The best guard dog breeds are fearsome and formidable. And the best deterrent in a rural location

The best guard dogs breeds are still top of the list for deterring burglars, even in the age of lasers and closed circuit television. Burglars hate them, and even career criminals think twice before entering premises patrolled by suitably fierce dogs. It is not difficult to see why. A big, powerful dog is a formidable adversary, and invariably equipped with a set of serious teeth. Its bark may be even more of a deterrent than its bite, as all thieves like to work undisturbed. And you are unlikely to have to worry about dog theft prevention. But if something fearsome is not what you are after, then how about the ultimate country house dogs? However new legislation has come into force which affects dog owners. More information at the end of the article.


So how to choose from the best guard dog breeds? Most have similar attributes: imposing size, impressive physique, intimidating appearance and, above all, intelligence. The latter is probably the best guard dog’s most important attribute: it is essential that any dog employed for guarding understands its job, and never frightens or threatens its master or mistress, family members or employees. Remarkably, the best guard do breeds have an instinctive understanding of the terms of their employment and most also make fine family pets.


The best guard dog breeds. Bill mastiff. The mighty bull mastiff would deter even the craftiest of burglars.

The mighty bull mastiff would deter even the craftiest of burglars.

While we may have a rich variety of native gundogs, we can boast only one native guard dog, the bull-mastiff. As its name suggests, it’s really a mixture of two breeds, the mastiff and the bulldog. It was developed in the mid-1800s, and originally bred to be the gamekeeper’s companion, helping him in his battle with poachers. In those days poachers were a rough lot – the penalty for poaching was still hanging – so the keeper needed a tough dog to help him to carry out his job. Pure-bred mastiffs were too slow, while bulldogs – very different in appearance from the dogs we know today – were ferocious and apparently a little too keen on getting stuck into the poacher.

What was needed was a dog with a good enough nose to track an intruder through the woods at night and the ability to charge and knock him down, and then hold him until the keeper arrived. A ratio of 40% bulldog to 60% mastiff was found to be the most satisfactory: an adult male might weigh as much as 18st and measure 27in at the withers. It was not a dog to be trifled with. Today the breed standard still insists on a “powerfully built, symmetrical dog, showing great strength, but not cumbersome”. Obedience-training is essential for bull-mastiff puppies, and owners will tell you they must be taught to walk to heel on the lead at an early age.

With the right sort of training, there’s no doubt that the bull-mastiff deserves its number-one ranking within the best guard dog breeds – it’s certainly not one I would want to argue with. It also has a sound reputation as a reliable family companion and loyal guardian. Unfortunately, these dogs have to contend with numerous health problems, ranging from hip dysplasia to bloating, and are also prone to cancer. Like most big dogs, they are short-lived, seldom reaching double figures.


For: frightening appearance

Against: slobbery and short-lived


While we have just a single guard-dog breed, the Germans have many of the best guard dog breeds and, just as BMWs, Audis and Mercedes dominate the prestige car market, so rottweilers, dobermans and German shepherds are the dogs of choice for most people looking for reliable guard dogs. You can even get a German gundog – the Weimaraner – that doubles as a guard dog: it was developed in the Weimar Republic for both hunting and guarding. Modern, British-bred Weimaraners have largely lost their strong guarding instinct, but you can still find it in most German dogs.


The best guard dog breed. German Shepherd. The German shepherd is one of the most popular guard dogs. The wolf like appearance helps.

The German shepherd is one of the most popular guard dogs. The wolf like appearance helps.

Few of the best guard dog breeds can rival the intelligence of the German shepherd (GSD), which explains why it has long been a favourite with police, army and security forces around the world. One of the GSD’s assets is its wolf-like appearance, which makes it an effective deterrent regardless of its guarding instinct. Though once the dominant guard dog in the UK, its popularity has fallen in recent years, reflecting the numerous health problems now facing the breed. Bad hips are a serious concern, while the demands of the show-bench have led to dogs that have sloping backs and weak back legs, and so are no longer fit for the purpose.

