Dog As Animate Burglar Alarm? Three War Stories

I've been reading and really enjoying Amy & Rubi Rae's discussion, "Rubi Proves Herself Worthless at Guard Dog Duty." If you haven't seen this post and its comments yet, you should go there now and check it out!

The conversation has got me thinking about how (or rather whether) dogs do act as burglar alarms or, heaven help us, as "protection dogs," and what a person can expect or not expect. As you know, my history is peppered with German shepherds, a dog that unfortunately has been ruined by breeders who think they're producing and buyers who think they're getting dogs keenly honed as "protection" animals.

This is a terrible misconception, and when it's put into action by ignorant or irresponsible breeders and owners, the result is dangerous. But I digress.

Dogs -- all dogs, not just corgis or GerSheps -- are funny when it comes to sounding an alarm, or to reacting aggressively to strangers. What a dog sees as a potential threat is very different from what a human sees, and you have to throw into the mix the fact that dogs react to certain situations quite differently depending on whether a member of its pack -- that would include its humans -- is present, and which member is present.

Dogs appear to assess situations according to a variety of circumstances. This trait varies from individual to individual, depending on the animal's intelligence, experience, and temperament. But overall, whether the dog will be moved to sound an alarm apparently has to do with the situation and the surroundings.

I've had GerSheps that would remove a man's foot if he entered my house when I was there, whether he wandered in accidentally or "accidentally" (wink, nudge). The same dogs would sit there quietly if the guy entered the house when no one was home. Heck, one of those critters would have brought the pillowcase and helped his new pal carry the silver out the door.

Whatever the circumstances, it's important to understand that there's very little a dog can do to "protect" you. Barking when a stranger is around is about the best you can expect, and it's no small thing: at least if you're put on alert, you can lock the doors and call the police. A dog that will go after an intruder is an ineffectual defense mechanism for these reasons:

1. Few dogs can tell the difference between a burglar and your long-lost Uncle Orville. Let it bite some innocent soul who's there on a legitimate errand, and the lawsuit will make a mere burglary look pale by comparison.

2. An intruder is likely to be armed. If your dog goes after him, his response is simple and effective: shoot the dog. If he's annoyed enough, he may shoot you, too.

3. Burglars often case homes and know whether you have a dog. The solution to a so-called "guard dog" is a chunk of hamburger with some rat poison mixed in. This will kill or disable the dog. A day or two later, after your dog is dead or parked in the vet's ICU, they come back and rip off your house, unmolested.

4. Dogs are unpredictable. They may or may not "defend" you.

5. An alleged "protection" dog requires extensive, consistent, and ongoing expert training. Let your housepet Fido go after some moron who "accidentally" enters your home, and you may find you can't call him off. This is an extremely dangerous development and again, even if the person is actually a perp, it opens you to significant liability.

A dog is not a loaded .38. But it could be a primed bomb. Or it could be a cupcake with a welcoming candle on top. The same dog is capable of acting as either of the latter two.

Greta the German Shepherd was my first dog in that breed, and indeed the greatest dog I've ever known. I've never encountered another dog that had her qualities, corgis included. When our neighbors divorced, we got custody of the dog -- one of the luckiest breaks of our lives.

I was young then, and, shall we say, rather lush: the sort who garnered catcalls just walking around the corner to pick up the kid from the babysitter and silent lewd stares from her husband's loutish law partners. I had long hair, which I used to wash in the bathtub.

One morning after said husband had gone off to work, I climbed into the tub to wash my hair. My head was submerged and my ears were underwater -- thus I couldn't hear anything.

So there I am floating in the water just enjoying a sybaritic moment when I open my eyes and there's Greta, staring down into the tub at me.

Whaa? Greta normally would not enter that bathroom. It was the only room in the house floored in ceramic tiles, and she absolutely hated the feel of ceramic tile under her feet. You couldn't coax that dog into the bathroom for love, money, nor doggy treats.

So...what would possess her to come into the hated bathroom?

I surfaced. Looked at her. Spoke to her: "What are you doing in here?" She did not leave. Something was amiss, but whatever it was, she (being a dog) wasn't saying. After a couple of minutes of this, I realized that her behavior was so strange I'd better look into it. I got out of the tub, wrapped a towel around my spectacular young nudity, and started to walk toward the front of the house.

To get to the living room, we had to walk down a long hallway. As soon as I entered the hall, Greta moved ahead of me and positioned herself across the hall, blocking me. She would not let me move forward up the hall.

At this point I think, Uh oh. So I kind of holler into the front of the house, "Hello? Is anyone there?" Quite a few workmen had keys to the house, and in addition, we were in an inner-city district many of whose denizens could easily open a deadbolt without benefit of key.

