Training a territorial dog


My dog is very territorial. Is there any way to “train” her out of that?


Like most creatures, including humans, dogs are territorial by nature. This is based on the fact that possession of those resources deemed valuable (including territory) bodes well for survival. Some dogs are genetically predisposed to have a greater propensity for aggressive tendencies. This is due in great part to selective breeding for dogs who are best suited to guard us and our property and is part of why dogs have been so revered as companions and assistants to people over thousands of years. Barking to warn us of potential intruders is often an expression of the dogs’ territorial instinct and is appreciated by many pet parents.

However, in some cases a tendency to guard people, places, or things becomes detrimental to the canine-human relationship. Some dogs can become aggressive towards their own family in an effort to guard things they consider their possessions. This can include food, toys, people, and territory. Dogs who display this sort of behavior can, at the least, become worrisome to live with, and at worst can cause serious damage to people and other animals. Living with a dog with aggression issues can be stressful and potentially dangerous.

Other underlying causes of territorial aggression may include lack of adequate, early socialization or gentling and handling exercises, sexual maturation, and underlying medical issues. Since there is most often a genetic predisposition to this issue, the goal is not to cure the problem as much as to control and manage it in an effort to decrease the frequency and severity of possible aggressive displays.

Nobody wants to have their dog labeled as ‘aggressive’ and few people ever suspect that the young pup they bring into their home might someday behave aggressively. Surprisingly for some people, dogs who display a more reserved or fearful temperament as a pup may reach adolescence or adulthood and develop aggression issues. These types of dogs often exhibit aggressive displays that seem less confident and more anxious, but it is aggression and potentially dangerous all the same. As a dog matures, subtle indicators of a potential problem are often overlooked until they are amplified by experience (or lack thereof in regards to anti-aggression exercises all pups should take part of as soon as possible).

Additionally, some aggressive behaviors are inadvertently reinforced. For example, if a young pup grabs a toy and runs off under a table or behind a couch with it, family members might giggle at what is deemed part of typical puppy antics but which may progress into a dog who responds aggressively when people attempt to take toys or food away. Likewise, a young dog might growl when a person attempts to move the dog from one location to another or a young dog who barks at people (possibly out of fear or lack of socialization) is often rewarded when people move away from the dog. In these, and many other scenarios, the dog is sending clear signals that it needs the family’s assistance to better cope with daily life with people, including learning not to guard objects and territories, and to calmly accept the approach of a wide variety of people.

Early preventative intervention, such as attending a puppy class where social skills and friendly manners should be a top priority, is ideal. However, once an aggression issue has developed it is vital that an honest assessment of the severity of the problem be made. To do so requires an awareness of some of the signs of aggression. Many people assume aggression is simply when a dog bites. But, a dog bite is usually prefaced by early warning signals that went unrecognized or were punished so as to extinguish the dogs ability to warn with a growl or bark rather than biting. The subtlety or severity of aggressive displays or behaviors in response to a real or perceived threat can vary on a wide scale and include some or all of the following:

  • Freezing when approached
  • Turning away
  • Lifting of the lips
  • Growling
  • Barking
  • Snapping
  • Lunging
  • Biting

To follow are some suggestions for things to consider when dealing with aggression. In most cases, it is advisable to retain the assistance of an experienced professional who takes a humane, motivation-based approach who can assist you with implementing a behavior modification plan.

  • Identify triggers for aggression.
  • Management and supervision to prevent triggering aggressive displays.
  • Obedience training to provide a foundation for a cooperative relationship.
  • Adhering to a Nothing in Life for Free program to help your dog better understand the basis of the canine-human relationship (i.e. you control all of the good stuff in life).
  • Systematic desensitization and counter-conditioning to aggression triggers.
  • Plenty of physical and mental exercise to prevent boredom and related stress.
  • A nutritionally balanced diet designed specifically for dogs with aggression issues (talk to your vet about the potential use of a lower protein food).
  • Discuss any potential underlying medical issues with your veterinarian.

When dealing with aggression issues, of primary concern is maintaining the safety of all who come in contact with the dog. This is best achieved by pinpointing to the best of your ability what specific situations elicit the dog’s aggressive response. This way you can avoid these possible triggers, and by doing so you can help prevent injury to yourself or others as well as the opportunity for your dog to practice the aggressive behavior and have it develop into an even more deeply rooted habit.

