Adrienne is a certified dog trainer and former veterinarian assistant who partners with some of the best veterinarians worldwide.
Territorial Aggression in Dogs
Territorial aggression may be a prized attribute for owners looking for a good guard dog, but it can ultimately have a lot of downsides. While it is an innate quality in certain dog breeds such as German Shepherds, Akitas, or Rottweilers, a territorial and aggressive dog can turn out to be a big liability. Hence, the series of lawsuits, specific dog breed legislations, and so forth that come along with owning a territorial dog.
Dogs Are Territorial by Nature
Protecting territory is in a natural canine instinct. In the wild, canines tend to claim territory and will defend it through intimidating barks if other dogs or animals get too close. This is an instinctive way to protect mates, young puppies and dens where the dogs sleep.
Today, this instinctive nature has remained partially unchanged in the dog, therefore it is used to the owner's advantage to protect personal property. The typical cliché of a mailman or gas-meter guy being barked at or chased is a classic example.
Often, a fear component is at the base of what seems like territorial behavior. However, the territorial response can be greatly diminished with proper socialization and some changes.
While it is true that some dog breeds were genetically selected to be good guard dogs or watch dogs (think the many small dogs who bark at the minimal sound), in many cases, dogs can be taught to be less territorial.
Of course, this is best if it is accomplished from a young age, since once mature, most dogs tend to develop territorial tendencies such as urine marking, barking at strangers and generally becoming more aloof towards people approaching their property.
How to Reduce Territorial Aggression in Dogs
Following are some helpful tips on how to stop territorial aggression in dogs.
As previously mentioned, there are dog breeds that make better guard dogs or watch dogs than others. This is because they have been selected for their guarding or watch dog qualities.
While some guard dogs may be taught to be less territorial, the guarding instinct may still remain up to a certain extent unless you work heavily on training and socializing. For example, Rottweilers are considered territorial dogs, but in the right hands and training, they can turn into the dogs of your dreams.
If you do not want a dog that may potentially protect your property, it is best to skip the guarding/watch dog breeds and look for other breeds that are less apt to this job. For example, Siberian huskies have a reputation for making lousy guard dogs.
Socialize Your Dog
Remember to socialize your dog. Enroll them in classes, and teach your dog that people are not a threat that needs to be sent away. Have your mailman deliver treats every time he passes by. Have friends and neighbors stop by and give treats. Let your dog learn that people coming to the property means great things happen.
However, consider that what may look like territoriality is instead something else. A dog that is happy to see people may develop what's known as barrier frustration, which often resembles a lot territoriality in its manifestation (barking, growling, lunging). Instead, this behavior surfaces when a dog is eager to meet and greet, but frustrated because a fence, gate, window or other barrier prevents him to. Once free of any barrier, these go on to meet and greet people happily.
Prevent Rehearsal of Territorial Behavior
The more a dog engages in a behavior, the more the behavior is reinforced. Therefore, you'll have to take steps to prevent rehearsal of the problematic behavior. These tips will be help teach your dog that guarding the home is no longer their responsibility:
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- Prevent your dog from charging at the window, fence or door.
- Limit access to areas where your dog tends to engage in territorial behaviors and where you cannot provide guidance. You can do this by allowing your dog to spend time in a room that is farthest from the window or confine him to an area away from the window blocked off by a baby-gate. As the saying goes, "out of sight, out of mind!"
- Block visuals. You can do so by applying some opaque window film to your windows so to prevent your dog from seeing outside.
Make It Clear That You Are the Decision-Maker
Make it clear to your dog that you will be the one that will decide if that stranger coming into your house will be your friend or foe. Your dog should look up to you for advice on how to behave in the presence of that stranger that entered your property and not take the decision in his hands, or better, paws.
Stay in front of the window or door when you recognize a trigger, and feed your dog treats before he has a chance to react. You can find more on this exercise among these dog impulse control games.
"You need to provide your dog some rules. The dog is acting out of the mistaken belief that it’s up to him to control who comes into the house and who doesn’t. So the rule might be that when someone comes to the door, that’s the cue for the dog “to sit, or go in another room, or whatever you decide."
