Why is My Dog Territorial at Home? Dog Territorial Aggression Solutions
Your dog's perceived territory may extend more than you think
Is your dog territorial of your house, yard of land? If so, rest assured you are not alone. Territoriality is quite common in the canine world, just take a walk in your neighborhood and count how many dogs are barking as you walk by. Of course, not all are necessarily barking to claim their territory, but we may assume that the vast majority is trying to tell you to get off their turf. In most cases, the dog is barking, running along the fence line and putting up a quite intimidating display meant to discourage people from entering their premises. For good reasons, many dog owners find it useful to relegate their dogs in the yard for the purpose of protecting the territory from intruders, but is this OK for the dog? Are there repercussions from doing so?
Also, you may be interesting in knowing what causes territorial behavior in the first place. What role did territoriality play in history? What signs suggest a dog is protecting his territory? What's the difference between a dog who is simply alerting his owner of intruders and a dog who is defensively protecting his turf? What dog breeds are predisposed to acting territorial? Most of all, how can this behavior be reduced? This is surely an interesting topic as it seems to affect so many dogs. Read on to learn more about dog territorial behavior.
What Causes Dog to Be Territorial? A Look Back in History
Depending on who you ask, nowadays, territorial behavior in dogs may be a prized attribution or a big liability. The behavior surely dates back a long time in history. If we go waaaay back into time before domestication took place, we can take a peak into wolves. While the gray wolf is consider the dog's ancestor, I don't like to compare wolves and dogs, just as it's not nice comparing humans and chimps, but it's sure interesting though to take a peak at how wolves perceive interference with their perceived territories. After wards, we can take a look at how dogs were utilized in the past for their territorial attributes.
Territorial Behaviors in Free-ranging Wolves
According to Western Wildlife Outreach "Wolf territories usually vary in size from 200 to 500 square miles, but may range from as little as 18 square miles to as much as 1,000 square miles." These large spaces are meant to ensure a steady supply of prey. The boundaries of wolf territory are defended preferably through non-confrontational methods. In times of survival, fighting with other wolves is counter-productive as it disperses energy that could otherwise be used for hunting and puts wolves at risk for serious injury.
Urine marking offers a non-confrontational way to claim turf. The urine marks are typically left every 240 meters throughout and are strategically left near rocks, boulders, trees or animal skeletons. They are estimated to last for about 2 to 3 weeks. Other than marking, according to Wolves Behavior, Ecology, and Conservation howling helps warn against intrusion, even though it's also used to locate other pack mates or invite other wolves to join in on a hunt. Howling is estimated to be heard, under certain conditions over areas of up to 50 square miles. According to Lopez, B.H. in "Of Wolves and Men" when wolves howl together, they tend to "harmonize rather than chorus on the same note, thus creating the illusion of there being more wolves than there actually are." This is quite an interesting manner of discouraging intruders! Direct attacks are left as a last resort such as when food supplies get scarce and packs must go beyond boundaries. Sadly, according to Wolf Worlds, often, these disputes are caused by human intervention! When humans invade their territory, wolves are forced to push further their boundaries causing them to overlap the territorial boundaries of other packs despite being scent marked. Fights therefore ensue so the wolves can continue having their claim over a location along with the food contained within. It's estimated that on average, more than 60 percent of wolf deaths are due to territorial issues.
Territorial Behaviors in Domesticated Dogs
Back to domesticated dogs, in ancient times, humans lived in peril either under the threat of large animals which saw humans as tasty meals or hostile humans with bad intentions. Dogs living in human villages were very helpful since as vigilant beings they would alert the presence of intruders whether the threat took form of some wild beast or an ill-intent human. Likely, this territorial instinct was reminiscent of the dog's ancestors and aided them in survival. Many behaviors that persist throughout time are those that allow a species to survive. The barking behavior back then helped the village people prepare for a defense as needed and spared them from having to post guardians in the night. For the dogs, their barking kept other competitor animals and intruders away from their safe havens. This mutual benefit was the foundation of the dog/human relationship.
Back in those days, therefore dogs were quite helpful and even life-savers at times. Indeed, the barking behavior was so prized back then,that dogs were selectively bred for based on their barking. According to Stanley Coren, dogs who barked loudly were nurtured, and bred with other barkers; whereas, dogs that did not bark were disposed of as they were considered pretty much useless. The strengthening of such “barking genes” was ultimately what distinguished dogs from wild canines which seldom vocalized compared to dogs. It's unfortunate that today, our tight-knit societies have made of dog barking more a nuisance than anything else! Sadly, what was prized in the past now often leads to dogs being relinquished to shelters!