I don't hear anything, so I try to move forward again, and again she blocks me, this time actively and physically. This is no subtle hint: this is you are not going any further.

Again I ask, "Is anybody out there?"

This time I hear a slight noise. Not an answering voice, just a subtle shuffle. Something or someone is most definitely "out there."

Finally, belatedly, the adrenalin rises. "Greta!" I holler, "Sic 'em! Go get 'em. SIC 'EM, GRETA!!!!!!!"

Greta looks at me as though I've taken leave of my senses, probably a correct assessment. She does not move.

Now, from out of the depths of the living room, comes a quavering voice: "C...C...Culligan Man!"

Holy cripes. What is he doing in the living room?

We had a regular Culligan man whose job was to come around every few weeks and replace the water softener cartridge for the house's plumbing system. He had a key to the house, and normally he would come up the side driveway and enter the door to the service porch.

So I tell him to wait a sec', trot into the bedroom and put on some clothes, and then come back to find a new, confused, very scared Culligan man shivering in his Redwings in the middle of the living room.

Turns out our regular guy had been killed in the line of duty: the truck he was driving was T-boned and he died at the scene. This was his replacement, and he didn't realize the key fit every door to the house. So, innocent as the new blown snow, he'd come in the front door.

Interesting, hm? Greta had never seen this man and so could not have known who he was. He was dragging a giant water softener cartridge on a dolly, something she had seen a few times before, and of course he was wearing the Culligan company uniform. But was she to know the difference between a real Culligan man and a deranged homicidal maniac in a Culligan outfit? Somehow, she did.

Years passed. We had a child. My husband and I got older, and so did Greta. She was now half-deaf, and my husband was teetering on the edge of early middle age.

One evening we came home from a night on the town and went to bed. By this time, DH had reached the time in a man's life when he snores when he's very tired. And man, was he tired that night!

After unsuccessfully trying to block out the racket with a pillow over my head, I got up and moved to the living-room sofa.

Along about three in the morning, I awoke. In the darkness, I saw a flashlight moving around the kitchen. And here's what a naked young mother on a sofa thinks in the grogginess of three a.m.:

"Ohhh, the power must be off and John must have gotten up to get the baby a bottle!"

Awww. Isn't that sweet? It was just the sort of thing he would've done. It almost made sense.

Just then I hear Greta, who had crapped out in the hall outside our bedroom door, go "Boof?"

I go, tentatively, "John?"

And a freaking NUCLEAR BOMB goes off!

Greta literally exploded out of the back of the house. She was ROARING in rage. On our respective beds, John and I each shot straight up about a foot, like characters in the funny strips. It was one of the most terrifying sounds I've ever heard.

The flashlight starts to jerk around frantically. She is now between the burglar and the door he came in. It was an old house in an inner-city neighborhood, where add-on after add-on makes a maze of any given floor plan.

Luckily for him, the perp found the side door, managed to get the deadbolt open, darted out, and slammed the door in Greta's face just as she was about to excise a chunk from his leg.

Still oblivious, I get up and walk into the kitchen  just as John comes in from the other direction. He turns on the light and says,

"Who was that man?"

I say, "What man?"

He says, "The one who just ran out that door."


Many more years pass. My son grows up. John and I separate. I'm now living alone in another central-city neighborhood with only a corgi named Cassie for a room-mate.

It's coming onto evening, sometime after 5 p.m. I'm parked in front of the computer on the east side of the house -- I live on a corner lot with a neighborhood street to the east and another to the south, and an alley to the north. It's a deceptively quiet-looking tract: all very blandly middle-class but bounded on the north and the west by war zones. So we have cop helicopters overhead all the time -- you can set your clock by the 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday night fly-overs. Which is to say they're not unusual. But they do signal that a perp is in the area, possibly on the run.

And this particular afternoon, I do hear a cop helicopter. In fact, it's parked over the house. Whenever that happens, I always get up and check all that the doors and windows are locked, on the theory that if I were a perp on the run, the first thing I'd try to do is dodge into a house to shelter from the cops in the sky. As I walked around the house, I threw the deadbolt shut on the door between the kitchen and the garage; everything else was locked.

Cassie follows me around, as usual, but registers nothing out of the ordinary.

The garage has a side door, and that door does have a dead-bolted security door. But I'd forgotten that, with Charley the Golden Retriever visiting earlier that day, I'd left it open so he and Cassie could move in and out while I was doing the laundry -- the washer and dryer reside in the garage.

Now I walk back to the office and resume my position in front of the computer.

