Can Labradors Defend Themselves? How Labs Handle Threats

labrador defend itself against growling dog

I don’t know about you, but my Labrador is about as sweet as they come and as harmless as a fly. So, I often wondered what would happen if she faced an aggressor. I did some research, and thought it would be helpful to share. If push came to shove, can a Labrador defend itself?

Labradors can and will defend themselves when feeling threatened. The flight drive of a Lab is higher than in other breeds, so fleeing is its preferred defense. However, if the situation warrants it, Labradors may also freeze in place or attack as a way of defending themselves.

In this article, we’ll explain further when and how a Labradors defend themselves, including if that means attacking strangers and other animals. We’ll even delve into whether you can train your Lab to behave less or more defensively. 

How Labradors defend themselves

One of the traits that make Labs so beloved is their friendliness. That’s why it can be surprising to learn that Labradors defend themselves if they feel the need. 

Although your Lab is a family companion, at the end of the day, they’re an animal too, and that’s what animals do. 

white lab looking calm
Photo by ELH Express on Unsplash

How does a Lab defend itself? In one of several ways, so let’s talk about that more now.   

Fleeing

All animals have a flight drive, and the Labrador’s is higher than other dogs. Your Lab will likely favor fleeing a situation over its other defense options. Sometimes getting away from a bad situation is the best idea, after all, such as a larger predator like a bear or deer coming onto your property. 

Freezing

The second means of defense a Lab will utilize is freezing in place. This is sort of like how a goat will play dead. Your dog just stops moving in hopes that the predator will quit paying attention to them.  

Growling

If the predator still advances on the Lab even when they’re completely still, then it’s time to try another tactic. Before resorting to violence, a Labrador may begin growling and barking at the predator, hoping to scare them away. 

Labs aren’t known for their barking, but on special occasions like being threatened, they will be vocal if that’s what it takes. 

Fighting

The Labrador Retriever is part hunting dog, so attacking is not necessarily outside of its nature. The dog might jump, scratch, pounce, and even bite to defend itself. 

Why Do Labradors Go into Defense Mode?

If your Labrador can seem a bit like Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, aka sweet and loving one moment and agitated the next, understanding why Labradors defend themselves is important.  

Here are three such situations that can put your Lab on the defensive. 

You’ve Encroached on Their Territory

It’s no secret that dogs are incredibly territorial, some breeds more than others. Labs are considered less territorial, but that doesn’t mean they like others encroaching on what they perceive as theirs. 

Doing something like moving your Lab’s favorite toy or their well-used bed could result in angry growling from your dog. If you have other canines in the house and they eat too close to one another, your Lab could develop food aggression.

To Protect You 

Some people adopt a dog so their canine companion can safeguard the house and its inhabitants. Those breeds are known as guard dogs, a rather self-explanatory name. 

A guard dog the Labrador is not though, and that’s mostly because part of the job description is looking threatening. For instance, a German Shepherd is a good guard dog, as is a Doberman Pinscher. 

Labs do well in the role of watchdog, where they keep an eye on the goings-on throughout the home and can alert you to possible threats. Due to their high degree of loyalty towards their owner and family though, Labs could possibly attack if a real threat manifests. 

To Save Their Own Lives

The last reason a Lab will go into defense mode is to protect their own hide, so to speak. Using the example from before, if a Lab is face-to-face with a black bear, they must defend themselves. 

The Lab probably wouldn’t fight, as they know the battle is unwinnable, but rather freeze until the bear leaves or even bark at the bear to scare them off. (Black bears can indeed be run off if you’re loud enough!)

Do Labradors Attack Strangers in Defense? What about Other Animals?

Fight or flight mode is a stress response that can affect adrenaline levels, blood pressure, and heart rate, sending them all sky-high. In people, your eyes can dilate to improve your vision since your pupils observe more light. A person or dog in fight or flight mode thinks only of survival, not as much who the threat is. 

labrador getting aggressive with stranger

Does that mean you have to be wary of your Labrador if you have a plumber over to fix the house or if you adopt a cat? Let’s talk more about that now. 

Labs and Strangers

Although Labs lack the fiercely territorial streak that other dog breeds possess, they do have their boundaries. If you cross the line, that can be enough to elicit a defensive response. Dogs tend to mark outdoor territory by urinating and/or defecating, so even lingering too long on a familiar patch of grass could raise a Lab’s hackles.

More so than that, having a stranger to the house like a distant relative or cable repairperson sends your Lab’s watchdog instincts into a tizzy. Their job is to keep threats out, yet you’re letting this strange person in. This person is also going through your home and making themselves comfortable. 

The friendliness of a Labrador can be like a double-edged sword here. Since the dog seems so kind and unassuming, people let their guard down around a Lab. They might make more crucial mistakes that you’re not supposed to with any dog.

For example, eye contact with a strange dog is a big no-no. Among packs, staring at a dog is threatening, even rude behavior. When you hold eye contact, it can increase the likelihood of an attack. In a dog’s eyes, wearing sunglasses looks like you’re constantly staring at them, which upsets them.

If it’s just you and your Lab at home, don’t take their eye contact as a threat. Labs will stare to show love or to indicate to you that they want to take a walk! 

Labs and Other Animals

You just brought home a baby kitten and you’re in love. Do you have to worry about your bigger Labrador going after the animal? 

No, you do not. Remember, Labs are not aggressive by default. Like any animal, they will display aggression if that’s their last resort against a threat. A kitten is not a threat to a Lab, just like your young children aren’t either. 

Now, an adult cat might annoy your Lab, especially if the cat is antagonistic. Still, it’s more likely your Lab would bark at the cat or leave the room rather than attack. 

What about another full-sized dog your Lab shares a home with? We mentioned food aggression that stems from when one dog tries to eat the other’s food. That could result in barking battles and possibly even scratches or bites to one another. By delineating separate eating areas for both pets, the problem should abate.

Can You Train Your Labrador to Be Less Defensive or More So?

As much as genes and personality shape the dog your Labrador becomes, so too does your training. If you want a more aggressive Lab, you could train the dog to ignore its flight instincts and stay and fight instead. Do be aware that if you do that, there’s no going back without a lot of behavior modification. We don’t advise you to do it. 

If you worry that your Lab will run off and get lost when spooked by a threat, training them to freeze rather than flee is a great idea. Here’s how you do it.  

Step 1: Leash up Your Lab for a Run

Treat your Lab to an afternoon in an enclosed yard or another space without people or animals. You may decide to put them on a leash or let them run free, but the goal is to get your Lab jogging around. Run with them to keep them motivated.

Step 2: Tell Your Lab to Freeze

When you feel ready, come to a sudden stop and shout “freeze!” Your Lab may stop because you did or they could keep going. That’s to be expected the first time, so don’t sweat it too much.

Start running again, and a minute or two later, tell your Lab to freeze. If they do it, stay still with them. Then say “okay, go!” and take off running. This indicates to your Lab that “freeze” is stop and “go” is run.

Step 3: Reward Your Lab for a Job Well Done

When your Lab freezes and then resumes running, offer them a treat. You should also verbally praise your dog and hug them or give them head pats. 

Step 4: Repeat

Labradors are quite an intelligent breed, but they need repetition to pick up on the commands you’re trying to teach them. You’ll have to spend afternoons running with your dog for a few weeks before they master freeze and go. At least it’s good exercise for you both! 

Conclusion

Labrador Retrievers are a non-aggressive breed, but Labradors will defend themselves when threatened. More often, they’ll freeze in place or run away to preserve their lives. Training your Lab in defensive techniques can help them learn the proper way to deal with threats.