What is the difference between a guard dog and a watch dog?

What is the difference between a guard dog and a watch dog?

Most of us think that we know what is meant by the terms “guard dog” and “watch dog” respectively, but not every dog owner is fully clear on the difference between these two terms, and how they apply in practice.

Whether or not any dog displays guard dog or watch dog traits can depend on the individual dog in question, their temperament, and how they have been trained and managed, and some dogs have a natural flair for one or both skills, or may have no talent for either!

Whilst every dog is different and will display different traits, on a more general breed-specific basis, certain dog breeds have a strong recorded history performing watch dog or guard dog roles, and are considered to have a natural tendency to display such traits without the need for training.

However, if you’re not sure on the difference between a watch dog and a guard dog, you might not know whether or not your own dog shows any skills in these areas already, or what to look for in a future purchase if you want to buy a dog with one or both of these traits.

In this article, we will explain the key differences between guard dog and watch dog behaviour, as well as the areas in which they overlap, and talk in more detail about how to assess the natural talents of any individual dog. Read on to learn more.

Guard dog or watch dog: The basics

Let’s begin with a really simple explanation of the difference between a guard dog and a watch dog:

A guard dog is a dog that will protect a territory, property, person/people or other defined quantity like an object, or even other animals like sheep if they have been taught to do so.

A watch dog is a dog that will define an area as their territory (either on their own or by reinforcing this by handling) and within this territory, remain alert to the signs of people (or other things) approaching, and then signalling to alert their handlers when something does cross or approach the territory.

The key difference between a guard dog and a watch dog

Whilst some dogs make for both good watch dogs and good guard dogs combined, these are in fact two very different skills, and many great watch dogs don’t make good guard dogs; although guard dogs usually display some watch dog traits too.

If the dog will bark, make a fuss and try to summon or inform their handlers when something pings their radar; but would not physically intervene to try to stop an approach (such a by blocking the path, giving off warning signals like tense body language, growling and aggressive barking) or even attempting to bite or restrain the other party, they’re a watch dog, not a guard dog.

If, on the other hand, the dog would take clear steps to stop the perceived threat from getting past them in any of the ways outlined above and potentially others, they’re a guard dog, or potentially have both guarding and watch dog skills together.

Dual watch dog and guard dog skills

Most guard dogs are also relatively good watch dogs, because to perform a security role or defend a territory effectively, the dog needs to know that something is going on!

Whilst some dogs may be very protective of their immediate owners, this is not strictly a guarding skill and a good guard dog needs to be proactive about looking out for trouble, being vigilant, alert, and knowing when they are responsible for being on guard, so watchful as well as ready to act when needed!

Combination working roles

Historically, some dog breeds were used for combination working roles, involving elements of watching, guarding and other skills like herding – such as the German shepherd, which many of us think of immediately as being a good guard dog breed, but whose herding origins are belied by the word “shepherd” in the breed’s name.

Dogs of the breed used to herd sheep, watch over them, and defend them against threats like wild predators too!

Some very small dog breeds make for excellent watch dogs

Watch dogs don’t need to be able to deter or physically prevent a threat – they just need to let the appropriate party (usually their handler) know that something is going on.

This means that even very small dog breeds and dogs that are not always particularly confident often make for excellent watch dogs – like the Shih Tzu, which was originally used as the breed of choice to serve as watch dogs in the Buddhist monasteries of their native China.

Watch dog breeds can also be large or giant too, and often are – but size is no barrier to being a good watch dog if the other skills required are in place.

Guard dogs are usually large

Guard dogs need to be confident, vigilant and bold, but they also need to be taken seriously by the threat that they are defending against. This means that most guard dog breeds are large dogs, like the above-mentioned German shepherd, and other breeds like the Doberman pinscher and the Rottweiler too.

Whilst a small dog might be very serious about defending a territory and can of course inflict a lot of damage if they decided to take on a potential threat, no particularly small dog breeds are widely considered to have superior guard dog skills.

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