When you have visitors, be sure your dog is kept behind a secure door or in a crate once taught to rest calmly and quietly in this space by starting with brief periods of time. Be sure your dog also occasionally spends some time in this area when there are no visitors in your home. As a general rule, dogs who have aggression issues should never be in a situation where they are unsupervised or off leash and exposed to other dogs or people to whom they could cause injury. Depending on what triggers the aggression, it is usually best to keep your dog on a leash at all times when you are there to supervise so that you can use the leash to maintain control by calmly and gently moving your dog away from any potential triggers.

Perhaps most importantly, it is vital to avoid the use of any punishment based approaches as they are likely to further escalate the issue. If a dog has already shown they are willing to react to you or another person with aggression, then in all likelihood they are even more likely to do so when they feel threatened by being yelled at, yanked, grabbed, or otherwise physically or verbally punished. Furthermore, punishing the dog for low level aggressive displays such as growling is unlikely to prevent future, more advanced and dangerous aggression. In fact, it is likely to make matters worse by teaching the dog not to offer warning signals. Unfortunately, this often results in people saying the dog “bit without warning.”

In addition to management, you should make a plan to teach your dog specific behaviors which can be used as a way to get your dog to earn what he wants (food, toys, attention, and life rewards) and as a way to redirect or focus your dog to something positive as an alternative and a distraction from the aggression trigger.

All dogs, but most especially those with aggression issues, will benefit from a ‘learn to earn’ program, also sometimes referred to as a Nothing in Life for Free (NILFF) approach. By getting and maintaining control of all of those things your dog wants you have the safest and most effective chance of getting control of your dog and ultimately helping your dog to become a cooperative canine. Resources to control are:

  • Food (the dog’s normal meals as well as special treats)
  • Toys
  • Attention (including eye contact, petting, and talking to your dog)
  • Life Rewards (these are all those activities your dog might enjoy such as going for a walk, being invited on the couch, being allowed through a doorway, etc.)

Most people are familiar with the use of a treat to teach a dog to sit or lie down. But, every bit of food you give your dog, especially normal meals, should be put to good use. Rather than feeding your dog from a food bowl, set aside a few minutes at each meal time to hand feed your dog a part of his food in exchange for responding to a request to sit, lie down, look at you, come when called or hand target.

This is comparable to a supervisor at work expecting you to perform certain tasks prior to getting a paycheck. Helping your dog understand what he needs to do to get what he wants and that you control all of the good stuff will create a basis for decreasing aggression issues. At those times when you can’t hand feed your dog, ask him to respond to a request or two prior to putting his food down for him. Additionally, if the dog has behaved aggressively when fed in the kitchen, try feeding in a new area where aggression has not been previously displayed.

Start teaching your dog to respond willingly and reliably to requests in an environment that is as calm as possible to prevent potential distraction during this crucial period of setting a foundation for future learning. Keep training sessions to 3-5 minutes in length and plan them for times when you suspect your dog will be in the best possible state of mind to learn. For most dogs this is just prior to meal time. Repetition is the key to building learning muscles just as it is to building physical muscles. So, try to plan for many brief sessions throughout the day so your dog has many opportunities to practice and earn rewards for behaviors you like.

This is sure to create a dog who is motivated to respond reliably to your requests and is therefore going to be more manageable even when eventually exposed to those things which have previously triggered aggression. These behaviors are incompatible with aggression which means when your dog is doing them he will not be growling, barking, lunging or biting. As you start to gradually work with your dog around low levels of the triggers you identified, you will be essentially taking up more room in your dog’s thought process with these things and leaving less room for your dog’s previous thought pattern which resulted in aggression.

The key to desensitization is to expose the dog to specific stimuli that trigger the response you are trying to change (i.e. an aggressive response) at a level that is as low as possible so as to stay well below the threshold where the response is activated. In the case of a dog who is territorial of a specific area of the home, working on having the dog respond to requests to sit and other obedience behaviors is best started as far away from that area as possible. As you gradually move closer over the course of many days or weeks, it is vital to carefully observe your dog’s behavior.

If their typical response rate decreases or their body language indicates stress, fear or aggression then you are moving too quickly and need to lower your standards by moving away, asking for less, or taking a time out from the training session. In the case of territorial aggression in the home, it is advisable to include as part of management preventing your dog from having access to those areas unless you have granted permission and are confident the dog will respond to you when asked to come, sit, lie down, hand target, etc.

Like all behavior issues, aggression problems can be a serious obstacle to the cooperative nature of the ideal canine-human bond. Modifying aggression issues requires a calm, patient, consistent, non-confrontational approach. Aggression problems usually require a lifetime of careful management, but using the suggestions above and working with a skilled professional should help.