northern European pastoral guardian dogs.

The Americas provide interesting case studies on the development of guard dogs as well. The modern American Bulldog is a product of historic English bulldogs and baiting dogs which evolved into a working breed intended to protect property, and control large vermin such as wild swine. In Brazil, Mastiffs brought by European settlers were crossed with Bloodhounds to create the Fila Brasileiro. The Fila is a formidable guard dog, and legendary for its aggression, suspicion of all strangers, and protectiveness towards family members. Originally intended to track and hunt runaway slaves and local wildlife, the Fila is not a breed to be underestimated. In Argentina in the 1920s, Dr Antonio Nores Martinez sought to create a dog which could both hunt dangerous game, and act as a family guardian. Great Danes, Boxers, Bull Terriers, Mastiffs, and various gundogs were crossed with the now extinct Cordoba Fighting Dog, and resulted in an extremely driven, protective, pain-resistant, and fearless guardian known as the Dogo Argentino. In fact, both the Dogo Argentino and Fila Brasileiro are so aggressive that they are banned in the United Kingdom.

As discrete dog breeds became more common and recognised, police and military forces increasingly began to utilise dogs for security-related work. In Ghent, Belgium, the local police department piloted a formal dog training programme in 1899, which was soon replicated across continental Europe. The most common breeds used for protection, deterrence, and apprehension were German, Belgian, and Dutch Shepherd Dogs, and this has largely remained the case in police forces across the world. The two world wars also saw dogs being extensively deployed for guarding and protection purposes, and in the following years this led to a greater desire to refine training and husbandry techniques.

As protection and guard dogs have gradually become more advanced in the spheres of military and policing, this has also trickled down into the private sector where recent years have seen a growing desire for highly trained personal and family protection dogs. While the old guard dog that patrols and protects a yard from thieves without the direction of a handler still exists, potential owners are becoming increasingly aware of how in many ways, this is not their best option.

Recent years have seen the concept of protection dogs become more and more refined, with a clear concept of an ideal family protection dog emerging. These dogs are highly trainable, disciplined, and obedient, making them relatively easy to handle and control. They should be sociable, amenable to other household pets, good with children, protective, and able to control their levels of aggression. Certain breeds in particular have temperamentally lent themselves to this purpose, and include (but are not limited to) the German Shepherd Dog, Giant Schnauzer, Dobermann Pinscher, and Cane Corso. Great Danes and Boxers have also met these requirements, but are somewhat less common.

By working with these breeds in a tailored obedience-based training programme, Protection Dogs Worldwide has perfected the modern family protection dog. Offering clients friendly, obedient, and temperamentally stable dogs with outstanding protective instincts, and have become an international market leader. For an obligation-free and confidential discussion about how we can meet your particular needs, please do not hesitate to email info@protectiondogs.co.uk. We will be more than happy to help you in any way we can.


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