Dog Breeds Used for Their Territorial Instincts
As humans evolved and moved out of villages, the dog's alert stance was further appreciated through time. With the advent of agriculture, dogs were often utilized to protect farms and livestock. Several dogs breeds were selectively bred to perform precise tasks. The Maremma dog and the Great Pyrenees were bred to resemble sheep, and with their white, fluffy coats, these dogs could camouflage within the flock and scare off wolves and other predators who invaded their territory with malicious intent. Still as of today, you'll see these dogs do night-time perimeter checks in people's properties at night out of instinct.
During the Roman Empire's quest to conquer the Europe, Rottweilers accompanied the troops on foot and the accompanying herds of cattle. Back then, refrigeration wasn't invented, so the troops had to rely on their herds of cattle for nourishment. The Rottweilers back then patrolled the areas and protected the herds from predators. Airedale terriers were often utilized in England as guardians of homes, yet, they soon fell out of favor once replaced with dogs who offered more intimidating looks. Several dog breeds that were initially utilized as herding dogs and hunting dogs, later on evolved into guardians. Common breeds cherished for their intimidating looks and guardian qualities included dobermans, German shepherds, boxers and Rottweilers. Giant-dog breeds were cherished for their sheer sizes making them natural deterrents. Mastiffs, for instance, guarded estates, patrolling the grounds at night.
Territorial instincts though were not a quality of only large dogs. Many small terriers like the Yorkie made prized watch dogs that would sound the alarm to alert of intruders. The small Lhasa Apso guarded Buddhist temples and monasteries in Tibet. Interestingly, watch dogs and guard dogs were sometimes used together. For instance, in Tibet, the Lhasa Apso would sound the alarm, while the Tibetan Mastiff intimidated the intruder away. This explains the big differences between watch dogs and guard dogs: watch dogs sound the alarm for anything perceived as unusual, whereas, guard dogs, take things a step further, sending the intruder away . For more on this read "guard dogs vs watch dog."
Not all dogs though make goods watch dogs. The Siberian husky, despite it's sheer size, has a reputation for making a poor guardian, even to the point of inviting thieves over for popcorn and a movie! Many of the hounds are also eager to meet and greet newcomers perhaps because of their strong pack drives. Then you have some large dogs like the Bloodhound, Newfoundland, great dane and Saint Bernard who may love visitors, yet their sizes makes them look intimidating by nature even if their intent is just to say hello.
It's important to note though that as with anything based on animal behavior, no rules are written in stone. You may stumble on watch dogs who take their watch dog capabilities very seriously, some may even bite ankles the moment the intruder turns around to leave then you may have guardian breeds who don't mind people or animals near their turf or who instead of reacting, make an about turn and retreat. We will see in the next paragraphs why there are so many variances as to how dogs react to having their territory invaded. It really ultimately depends on several factors.
How do Dogs Defend Their Territory and Why?
Whether a dog is defending his herd of sheep, his owner's yard or the home, territorial behavior takes place mostly within a designated area perceived as territory. The main distinguishing factor therefore that distinguishes this type of aggression from others is the fact that it mainly happens in places the dog feels as his turf. It's not always a home though. Some dogs will also defend the car, a crate or certain areas on walks where the dog spends some time. According to veterinary behaviorist Lore I. Haug, the onset for territorial behavior is expected to not show up until the dog reaches 6 months of age or older.
The ways dogs defend their territory varies based on several factors. Age, breed, genetics and the level of socialization and training the dog has received can be factors. You may therefore have dogs who will mostly bark to alert their owners of an intrusion. Once the owners acknowledge the bark and check the area, the barking often stops. These dogs may bark when guests are arriving but once the owner welcomes them inside the home, these dogs relax, but some may still keep an eye open if they don't trust the people over. A dog who is left alone in the yard to fend for himself may feel more insecure due to lack of owner guidance. You'll likely see the dog bark, run along the fence line, growl and even make himself appear bigger by raising his hackles over the shoulder and back so intimidate the intruder away.