A couple of minutes later, I hear a THUMP and a stomp-stomp-stomp outside the east wall (no window on that side). Think "WTF?" and then realize someone must have jumped the side wall, landed on the brick-and-board potting shelves I'd stuck out there, and entered the backyard.

Cassie does not make a sound. She seems to notice nothing out of the ordinary.

Now I realize that the street in front is swarming with cops. I figure a cop has jumped into the backyard, but then Why? So I pick up the phone, dial 9-1-1, and say, "Uhmmm... If that wasn't one of your guys hopping over the wall, they ought to know that whoever they're chasing may have just jumped into my backyard."

A note of alarm enters the 9-1-1 operator's voice. Shortly, the police absolutely freak out.

My office has a solid-core door with a hardened deadbolt, virtually impregnable. This lash-up is there to protect my computers, the only thing of any value in the house, but now instead it converts my office into a safe room. I lock myself and the dog inside, break out my .38, and get back on the phone to the 9-1-1 dispatcher, who has not hung up.

Ultimately, they send a five-man swat team into my house to escort me out behind a phalanx of bullet-proof shields.

The only time Cassie barked was when this bunch showed up at the front door, and even then it was her "doorbell rang" bark -- nothing out of the ordinary. She was completely calm throughout the entire operation. The bizarre behavior with the office door; the edge of urgency to the voice; the six squad cars, van, and two motorcycles laden with cops out on the road; the helicopter practically parked on the roof; the "alarm" pheromones presumably floating on the breeze; and the human poised behind a locked door with a pistol ready to shoot anyone who so much as touched the doorknob never seem to have registered even once as anything unusual.

The perp? He was hiding in the garage. He indeed had entered through the unlocked side security door, and had I not gotten up off my duff and locked the kitchen door two or three minutes previously, he most certainly would have come into the house and I most certainly would have been at the center of a hostage drama.

And why were the cops so exercised? He and two of his buddies had stuck up a pawn shop a mile or so up the road, botched the job, and kidnapped an employee as they made their escape. About three weeks before, a similar chase had ensued in the area just west of the freeway, four or five miles from here; in that case, the fugitives had entered a house, and they killed the couple who lived there.

Cassie the Corgi? Unperturbed.

A dog is not a security system. ;-)

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Comment by Alison Prasavath on August 19, 2014 at 3:42pm

I agree, Noodles wouldn't be a good guard dog at all. I agree with both @ Beverly, David & The Boys and Vicky about how Noodles would react. He loves hearing the doorbell go because that means visitors. Once he greets them and if they come inside, he will go find a toy to bring them. It makes me laugh, but also realize that he would be worthless if someone were breaking in to the house. The first thing he would do is go find a toy and bring it to them. Shortly after, he would roll over on his back for bell rubs. Who knows, he might even offer them kisses as well if they were to bend down and pet him.

The house alarm and fire alarm have gone off before and Noodles runs to his "special" place...that would be upstairs underneath our bed. He knows now one can reach him when he lays underneath the bed and in the middle.

Comment by Vicky Hay on August 19, 2014 at 1:19pm

@ Beverly, David & The Boys: Yeah, both of mine have figured out that Doorbell means New Humans to Play With. So much so, that if they here a doorbell-like sound on the TV or from the computer, they'll fly into an ecstatic frenzy.

A connection between a burglar alarm and immediate danger is probably too abstract for a dog to register. Few healthy dogs seem to regard all strangers as potential menaces. Mine regard them as potential best friends.

As for the smoke alarm, Cassie has heard it and been unimpressed.

Interestingly, the last GerShep I had did somehow figure out that smoke alarm = exit the house. I think the first time it went off she was past early puppyhood but not yet old enough to be sot in her ways. It went off because something real was happening, not because the toaster singed a piece of bread, and the first thing I did was order her, in NO uncertain terms, to get outside. An actual fire in the kitchen really is pretty alarming to humans, and she must have sensed that and then remembered the connection for the rest of her life.

Wish I could teach these corgis to do that.

Comment by Beverly Butler Redford & Tucker on August 19, 2014 at 11:58am

Glad to hear that you were safe.  Those are frightening situations.  I would not rely on my dogs to protect me.  The only thing I would rely on my boys to do if someone broke in would be to beg to be patted.  They bark like maniacs if the doorbell rings, but if I accidentally trip the burglar alarm, they're silent.

Comment by Vicky Hay on August 19, 2014 at 12:12am

LOL! Love your moniker...wish I'd thought of it!

Yes. Two of several incidents, over the many years, that could have been much,  much worse. Sometimes it's hard to shake off the egotistical suspicion that God is on one's side. Coincidence and luck, all of it.

And in the law enforcement department, despite all the present bad press, My Heroes are the cops!

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