Canines are incredibly loyal and protective, which is why humans have appreciated their help as watchdogs for thousands of years.

Way back in ancient Rome dogs were used to watch over property. Virgil was one of Rome’s great poets and he talked about watchdogs in his work Georgics, which was published in 29 BC. Referring to breeds such as Laconians and Molossians, which watched over houses and livestock, he said that: “Never, with them on guard, need you fear for your stalls a midnight thief, or onslaught of wolves, or Iberian brigands at your back” [i]

Much later – around 800 years ago – a breed called the Lhasa Apso helped guard Buddhist temples and monasteries in Tibet.[ii] The Lhasa Apso was such a renowned watchdog that it was also known as the ‘Bark Lion Sentinel Dog’.

Later still, at the end of the 17th century, the Schipperke from Belgium became well known for its abilities as an excellent watchdog. In 1882 a Belgian writer is said to have described the Schipperke as “An indefatigable watchdog, he rests neither day nor night, always on foot, weary of inspecting the house from cellar to garret and as soon as he observes anything amiss he warns his master by his piercing barks.” [iii]

Canines best suited to watchdog duties are those which have been bred for territorial activity – with Terriers making especially effective alarm dogs. Airedales, Bostons, Cairns, and many other breeds of Terrier have the right temperament for watchdog duty, as do Poodles and Spaniels.[iv]

Guard Dog

Such breeds are known for their alertness; when they pick up on unusual activity they will bark vigorously, and quickly make their owners aware of intruders and trespassers.

Many breeds make good watchdogs, though some breeds are less well suited to the role. Dogs with a calmer, less reactive temperament, such as the Newfoundland and Bloodhound, make less effective watchdogs. Dogs which are too excitable are also not suited to the role. Border Collies and Australian Shepherds tend to become excitable if they are not given work to which they are suited, such as herding livestock, and excitability is not a desirable trait in a watchdog.

It is not necessary for watchdogs to be either large in size, strong, or courageous. That’s because their purpose is to draw attention to trespassers, rather than to scare or attack them – which is the role served by a guard dog.

In addition to warning of intruders, guard dogs protect property by intimidating and even engaging (biting) an individual who presents a threat. Guard dogs are typically large in size, strong, tenacious and courageous, and either large thick-coated livestock guardians (dogs like the Komondor, used to protect sheep and other animals from predators) or large short-coated bull and mastiff type dogs.

Typical guard dog breeds include the Rottweiler, the German Shepherd, the Bullmastiff, and the Doberman Pinscher.[v]

Guard Dog

Smaller dogs have also historically been used as guard dogs. Airedale Terriers served in a number of roles during World War I – as messengers, sentries, scouts, Red Cross casualty dogs, sled dogs, and guard dogs.[vi] During World War 2 the Airedale Terrier again served as a police dog and wartime guard. Larger and more intimidating breeds later became more popular as guards, however.

Guard dogs have traditionally been used alongside watchdogs, with the watchdog acting as an alarm and the larger and more imposing guard dog acting as an aggressive deterrent.  This was the case in Tibet, where the Lhasa Apso watchdog was often accompanied by the Tibetan Mastiff guard dog.

Dogs which aggressively defend their territory can obviously be very dangerous, and they need to be specially trained and handled. You should think very carefully before buying or attempting to train a canine as an aggressive guard dog, as there can be very serious consequences if your dog attacks someone. An owner can be held criminally responsible if they have allowed their dangerous dog to run free and it attacks someone.

An alert watchdog can however offer great reassurance to wary homeowners, and provide many years of loyal service and companionship.

About the author: Brit Peacock is an animal lover writing on behalf of home security experts The Safe Shop.


[i] ‘Dog in Ancient Greece and Rome’:

[ii] ‘Bark Lion Sentinel Dog: Lhasa Apso’:

[iii] ‘Schipperkes’:

[iv] ‘Best Watchdogs’:

[v] ‘Best Guard Dogs’:

[vi] Airedale Terrier:

Filed under: Working Dogs

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