What emotions are behind a territorial dog? A component of fear is often present in territorial behavior. Dogs who are fearful or weren't socialized much may not like having their safe haven invaded and may feel threatened. These are dogs who will nervously pace, bark and act restless until the intruder is gone. According to Victoria Stillwell "territorial aggression is a close behavioral cousin to resource guarding." Dogs are simply trying to protect access to areas they perceive crucial to their safety and survival.
An Example of my "Look at that and come back" session
Reducing Territorial Aggression in Dogs
"My dog keeps barking at people walking by the yard all day." "My dog doesn't like guests coming over" "My dog barks at dogs by the window." Owners of these dogs are often looking for a solution for their dog's territorial behavior. This article is follow up to my popular hub on territorial behavior in dogs that tackled causes for this behavior and many readers often questioned what to do about it. So what steps can be taken to reduce this type of behavior? Following are a few ideas.
Always Rule Out Medical Causes
As with any types of aggression, it's not a bad idea to rule out medical causes. Certain medical conditions may lower a dog's aggression threshold. Hypothyroidism loss of hearing or loss of vision, neurological disorders and any type of pain may be a trigger for aggressive behaviors. Medications such as corticosteroids may cause some dogs to become irritable and act out of character. If your dog is on medications, check if behavior changes are listed as side effects. Many behavior professionals won't work on dog behavior problems until the dogs has obtained a clean bill of health.
Determine the Triggers
When does your dog act aggressively? What triggers the behavior? When the visitor parks the car, rings the doorbell, comes inside or moves from room to room? When does the behavior stop? Once the guest comes inside, once the guest leaves? Is the behavior different when the dog is alone or when the owner is present? Is the behavior mostly targeted towards certain people? Only animals? Once you determine the triggers and make a list of them, you have a list of what exactly you need to work on. In behavior terms, we're looking at the "antecedents" that precede the dog's behavior responses.
Determine the Consequences
You are likely quite familiar with your dog's territorial behavior. Barking, lunging, growling is often part of the display. When does your dog's territorial display end? Territorial behavior often has a specific function and it's often to increase distance. The consequence of barking is often trying to send the intruder away. It can be a mix of fear, resource guarding and protective behavior. It's important to determine the consequence of the behavior so to have a better grip of exactly what your dog is getting out of the territorial behavior. For instance, if your dog barks at in intruder and the barking increases the closer he gets to his turf and then stops when he leaves, most likely the purpose of the barking was to send the person away. The barking intensified when the person got closer because the dog felt more threatened and was sort of sending the message " what part of my behavior you didn't get, go away!" When the dog succeeds in sending the intruder away, it's highly reinforcing, to be exact, for science junkies, it's negative reinforcement. Imagine how powerful you would feel if you sent several burglars away by just giving them a cold stare. Most likely, you would do that every time with every burglar as you have succeeded and your behavior was reinforced by the burglar leaving. Let's remember: behaviors that are reinforced, repeat. So soon, this behavior becomes part of the dog's behavior repertoire.
However, --and this is the beauty of dog behavior, you can't always make assumptions!--sometimes the barking may not be territoriality but may be a matter of barrier frustration. The dog behind the fence barking his head off is actually eager to go meet the person or other dog and because he can't, he gets frustrated so his arousal mixed with the fact he's prevented to do what he wants, leads to behavior.This behavior is often seen in dogs on the leash who are prevented from meeting people and other dogs. So as seen, what may look like territorial behavior, sometimes can be something else and it's not that easy to distinguish the two. In this case though, if the dog is let out of the fence, he'll likely rush up to the person and lick him like a long-lost friend. Instead of saying "go away" these dogs are saying "Yeaaaaah! a person! Hellooooooo! Look at me, look at me! I want to meet you so badly but.. this stupid fence, argghhhh..oh, I hate this fence!"
Provide Outlets for Pent-up Energy
Dog behavior problems are often amplified when the dog is overly aroused either because he's bored, under exercised and under stimulated. Many dog owners believe that a yard is a good place to leave the dog and he might as well just live there. Bored, and with little to do, the dog will get his own "job" and that often involves paying attention to anything in his surroundings and reacting to it. A well-exercised dog that is also kept mentally stimulated is less likely to invest his pent-up energy in undesirable behaviors such as barking, digging and pacing all day. So provide foraging opportunities, walk your dog, train your dog and let him spend quality time indoors with you. Dogs bred as working dogs, have an innate need to do something during the day and you certainly won't find them twiddling their thumbs or doing Sudoku in the yard! If these dogs have even a small streak of territoriality, it will be exploited and amplified about three times more in the unemployed pooches. This brings us to the next section.