— Dr. Borns-Weil, veterinary behaviorist
Claim the Door
If your dog flies up to the door when a guest is knocking, tell him to stay aside. This will help your dog understand that you are the one that takes care of your guests. You should be able to open the door undisturbed, and your dog should leave you ample space to open the door.
A good method is to teach the dog the stay command or tell your dog to "go to your mat" even when the door is knocked or a bell is rung. Practice this with guests.
Thank Your Dog, and Say "That's Enough!"
Some dogs can be quite good barkers when somebody is near or in their territory. If you do not want a territorial dog, you do not need to punish or yell at your dog for barking. Rather, simply thank your dog for the bark, inspect your place for any intruders, and tell your dog ''that's enough'' after you acknowledge all is safe. Pop a treat for complying. A dog that gives a warning bark or two is a good thing, and should be acknowledged. You never know what could happen.
Watch Your Feelings
You may hide your feelings of fear towards a suspicious person, but it's likely that that message was relayed all the way down the leash. The truth is that dogs are very in tune with their owners, and they can easily perceive feelings of anger, fear or anguish.
When dogs feel you are uncomfortable, they may take what looks like a protective role—but most likely it's fear, causing them to growl and act defensively towards that person. So, remember to keep your cool or keep your dog away from situations that do not make you comfortable.
Keep Your Dog Contained
A dog that is left in an un-fenced area tends to believe that they own quite a large area and may become territorial even out of the property limits. On top of this, there are many risks with having off-leash dogs. It is best to fence off your property so your dog has some sort of boundary to remind him that this is his place and so he'll stay out of trouble. Better yet, prevent your dog from rehearsing the territorial behavior by keeping him inside and outside only when he's with you.
Invite Strangers Over
Try to invite people that your dog has not met onto your property and show your dog that they are friendly. A good way to start is by having friends pass by your property and toss a few treats when the dog is not barking at them.
Then, invite them over and let them toss treats every time the dog does not act territorial. Use the treat and retreat game. Here is an example of behavior modification done on a dog barking when somebody enters the room.
There are people who own dogs that literally love the mailman because they have told the mailman to ''deliver'' the dog some goodies every time he brings the mail. For more on this read, Why Dogs Hate the Mailman.
As seen, there are various ways to prevent or at least reduce some territorial aggression in dogs. While a dog that fiercely bares its teeth and growls at strangers may be a liability, a dog that emits one or two warning barks may be a good thing and should be acknowledged with a ''thank you''.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
© 2009 Adrienne Farricelli
onyango Henry on January 31, 2020:
I have liked you comments and will adhere to them.
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on August 10, 2015:
This article has several links on behavior modification strategies, some of them are outlined in this hub: https://discover.hubpages.com/animals/Why-is-My-Do...
"Look at that and come back" is helpful, but your dog must be under threshold which may not be easy if your dog's highly aroused.. You may need the help of a behavior professional to help you out. I am afraid you are looking for a quick fix. Consider that changing behavior takes time and the longer the dog was allowed to rehearse it the longer it will take.
Jason on August 10, 2015:
still looking for solutions to fence aggression. get a different breed?
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on October 07, 2011:
If he ''always wants to do his will'' he sounds like he needs some obedience training first. Have him take a class, and then once he is better manageable, you can try the above tips. He needs to be able to listen to your commands and be under control or you may have a huge liability on your hands. I would suggest having a trainer show you how to fit a ''gentle leader'' and then work on commands and finally work on some counter conditioning where guests bring good things as treats and should no longer be perceived as threats. Here is a behavior modification guide that you would have to apply when people enter your home;
NNNN on October 07, 2011:
I have a Komondor, and i'm having problems. I can't invite anyone over because he is very territorial. He doesn't bite, but he jumps and intimidates, and I'm afraid he could have other reactions. The problem is that the tips given here are difficult to apply because he is huge, and he always want's to do his will. Any idea how to control this problem?
Arkovaca from Austin, TX. on December 01, 2009:
I have a blue heeler that is very territorial, though she is very smart, and learns quickly. Nevertheless, I'm ever reading helpful training techniques. This was a well done, informative piece. Many thanks!