Most people interchange the words watchdog and guard dog, although they really are two very different skills or behaviors. In addition to watchdog and guard dog categories, there is also a third type of training, known as protection dog training. Each of the three has some similarities in behavior however they are also slightly different as well. In order to discuss the different types of training, it is first important to understand the three different roles.
Watchdogs are perhaps the least trained of the three categories, although it is still important to train a watchdog to prevent problem barking and other negative behaviors. Almost all dogs, but not every breed, make good watchdogs. These dogs have the role or responsibility to bark to alert the owners when something is amiss or someone strange is approaching. Watchdogs can be of any size and most small and even toy breeds make good watchdogs since they do bark naturally. Basically even puppies will bark to alert that there is something new or different in the environment, which is the first step in their development into a watchdog.
Most people that get a dog at least want this natural instinct or behavior to occur with their pet. Often they don't want any aggression, so a watchdog has to be well socialized and obedience trained. Most dogs can and will become aggressive if they are mistreated, not obedience trained or raised in a way that encourages aggression. This goes for the toy and small breeds as well as the larger dogs. Since toy and small breed dogs can and do bite, early training for these pooches as well as the more traditional watchdog breeds is essential.
The next type of category is the guard dog. Many breeds will be natural guard dogs, which means they do the same barking to alert as a watchdog, but they are prepared and physically able to also provide a defense to the property and the family. Typically this behavior is restricted to the physical space that the guard dog sees as his or her territory. By very definition a guard dog is a larger sized dog since a toy or small dog simply cannot defend a property in the same way a bigger breed can.
Many dogs have been bred throughout the centuries to be every effective guard dogs. The more commonly known breeds are the German Shepherds, Doberman Pinchers, Mastiffs, Rottweilers, Giant Schnauzers, Akitas and the Belgian Shepherds. Other breeds such as the Bulldog, American Pit Bull Terrier, Bouvier des Flanders and the Anatolian Shepherd are also natural guard dog breeds.
Guard dog breeds can potentially be problematic for owners if they are not properly trained. They can be naturally aggressive and will defend their territory to extremes, meaning that without proper obedience and guard dog training they can be a dangerous animal. Some breeds such as the American Pit Bull and to a smaller extent some of the other listed guard dog breeds have actually been banned in some areas because of irresponsible owners that didn't train and confine these dogs appropriately. Guard dog breeds are very loyal to their families and may be especially protective of children. Training needs to begin early with socialization and obedience, which forms the basis of the advanced guard dog training.
The specifics of guard dog training include teaching the dog to defend on command but also to stop a defensive behavior on command. Without this specific training the guard dog is not controllable and the owner will not be able to get the dog to back away once they have gone into guarding mode. The dogs also learn, through working with specialized trainers, how to identify the behaviors of an intruder versus a visitor and a friend versus a potential foe.
Guard dogs are often used to protect property, businesses and houses, but they still need lots of human attention and affection as well as interaction. Training a guard dog to only be on the job at specific times means that the owner can take the dog out in public without fear but also gives them the peace of mind to know that their property is being patrolled when the dog is cued to do so. Guard dogs have to be problem solvers and independent workers, especially those guard dogs that protect livestock and have to defend against predators and humans alike.
Protection dogs require even more advanced training than the guard dogs. These dogs are taught, through months and years of very specific and specialized training how to protect a specific person, regardless of where they are. Protection dogs have to be carefully trained to be aggressive and defensive only when necessary, using their physical size, bark and even displaying aggression as a first step in defending their owner and his or her property. Protection dogs are also trained to attack only when commanded, which is different than a guard dog that will attack and defend the property whenever the owner is not present.
Protection dogs have to go through very rigorous training and many dogs that start the training simply don't have the temperament and trainability to complete the program. The dogs that do are often some of the most intelligent dogs, used in police work, private security and personal protection in a variety of areas and situations. Many of these dogs also complete what is known as schutzhund training, which is a grueling training program that includes different types of training. Dogs that are going to be used as protection dogs have to complete all three components to be approved as protection dogs in most countries and areas. These three components include tracking, obedience and then the protection component. In the protection component of this intensive and very specialized training the dog learns how to complete different types of protection activities all by verbal command. These include a "hold and bark" command where the handler instructs the dog to go to a target and literally act aggressive by barking, holding the target in one location. The dog cannot attack, and must return to the handle and sit quietly upon command. This type of self control for the dog is not easy, but once trained these dogs are ideal for protection as well as companion dogs.