Prevent Rehearsal of Territorial Behavior
Practice makes perfect. Actors know this well. The more they rehearse their roles, the better they get in acting. Same goes to your dog. The more he's let out to rehearse the role of the territorial pooch, the better he gets at it. You would think that is the perfect way to raise a guard dog, but nope, it's not for the simple fact that these bored outdoors dogs often become reactive over subtle little things that have nothing to do with protecting your home! They'll bark at the mailman, the little kids down the street playing, the neighbor's cat, your neighbor washing his car, while this barking may appear quite innocent in little watch dog breeds meant to alert you like Yorkies, consider that in some cases, larger dogs taking the territorial role too seriously, in some instances, have prevented EMT from rushing to save the dog owner from a massive heart attack! Yes, it has happened, dogs interfering with EMT trying to enter a home or a car to help save a life, something to consider if you own a dog that's highly protective and territorial. So how do you prevent rehearsal of territorial behavior? You avoid putting your dog in situations that trigger territorial behavior. We will see how in the next section.
Reduce Territoriality Through Management
Management. I like to call it "magical management" because it can accomplish a lot. In this case it means managing your dog's environment so to prevent rehearsal of unwanted behavior. Your dog steals socks? Keep socks out of reach. Your dog growls when he eats? Let him eat in a crate. Your dog barks at other dogs? Walk him when other dogs aren't around.This may seem like avoidance, but it's only to a certain extent. I know, many people dislike avoidance because it's just so obvious! Indeed, these solutions are so obvious, even your neighbor can you tell you that! I remember years ago, I was so disappointed when I heard a trainer I was apprenticing under once tell a client that the best way to prevent his dog from escaping was putting a fence. Whaaat? That guy paid the trainer just to say that? I was so expecting some magical solution with lots of "Oomph" and a drum-roll. But if you think like that, just as I did, you are missing out on a very important point. Fact is, there's a finale to management. Dog trainer Amy Bender says it all: "Dog behavior management is an important tool in preventing unwanted behaviors until your dog is trained to behave differently." Amen to that! Couldn't have explained it better! So now let's look at how to accomplish that.
Indoor dogs that bark at people or dogs passing by all day long by the window should first be provided with exercise and more mental stimulation, and then not be allowed access to such windows--at least until they have learned better behaviors. Board Certified Veterinary Behaviorist Dr. Stepita suggests covering the windows. There are many privacy window covers today that make windows look nice while preventing your dog from barking at passing stimuli all day. Blinds and curtains often don't work as dogs still may detect movement, and they're able to move them aside with their muzzles. Dogs who are reactive towards noises, do best being confined in a room farthest from the road and having some white noise playing such as that produced by a radio or TV or a fan blowing. When left alone, these dogs should be walked and exercised first and then left with a safe interactive toy that will keep him busy.
Erecting privacy fences may be the best investment for overly territorial dogs. The best solutions are brick walls for those who can afford them. I recommend taking a look at my hub on "Fence ideas for dog owners". Some fencing options may not work well as dogs may still detect movement. This can make territoriality worse in those dogs who bark at things they cannot fully understand what they are. Some dogs do better seeing exactly what is passing by and then deciding if it's worthy of barking or not. Not seeing what they're dealing with may cause barking at whatever it is.
We now go the the "meaty" part of this hub which is changing the dog's behavior. A good role is played by teaching a dog to be calm, and rewarding calm behaviors. For indoor territoriality and outdoor territoriality this involves several steps. Here are the steps:
1) Work Under Threshold
How many times have you tried stopping your dog from barking or asked him a command and it went through deaf ears? Most likely, that's because he's overly aroused and unable to pay attention. How would you feel if there's a burglar trying to jump your fence, and your mom asks you to fix your hair as it's messy? Most likely, you would tell your mom "hey Mom, there's more important things going on!" That's how your dog may feel. Last year, I had a Great Pyrenees over for training and boy was she on a mission in the evening when she heard noises! If you would ask her to sit, she'll look at you like "Hey, I am on a mission here, don't interfere with my work asking me to do things we can do at other times!" In dog training, there's a point where your dog may know how to sit like a princess in the yard, but then if you ask for a sit on walks, your dog looks like he's in another world. This is often because you haven't proofed your training near distractions yet, or your dog is too fearful or aroused to cognitively function.
