Characteristics of Territorial Aggression in Dogs
Territorial aggression towards other dogs, as the name implies, is a form of aggression that is context-based and targeted towards dogs approaching a dog's perceived territory.
The phrase "perceived property" is key here, considering that, from a dog's perspective, property may extend beyond boundary lines. In many cases, dogs may therefore chase other dogs away from quite a distance from the actual home (like the road that leads to the home).
Affected dogs typically display distance-increasing behaviors (meant to send other dogs away) such as barking, growling, lunging and even attacking other dogs approaching the dog's "perceived turf."
Being a very contextual type of aggression, we expect territorial aggression in dogs to happen in specific areas perceived as territory and don't expect it to happen in areas that aren't associated with perceived territory.
Its main characteristic, therefore, lies in the fact that the aggressive display takes place in areas the dog perceives as his/her territory.
So for sake of an example, we would expect a dog to show territorial aggression directed towards other dogs when the dog is in the yard, nearby boundary lines, on walks around the neighborhood, and when the dog is inside the car (which many dogs perceive as well as territory) or in a crate.
We wouldn't expect this form of aggression to take place in novel places or neutral areas such as training classes or at the vet's office or other places that fail to establish a sense of familiarity.
A dog who reacts to all dogs regardless of place is more likely to be dealing with some other form of aggression such as fear aggression.
Unlike fear aggression which can have an early onset, in the case of territorial aggression, this behavior is not expected to occur at least until the dog is 6 months of age or older.
In particular, the onset of territorial behavior is expected to start at around 8 to 10 months of age and gets progressively worse over the next 12 to 24 months, especially if a dog’s environment isn't correctly managed (read more about management under the solutions section).
Certain dog breeds are more predisposed to territorial aggression. Typically affected dogs are guarding breeds and herding breeds. However, it's important to consider the environment in which the dog is raised as well.
Under-socialized dogs in particular can be more likely to develop territorial aggression as a result of concomitant fear aggression.
While territorial aggression may appear to be bold, where the dog simply sends intruder dogs off from his territory, it is believed to have some fear components too.
Typically, the presence of boundaries (like a door, gate or fence-line) tends to intensify the behavior, but so do confined spaces, such as cars, crates, or the dog being on a tether or chain. Dogs who engage in a lot of fence running and tend to escape their yards and spend time patrolling their perceived properties are more likely to act aggressively.
The main characteristic of territorial aggression is that the aggression tends to intensify with proximity. In other words, it escalates as other dogs move closer to the perceived territory and de-escalates once they are past it.
Did you know? Certain dog behaviors can be easily transmitted to other dogs sharing a household in a copycat fashion. The phenomenon of dogs learning by watching other dogs is known as "social facilitation." Therefore, if you have one dog who is predisposed to acting territorial, you want to separate him/her from the other dogs or the other dogs risk becoming "territorial" as well.
How to Treat Territorial Aggression Towards Dogs
Treating territorial aggression towards other dogs requires a mixture of behavior modification and training. For safety and correct implementation of behavior modification, it's important enlisting the help of a professional.
The below tips are therefore just examples of what a behavior modification plan may entail, as every dog will need an individualized approach.
Rule Out Medical Conditions
It's always a good idea to rule out medical causes for dog aggression, especially if the behavior has started out of the blue. There are several conditions that can increase a dog's arousal levels making them more likely to react.
Namely, hypothyroidism (low thyroid levels), hyperadrenocorticism (Cushing's disease), loss of hearing, loss of vision and any type of neurological or painful conditions that could make a dog feel vulnerable or trapped are some important differentials to rule out before assuming that the issue is entirely behavioral.
The use of some medications such as corticosteroids (like prednisone), phenylpropanolamine and theophylline can also increase anxiety and trigger behavior changes in dogs.
Use Management Techniques
Have you ever heard the saying "practice makes perfect?" Well, on top of allowing actors to perform well after rehearsing a play over and over, dogs practicing territorial behaviors over and over allows them to get particularly good at it, turning into an established habit that becomes more and more difficult to eradicate.
Here's the thing, every time your dog barks, growls or lunges towards other dogs, he or she will come to think that it's thanks to his barking, growling or lunging that the other dog ends up moving away. The sense of relief obtained when the other dog leaves is quite powerful, allowing the behavior to establish a strong reinforcement history.
Management, therefore, entails taking steps to prevent dogs from rehearsing their problematic behaviors. Here are just a few examples:
- If your dog escapes the yard, steps must be taken to prevent this from happening. Fix any holes and gaps in your fencing.
- If your dog acts territorial towards other dogs that walk by the yard, prevent access to the yard when such dogs are walking by. If your dog must be taken out of the yard, keep him on leash at a distance from the fence line.
- If your dog acts territorial when in the car, park far away from other dogs.
- If your dog acts territorial when he sees other dogs through an indoor window, prevent access to such window (use baby gates or cover the windows with opaque window film or curtains).
- If your dog acts territorial when taken on neighborhood walks, walk at times there are fewer dogs around, and train your dog an emergency u-turn if another dog is coming your way.
