Dogs have a normal, inherited drive to defend their territory, and most
dog owners want their pet to alert them when someone comes to the door. Problems
arise when this drive is extremely strong and the dog growls, lunges at, or
bites visitors. The problem is compounded when the dog learns that it can
frighten away visitors, as most people confronted with a growling or snapping
dog quickly back off. Once the dog learns how effective aggressive behavior
can be, it increases in intensity and becomes more difficult to eliminate.
Dogs express territorial aggression in many ways. One dog may bark aggressively,
growl or lunge at visitors. Some dogs calm down once the visitor is in the
home, but threaten if they move quickly or approach the owner. Dogs that wag
their tail while growling are torn by two conflicting desires. They want to
greet the person, but also to warn him off. These dogs are particularly dangerous
because many people mistakenly believe that a dog wagging its tail will not
Territorial aggression is often first noticed when the dog is 6-7 months
old. The dog may be friendly on neutral territory, and is often protective
of only one specific thing, the car or the backyard, for example. Fear may
be combined with territorial aggression. A fearful dog growls, but backs off
if approached. However, when the person turns his back and presents a less
fearful stimulus, the dog's territorial aggression overcomes its fear, and
it may bite the person on the back of the leg or the ankle.
CAUSES OF TERRITORIAL AGGRESSION
1. The dog inherits a drive to protect its territory from its parents.
The intensity of this drive varies between individuals. Problems occur when
the drive to protect territory is very strong. Because the drive to protect
is inherited, it is difficult to alter.
2. Territorial aggression problems are often exacerbated by learning. The
dog learns that if he growls at people they will go away. Yelling at the
dog or punishing him will not prevent the behavior, but will often increase
3. Although the behavior may be seen in both male and female dogs, dominant
male dogs are most likely to exhibit territorial aggression.
4. Excitement usually makes territorial aggression problems worse.
5. The size of the territory seems to have an effect on the expression
of territorial aggression. Dogs that are confined by a short chain often
show more intense signs of territorial aggression than those on longer chains.
Some dogs are aggressive when walked on leash, but are fine when heeling off
lead. The short leash may be similar to a short chain, and by restricting
the dog's territory to the person walking him, make the dog overly protective
of that individual.
TREATMENT OF TERRITORIAL AGGRESSION
Generally, it is easier to train the dog to do something acceptable than
it is to punish him or correct the wrong response. You might decide to teach
your dog to sit or lie down quietly beside you when he is in a situation
which elicits aggressive behavior (systematic desensitization), or to do
something which is incompatible with the unwanted behavior, like go to his
bed and lie down (counterconditioning).
Once you start training, it is important that you prevent your dog from
ever showing aggression again. Any time that he manages to perform the unwanted
behavior, you set the training program back by weeks or months. Confine him
to a room or a crate, put him outside, or put him on a leash in situations
in which he is likely to be aggressive.
Castration does not reduce territorial aggression. However, it is a good
idea to castrate aggressive dogs to prevent them from passing this inherited
characteristic on to future generations.
Technique # 1 Counterconditioning
This technique will allow you to train your dog to do something that is
incompatible with the aggressive behavior. Most people like to train their
dog to go to his own bed and lie down, because he can't do this and attack
people at the front door at the same time. If you train your dog using this
technique, you will be able to control territorial aggression while you are
present. Your dog may still exhibit the unwanted behavior when you are not
You must first train your dog to go to his bed on command. Have at least
two short training sessions of 10-15 minutes every day. Give the command
BED, and when the dog goes to it (even if he just stands on it) reward
him immediately (within 1/2 second!) with a treat like a piece of cheese
or a cheesie. To maximize the speed at which your dog learns, give him a
treat every time he responds correctly when you start training. Once he knows
the command, make the behavior more consistent by rewarding him intermittently.
When the dog responds correctly to your command in a quiet environment,
you can start training him to respond to the command when the stimulus which
causes the aggression is present. Start by presenting the stimulus at a low
intensity. For example, if your dog attacks people at the front door, have
a friend walk up to the door and stand quietly without knocking. As soon as
the dog reacts, blow a whistle to get his attention and give him the command
you have chosen - when he goes to his bed, immediately reward him. When you
start this new stage of training, you should reward each correct response
until the dog is consistently responding correctly, before going back to intermittent
Gradually increase the intensity of the eliciting stimulus - train the
dog to respond to your command as people approach the door, ring the bell,
and enter. If the dog fails to obey you at any stage, return to the previous
level and concentrate on training at that level of stimulus intensity until
the dog is responding correctly, every time, before progressing to the next
You should initially start out with food rewards, but if you say GOOD
DOG immediately before
you give the food reward, the voice praise will eventually become a reward
in itself. This reward IS easy to use, works in a variety of situations
or at a distance. Voice praise may be used every time the dog performs correctly.
Technique #2 Systematic Desensitization
An alternative method of dealing with territorial aggression problems is
to use systematic
desensitization to habituate the dog to the stimulus that causes aggression.
A dog trained in this manner will not respond to the stimulus, whether or
not you are present. Using this technique, dogs that have a combination of
fear and territorial aggression can often be trained to remain quiet whenever
the inciting stimulus is present.
First of all, you must train the dog to come, sit and stay, off the leash.
Start training in a quiet environment with few distractions. Train using
food rewards (many people find small bits of cheese or cheesies to be useful).
The training sessions should be 10 or 15 minutes each, twice a day, and
preferably separated by four hours. When you first start training, reward
the dog for every correct response to your command, as this will ensure the
fastest possible learning. Once you feel confident that he knows the command
and the proper response, reward appropriate responses intermittently to make
the behavior more consistent. Gradually increase the distractions in the
training sessions, but if the dog fails at any stage, go back to the previous
level until the dog is responding consistently.
Once the dog is sitting and staying reliably, you can train him to sit
quietly beside you when strangers approach. Have the dog sit quietly at the
door (or run, or in the yard, or wherever the aggression occurs). Have someone
approach the house and stand outside the front door. Reward the dog for sitting
quietly. Over many sessions, reward the dog as he is gradually exposed to
and accepts the following:
- someone knocks on the door or rings the bell
- the door opens, but no one is seen on the other side
- the door opens, and the dog can see a stranger at some distance from
- the stranger approaches the house
- the stranger enters the house but stands just outside the door
- the stranger enters and moves into the house, as a normal visitor would
You should reward the dog for sitting quietly beside you throughout these
steps. If the dog shows any aggression (barking, growling, etc.) stop the
training session, ignore the dog for 5-10 minutes, and start the next session
at a previous level where the dog behaved. If the dog is very threatening,
you may want to put a muzzle on him while you are training him, to make
your volunteer strangers feel more secure.
Regardless of which technique you use, it is useful to keep records. Training
your dog can take several months, and it can be discouraging if you do not
have records which show the improvement your dog is making. The headings
of the chart could be similar to the following (after Victoria Voith):
# of Trials
By Doctors McKeown, Luescher &
Machum of the Ontario Veterinary College.