Children have a special relationship with dogs. They tug on their tails, rub backwards on their fur, and take a seat right on their bellies when tired. Most dogs patiently tolerate this abuse and many even beg for more when their "treatment" ends. This is in stark contrast to what dogs will endure from each other or their grown-up human companions. So what makes man's best friend so tolerant of children? How is it that a canine can remain calm in the face of these pesky pint-sized people?
To understand a dog's relationship with children, it helps to know a bit about their social structure. In the wild, canines go to great lengths to establish and reinforce their place in a social group, and these positions clearly dictate who's in charge and who's subordinate. Among dogs raised as pets, the hierarchy is fairly straightforward (i.e., he who feeds me may boss me around). Dogs also have a clear sense of who their family is. Once a person becomes "one of us," they are to be defended at all costs, whether they put food in the bowl or not.
A family setting is no different -- at least from the dog's perspective. Canines know who their family is and most won't hesitate to put themselves in harm's way to protect one of their own. In fact, most dogs have such a strong instinct to protect their loved ones that no amount of socialization will diminish it. On the other hand, a protective instinct can be so strong that it causes unwanted aggression toward people outside the family. For this reason, the guarding instinct should be honed through early and frequent socialization and regular training. Without this, an overzealous protector could pose a danger to children and adults outside of the family unit.
Some breeds make better guard dogs than others. Breeds that are lazy or too friendly may not be as responsive to a potentially dangerous situation as the more attentive and wary breeds. According to Veronica Sanchez of Cooperative Paws in Vienna, Va., Bernese Mountain Dogs and Newfoundlands are very friendly with children and have good protective instincts toward them, perhaps owing to their breeding as rescue dogs. Of course, not many bad guys would approach a child accompanied by such these super-sized animals.
Other dog varieties have been bred with certain protective characteristics. For example, a herding dog knows to keep the pack together, not matter what. Such breeds are unlikely to ever let a child wander off or be taken. Animals bred to be lap dogs, however, may not have the energy or inclination to intervene in such situations.
Breed isn't always as important as adopting a dog from a breeder who focuses on sound temperament, according to Vivian Shoemaker of Fur-Get Me Not Dog Training in Arlington, Va. A dog that displays anxiety and fear is not an ideal choice for a family guard dog since these animals are more likely to lash out or commit unprovoked attacks. Even within breeds that are considered the best guard dogs, poor training can alter an individual dog's temperament dramatically.
The more independent breeds, such as the Akita, may not have the patience and restraint necessary to be a good guard dog. You want an animal that you can control, particularly if he is going to be in charge of your children's safety.
They key to developing a dog to be a protector of children is early and frequent socialization and training. This doesn't need to be specialized training; the typical "good dog" behavioral training is all a dog needs to be an effective guardian of children. Their natural instincts will do the rest.