Aggression in Dogs: Territorial

What is territorial aggression?

Territorial aggression refers to aggressive behavior directed at people (mainly unfamiliar people), or other animals approaching a dog’s home or property. Dogs may also display territorial aggression away from home, reacting with aggression when someone approaches their car, crate, or campsite. When there is a barrier, the aggression is typically displayed as barking and lunging. However, if the barrier is breached, especially suddenly or when a dog is already aroused, the dog may bite. This can occur when a door suddenly pops open, or a person enters the dog’s home or yard.

Often, dogs that exhibit territorial aggression are also fearful of strangers. Fear can intensify an aggressive response, as the dog is very motivated to avoid an interaction. Fearful dogs can take longer to calm down and may remain aroused even after you have welcomed a person into your home.

Another complication can arise when friendly, non-fearful dogs experience frustration due to repeated encounters with people outside their barrier without the chance to interact. Frustration can increase the intensity of aggressive responses, even a friendly dog can bite when frustrated. This frustration could also trigger displacement behaviors such as spinning. When dogs are frustrated, they may redirect their aggressive response to a person or pet nearby, especially if a person reaches for their collar. When possible, try to lure your dog away rather than reach for him.

Why are territorial behaviors ongoing and perhaps even increasing?

Territorial behavior is a normal part of a dog’s behavioral repertoire. While any dog may show a territorial response such as barking, certain breeds of dogs have been bred for guarding and watchful behaviors. The goal of the territorial display is to get the “intruder” to leave. The barking dog has accomplished his goal when the target for the behavior moves along rather than enters the property. When people slow their pace, or continue to approach rather than move on, dogs often bark louder and longer. This increased intensity of a territorial response becomes their normal level of response. All behaviors that are rewarded are repeated.

"The goal of the territorial display is to get the “intruder” to leave."

How can territorial aggression be prevented?

Though most innate behaviors, including territorial behavior, are self-rewarding, it may be possible to control the level of a dog’s arousal to reduce the risk that the behavior will escalate to a full aggressive response. To accomplish this goal, it is important to intervene as soon as you recognize the behavior - begin with the first bark.

It is exciting when a dog first barks and ‘does his job’. You may appreciate a couple of barks to alert you to a possible intruder. The best response to a dog that is just learning to bark at intruders is to say ‘thank you’, and then redirect to another activity. One simple alternative behavior is to request ‘go to your bed’. Of course, you would train your dog to do this behavior when all is calm. Always remember to reward your dog with a treat because 1) he stopped barking and 2) he listened to the cue and went to his bed.

It is also important to increase supervision in order to prevent your dog from having any opportunity to engage in the self rewarding behavior without your guidance.

To reduce territorial behavior when guests arrive, friendly dogs can be taught to sit and receive a reward as each new person comes to the door. If your dog is fearful, it is best to teach him to go to his bed and wait there until the guests have entered and settled.

"Socializing young puppies can serve to reduce fear of strangers, including visitors."

Socializing young puppies can serve to reduce fear of strangers, including visitors. Try to arrange for a wide variety of visitors to come to hour home while your puppy is young and still developing its social skills (see handout “Puppy Behavior and Training - Socialization and Fear Prevention”). In time, most dogs will begin to alert the family by barking when strangers come to the home. However, a dog that has been well socialized is more likely to remain calm and tolerant of guests.

Should I punish my dog for his aggressive displays?

Punishment should not be used as an intervention for territorial aggression. Punishment increases fear and aggression. By punishing your dog when a stranger approaches, you are associating the appearance of a stranger with something unpleasant - the opposite of what you hoped for! If you use techniques such as yelling or scolding, your dog will perceive that you are not pleased with the situation. Your dog may conclude that you are displeased with a stranger approaching, and not your dog’s behavior, which may result in him becoming even more aroused (see handout “Why Punishment Should be Avoided”).

How can I treat territorial aggression?

If your dog behaves aggressively when strangers enter the home, training should begin when you and your dog are alone. Teach your dog a relaxation cue such as sit stay or settle on a mat (see handout “Dog Behavior and Training - Teaching Settle and Calm). When guests come over, have your dog on a leash to ensure safety. Bring your dog to an area that allows your dog to see guests as they enter but is not in their direct path. A mat or bed can be used to mark the settle spot. A head halter may be a helpful tool, particularly if your dog is large (see handout “Head Halter Training for Dogs). As guests enter, feed your dog treats and continue rewarding until the guests are settled and your dog is able to remain calm. You can practice this entry behavior with family members so your dog understands that sitting and staying happens whenever anyone enters the house.

If your dog does not settle easily, put him out of sight until the guests have settled. You can then bring him into the room on his leash, and help him settle and relax on his mat beside you. If you do not feel you can keep your guests safe, or if your dog is so aroused that he attempts to bite you when you try to hold his leash, please seek professional behavioral guidance. A full assessment will allow for an appropriate treatment strategy taking your dog’s behavioral traits into account. Often, fear and frustration must be addressed in order to successfully treat territorial aggression.

When treating territorial aggression, it is also important to try to prevent territorial displays either at windows or along fence lines. Blocking visual access to certain windows, or using a gate to prevent your dog from accessing areas may be necessary when you are not available to supervise and guide your dog to ‘go to bed’.

It is also possible to use the behavior modification technique of desensitization and counterconditioning to reduce your dog’s response to specific triggers for the territorial response. For example, you might use this technique to reduce barking at a delivery person by arranging for the person to stop further from the house, making it easier for your dog to ‘go to bed’ and ‘settle’. With repeated sessions, the person could be asked to come closer and closer (see handout “Introduction to Desensitization and Counterconditioning”).

A big part of my dog’s problem is barking. How can I control that?

Some social dogs confine their territorial display to barking and do not escalate or become highly aroused.

Social dogs can easily be taught to ‘get your toy’ in response to a passerby. They can even learn to ‘get your toy’ and ‘go to bed’. Instead of barking, they have an entirely new self-rewarding activity to engage in. You can use the ‘go to bed’ cue and toss your dog a treat for responding. Over time, you may gradually and randomly increase the length of the quiet time before the reward is given (see handout “Barking in Dogs”).