If you want to see visual evidence of the German shepherd’s guarding abilities, turn to YouTube, where numerous short clips demonstrate that this is a formidable biting machine. Many people are attracted to GSDs for all the wrong reasons, and as a result many dogs end up in rescue. Conversely, trained GSDs sell for significant sums of money. In 2011, the New York Times reported that a GSD bitch called Julia had been sold for $230,000. She was trained as a personal protection dog and her new owner said the assets he valued were her “speed, smartness and quickness – and you would not believe the roughness that she has inside. She’s like a little pit bull when she bites.” Most people would clearly prefer not to find this out.

German shepherd dog

For: looks like a wolf

Against: looks like a wolf


The Rottweiler (left) has always been more popular than the athletic Doberman (right) in the UK.

The Rottweiler (left) has always been more popular than the athletic Doberman (right) in the UK.

Though I have never seen a GSD in the shooting field, I have seen a number of rottweilers working to the gun. None was anything like as good as the average labrador, but the fact that they were prepared to retrieve game, and could do so without damage, says a lot about the breed and its versatility. They were originally bred in Germany as cattle dogs, and were first imported into the UK in 1936. The rottweiler’s popularity here peaked in 1989, when more than 10,000 puppies were registered, but today it is in sharp decline. In 2003 there were 6,369 registrations, and only 1,554 last year.

Almost all the rottweilers I have met have been as soft in temperament as the average retriever, but it is significant that the Rottweiler Clubs championship shows include temperament assessment. The club, incidentally, uses the slogan “Promoting the public image of the breed”, a reflection of the bad publicity gained by the rottie during the peak of its popularity. Its website explains: “When mature, the rottweiler is a strong, very demanding, somewhat arrogant animal, with a highly developed guarding instinct. It is essential to understand that, once mature, 100lb-plus of muscle and sinew will need to be trained from an early age, to be under control.” That can make it one of the best guard dog breeds.


For: great family dog, and likes children

Against: the wrong image

The doberman has never been as popular as the rottweiler here, as either a guard dog or a pet, though its current registration figures are only a little behind those of the rottweiler. It is the athlete of the guard dog world, origin-ally developed in late 19th-century Germany by Karl Friedrich Louis Dobermann, a tax collector who also ran the local dog pound, and used the breeds he had available to produce the ideal animal to protect him as he made his rounds. He used a variety of types, including the rottweiler, German shorthaired pointer, great dane and even greyhound.

An active and highly intelligent dog, the doberman is liable to get into trouble if it is not exercised enough and fails to receive sufficient mental stimulation. It is not suited to being shut up in a kennel for long periods. As with GSDs, many end up in rescue after being bought for the wrong reasons. Battersea Dogs’ Home even has a dedicated doberman page on its website, warning that the breed “possesses great strength, energy and intelligence, meaning owners need to accommodate its need for mental and physical stimulation. They should also have a good understanding of the breed’s intellect in order to be able to provide the right home environment and control it outdoors.”


For: sleek, handsome and athletic

Against: need to understand its intellect


For those who dare to be different and shy away from traditional guard dog breeds, there are plenty of other breeds of potential guard dogs available, ranging from the giant schnauzer to its British equivalent, the Airedale, our largest native terrier. However, almost all modern Airedales have been bred as pets or for the show-ring, so finding one with a suitable temperament for guard work is likely to be a considerable challenge.

Many people seeking a guard dog would be better off with a watchdog – one that makes a great deal of noise when it spots an intruder, but is unlikely to attack. Here there’s a considerable choice of suitable breeds. Most terriers will undertake the job satisfactorily, as will dachshunds and miniature poodles. I have a springer spaniel who fancies herself as a watchdog, even though her grandmother was so quiet she was nicknamed Church Mouse.