Provide Exercise and Mental Stimulation
Dogs thrive when they are provided with exercise and mental stimulation. Deprived of this important duo, dogs are more likely to feel chronically frustrated which can lead to undesirable behaviors.
Aerobic exercises have been proven to allow dogs to release pent-up energy while also releasing feel-good endorphins which are known for promoting calmer behaviors.
Mental stimulation provided in the form of brain games, food puzzles and training provides the mental enrichment dogs crave allowing outlets for instinctive behaviors in a positive way.
It can be very tempting to deliver corrections through a shock collar, a prong collar or a choke chain every time the dog acts territorial towards dogs, but this can end up backfiring.
Here's the thing: Dogs are animals who learn through associations. If a dog has neck pain and the owner grabs the dog by the collar when there's a visitor at the door, with time, the dog may associate that pain with the visitor.
The same can happen when using shock, prong and choke collars or any other aversion-based methods. Basically, if every time your dog sees another approaching he is given a correction, he may come to associate the presence of the other dog with the pain/unpleasant sensation.
This just adds up to the dog's level of stress and tends to exacerbate things rather than ameliorate them.
Implement Behavior Modification
The goal of behavior modification is to expose the dog to its triggers using a structured, gradual manner (through desensitization) so as to keep the dog under threshold, while also creating positive associations (through counterconditioning).
So in the case of a dog territorial towards other dogs, behavior modification may entail the following steps.
- Find a distance where the dog is under threshold. Your dog should be able to see other the dog (who is walked on leash by a helper), but this other dog should be at a distance that doesn't evoke the territorial behavior nor cause in your dog any particular concern.
- Feed the dog high-value treats anytime he sees another dog walk by. You can find a sample of how this is done in the article on Leslie McDevitt's Look at Dog Game. Another helpful exercise is Jean Donaldson's Open Bar/Closed Bar method. This method adds a level of clarity as your dog is fed treats when the other dog is in sight and no more treats are fed when the other dog is no longer in sight. Treat delivery happens contingent upon the sight of the other dog.
- Practice in several sessions, always ensuring your dog is comfortable. If your dog ever reacts, that's often a sign that he wasn't ready for that level of exposure. Keep tabs on what may have caused the setback (the other dog was too close, was too hyper) and aim to reduce the level of exposure next time before progressing.
- Aim to obtain what is known as a positive conditioned emotional response. In other words, your dog looks forward to the other dog walking by/approaching rather than dreading his presence.
- As your dog improves, start gradually raising criteria. In other words, raise the bar. Have somebody walk the other dog closer, but always being extra careful in taking baby steps as always. Use your dog's body language/reactions as a barometer of whether it's time to progress to the next step. Your behavior professional should be skilled in reading dogs and can help you with this.
Train These Helpful Cues
Once your dog is calmer when other dogs walk by or approach, it can be time to further raise the bar and train your dog to engage in alternate behaviors when he sees the other dog.
Train these behaviors fluently starting indoors where there are no visible dogs, and then progress to practicing in the yard when your dog is on leash and then on walks.
For example, if your dog is unhappy with other dogs walking by the yard, you can train your dog to respond to a smacking sound you make with your mouth. This sound tells your dog to come to you for a treat. Start by first training a fluent response to the sound at home before practicing outdoors and then in the presence of other dogs.
If your dog acts territorial around other dogs on walks, you can train him to respond to your smacking sound and do several steps of attention heeling (dog heeling next to you looking into your eyes) while you pass by the dog. This tells your dog to look up at you as he walks by the other dog while he is given several treats. Once you are far past the dog, the treat delivery stops. Here's a guide on training your dog to look into your eyes.
If you are on walks and off-leash dogs approach, you may find it helpful teaching your dog to target your hand or stay behind you in a sit-stay. Here are more tips: how to keep off-leash dogs away from your dog.
If your dog is territorial towards other dogs when he is in the car, you can find these tips helpful: how to stop a dog from acting territorial of the car.
The Importance of Working With a Professional
Once again, it's important to work along with a professional. This is for your safety and the safety of others around you. When dogs get very reactive towards other dogs, they can bite when touched or they may get into a fight with the other dog, and if you're nearby or somebody else is, you can become the victim of a re-directed bite.
The behavior professional can help you read your dog's body language, gauge your dog's progress, set realistic goals and coach you through the plan ensuring you aren't progressing too fast nor too slow.
Enlisting the help of a board-certified veterinary behaviorist can provide you with many benefits. He or she can rule out medical conditions and determine whether your dog may benefit from pharmacologic intervention.
- Lindsey SR. Intraspecific and Territorial Aggression. Handbook of Applied Dog Behavior and Training. Ames, IA: Iowa State Press; 2001:219
- Endorphins and exercise: Physiological mechanisms and clinical implications. Thorén P, Floras JS, Hoffman P, Seals DR. Med Sci Sports Exerc 22:417-428, 1990.
- Overall Karen. Clinical Behavioral Medicine for Small Animals. St. Louis: Mosby, 1997: 8xj518-137.
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.
© 2021 Adrienne Farricelli