To train around distractions in training or to change behavior when there's excessive fear or arousal, you'll need to take small steps and work with your dog under threshold. This often entails adding distance. Put your dog on a leash and let him see stimuli at a distance from the window or from the fence where he acknowledges the triggers but without them evoking a territorial response. When your dog is at a distance where he's calmer, desensitization can take place, when you're at a distance where he's aroused, sensitization can take place. This can make the difference between improving or worsening behavior. In desensitization, your dog is exposed to less intense versions of his triggers which makes them easier to accept. If you're scared of or dislike spiders, you'll like do better if your therapist has you looking at one walking across the room than one crawling on your arm! In sensitization, your dog is exposed to more intense versions of his triggers, which makes them harder to accept. If you're scared of spiders, putting one on your arm will likely increase your fear of them and you may even no longer want to do therapy anymore! Next, let's add some behavior modification to change the emotional response
2) Add Classical Counterconditioning
Don't let this term intimidate you, all it means is that you're changing your dog's emotional responses to triggers through pleasant associations. The objective of this method is to change the dog's emotions from dreading the triggers to actually looking forward to them because they're predictors of good things. Back to your spider phobia, how would you feel if every time you saw a spider a $100 bill fell from the sky, most likely you would want those critters around you more and more! One of my preferred methods for changing emotions is through Leslie' McDevitt's LAT game. Let your dog see the trigger and every time he sees it feed tasty high-value treats that are only exclusively used for behavior modification sessions. I also like Jean Donaldson's Open Bar, Closed Bar, where you make it very clear to the dog that when the trigger is present he's fed tasty treats, and when the trigger is gone, no more treats. This works well for triggers that predictably come and go, in a going-going, gone fashion, like cars and people. Some professionals like instead to use Grisha Stewart's BAT which can also be successful if implemented correctly. I commonly use counterconditioning along with desensitization, making sure to take baby steps and gradually and systematically, getting closer to the trigger. If at any time the dog appears to be upset, it's time to take a few steps back and give more distance and work from there before progressing. One of the biggest problems of behavior modification
Add Operant Counterconditioning
Do you remember when at the beginning we talked about asking your dog to sit when he's acting territorial and your dog wasn't listening? Well, now is the time to get your dog to work. The late author, veterinarian and animal behaviorist Dr. Sophia Yin, recommended implementing differential reinforcement of alternative behavior, also known as operant counterconditioning once the dog's emotion change. So now that your dog is calmer and even looks forward to seeing the triggers behind the fence or window, you can put him to work (be operant). Every time he sees the trigger, you can ask him to sit and give the high value reward, or ask him to come to you and give him the reward or tell him to go to a mat and give him the reward. Personally, I like to use my version of post-LAT work called: "look at that and come back" which is only to be used once a dog's emotional response has changed for the better. The negative reinforcement portion should have been cancelled out. I basically put on cue looking out the window, taking a quick peak at the stimulus and then getting back to me for a treat. Regardless of what you ask him to do, the take-home message is the same: "every time the trigger pops up, my owner ask me to do something and then I get the treat." For science/ learning theory junkies, this is where B. F. Skinner meets Pavlov, and Pavlov gets to sit on his shoulder!
Consult with a Professional
Behavior modification comes with risks. Some dogs are overly aroused when they are defending their territory. This is why you sometimes see dogs fighting when they see a trigger, they just gets so aroused, their adrenaline is pumping and they redirect on each other which triggers a scuffle. Same thing can happen to humans, If your dog is overly aroused and you touch him or interfere, this can put you at a risk for a bite. This is why your best bet is to consult with a professional. A professional will help your work under threshold so your dog is calmer and you are safer. Look for one not using pain or intimidation, you want your dog to trust you and look forward to seeing triggers without stress. Professionals will include dog trainers well versed in behavior modification techniques and certified applied animal behaviorists (CAAB) or board-certified veterinary behaviorist (DACVB)
Disclaimer: behavior modification comes with risks! Please play it safe and consult with a professional to get started in behavior modification. By reading my articles, you automatically accept all disclaimers.
Alexadry© all rights reserved, do not copy.
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- Understanding Dog Counterconditioning
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