Though the role of the guard dog is just as important today as it was a century ago, modern legislation has considerably reduced its freedom to work. In 1975 the Labour government introduced the Guard Dogs Act to regulate the keeping and use of guard dogs. It banned guard dogs from patrolling premises without handlers. The much-criticised Danger-ous Dogs Act 1991 allows for prosecutions of attacks by dogs only in public spaces and private areas where dogs are prohibited, such as a neighbour’s garden. However, the government is now tightening up the legislation, and this may well affect the use of guard dogs. Strange though it may be, even armed intruders have rights, and are largely free to go about their unlawful business without the risk of dog attack. The traditional best guard dog breeds may well have had their day, at least in the UK.

Alternative best guard dog breeds 

Rhodesian ridgeback

For: very brave, and bred to tackle lions

Against: no lions in the UK

Giant schnauzer

For: extremely loyal to owner

Against: likes to dominate


For: you can take it shooting

Against: funny eyes

Staffordshire bull terrier

For: no need to buy – plenty in rescue

Against: cost of diamond-studded collar


For: it’s British

Against: no longer has a work ethic

Japanese akita

For: your villa at Sotogrande

Against: banned in the UK


The law is currently simple but forthright:

  • If a guard dog is employed, a warning sign must be visible at the entrance to the premises.
  • If the dog is off its lead, its handler must be present at all times.
  • If the handler isn’t present, the dog must be secured and not allowed to wander.
  • Under the Anti-social, Crime and Policing Act 2014 a number of new powers were created to address the problem of irresponsible dog ownership. Some replace existing powers while others are new. All are designed to give greater flexibility in tacking irresponsible dog owners and incidents involving dogs. The Act also amended Part 7 of the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 to extend the offence of a dog being “dangerously out of control” to all places, including private property where the dog has the right to be and to make explicit that an attack on an assistance dog is an aggravated (more serious) offence. These powers include Acceptable Behaviour Contracts(ABCs), Community Protection Notices (CPNs), and Public Spaces Protection Orders (PSPOs).


    PSPOs and Working Dogs

    Having a reasonable excuse is a defence for failing to comply with requirements under a PSPO, much like under Dog Control Orders. Local authorities should consider the applicability of this defence in cases involving working dogs, or consider exempting working dogs from the application of PSPOs where appropriate, for example where they have previously been able to operate in areas subject to a Dog Control Order. PSPOs are not intended to restrict the normal activities of working dogs and these activities are not envisaged to meet the threshold for the making of a PSPO.

    There is no reason why a properly conducted hunt should fall foul of these new powers, nor should these be capable of being used by those hostile to hunting or other activities involving working dogs if the law and accompanying guidance is followed. Clearly, were a hunt or working dog owner to repeatedly cause nuisance to an individual or community through out of control dogs then action may be taken, but the same would have been the case under previous anti-social behaviour laws.

    A summary of some of the provisions is given below. For full details go to:

    Acceptable Behaviour Contracts (ABCs)

    These are not legally binding and non-statutory agreements which are designed to enable local authorities to address problems associated with dogs and to try and persuade an irresponsible owner to reform. The guidance suggests that ABCs can be used where behaviour could escalate into more serious incident but does not does not currently meet any statutory thresholds for formal powers.

    Community Protection Notices (CPNs)

    These are designed for “low-level” incidents including failing to control a dog and includes causing nuisance to other people or animals. However, such behaviour has to “be having a detrimental effect on the quality of life of those in the locality; be both “persistent and continuing” and “be unreasonable”. A written warning must be issued before a CPN is issued. This is to allow the owner of the dog the opportunity to address any concerns before a CPN is issued. Breach of a CPN is a criminal offence.

    Public Spaces Protection Orders (PSPOs)

    PSPOS will replace and allow for similar restrictions as Dog Control Orders. They can be used to exclude dogs from certain areas or require dogs to be on leads etc. The guidance on these new powers states that “having a reasonable excuse is a defence for failing to comply with a PSPO”; that “ PSPOs are not intended to restrict the normal activities of working dogs” and that “these activities are not envisaged to meet the threshold for the making of a PSPO.