Dog Aggression Towards People
Territorial Aggression in Dogs Toward People
Territorial aggression is a behavior that can be dangerous. Dogs bark to frighten intruders, especially those of the same species in their gentlest form. The barking also serves as a warning to other pack members who may be able to assist in the defense of the pack’s territory. Warnings may escalate to include hostile posturing and lunging if the intruder is not intimidated. If this fails to deter the visitor, an attack may be launched.
Alarm barking can be inconvenient for dog owners, neighbors, and visitors, but lunging and biting are far more serious issues. Dogs that are confident enough to bite strangers pose a risk to visitors and a liability to the dog’s owners.
According to the definition, territorial aggression should only be directed at other members of the same species. Domestic dogs, on the other hand, appear to regard people as conspecifics and, as a result, may display territorial aggression toward visitors. “The territory” is the house and yard, as well as nearby areas (like sidewalks) that the dog patrols and family cars in which they ride.
Territorial aggression is the most likely diagnosis when dogs show aggression only to strangers on their own property and do not react aggressively to strangers on neutral territory. Dominance or fear of anxiety are the two main motivations for territorial behavior.
Territorial aggression Dominance is the driving force behind everything we do.
Dominant dogs have the responsibility of alerting other pack members to the approach of strangers, and they do so with confidence and authority. Overly dominant dogs, both in terms of absolute dominance and in terms of dominance over their human family members, can pose a serious threat to any visitors to the home territory. When owners have some control over the situation, they can usually reassure the dog that the person is welcome and the dog will settle down. Once a stranger has been invited into the house, the dominant-territorial dog will usually relax and enjoy the company of the guest.
Fear Is Linked to Territorial Aggression.
Some dogs, particularly herding breeds, exhibit a variation on the territorial aggression theme. Although they may have a low level of dominance and would bark regardless, some are insecure, anxious, or even fearful. They may back up and bark at the sound of approaching people when they are young, but as they get older, they become more intimidating and learn that they can drive the boogeyman away. Visitors in uniform, such as mail carriers, are prime targets for this type of learned aggression. The mailman arrives, the dog barks, the mailman departs, and the dog claims credit. As a result, the aggressive behavior is reinforced. These same dogs may not have the courage to intimidate their opponents on the street, even if they wish they did.
Fear-based territorial aggression is distinguished from dominance-driven aggression by a number of factors:
- Territorial or fear-aggressive dogs frequently display ambivalent body language, similar to fear-aggressive dogs. Approach-avoidance behavior, a tucked or half-tucked tail, a slinky walk, and an indirect approach are all examples of body language.
- Territorial or fearful aggressive dogs are prone to sudden outbursts of barking or lunging while visitors are present, and may aggressively move toward visitors who move suddenly, speak loudly, or get up to leave the house.
- The territorial fear bites Aggressive dogs usually attack the offender’s “nether regions” (for example, the buttocks, thighs, or calves), or they may simply nip, ripping clothing. The bite is almost always a hit-and-run – a cheap shot.
- The level of confidence that the dogs possess is, in some ways, the only distinguishing feature between territorial fear aggression and overt fear aggression. Fear-aggressive dogs are usually self-assured enough to attack strangers on or off their own turf. Territorial and fear-aggressive dogs are less sure of themselves, so they only show fear aggression on their own property or from the safety of their owner’s car.
Measures of Management
Even though territorial aggression based on dominance is easier to handle than territorial aggression based on fear, both types can be dealt with through management, proper control, and containment.
Precautions for Safety
To ensure that no one enters the property without warning, owners should keep doors locked. When there is even the slightest chance of a stranger entering their zone, a dog that has bitten a stranger coming onto the property should not be allowed to roam unsupervised. All off-leash exercise for these dogs should be done in a safe environment with constant supervision by an informed owner who has realistic expectations for the dog’s behavior. Electronic fences are especially problematic for dogs that are territorially aggressive. Visitors may unwittingly cross the line because the dog knows where his territorial boundaries are. Dogs are more territorially aggressive when they are behind a fence because it allows them to know exactly where the boundary is and patrol and protect it. Lastly, owners should think about putting up a “Beware of Dog” sign to warn people that a dog is on the property.
Consider having the dog tested for medical conditions that could be causing the anxiety, particularly hypothyroidism. Low levels of thyroid hormone have been linked to more anxiety and, as a result, to more aggression.
There is no such thing as a free lunch in life.
Dogs, unlike humans, have no concept of equality and will always strive for the highest possible position within their social group. In order to safely manage the dog’s territorial tendencies when dealing with territorially aggressive dogs, owners must establish a leadership role with respect to the dog. The best way to accomplish this important task is to take a non-confrontational approach to leadership.
The “Nothing in Life is Free” leadership program is the approach we recommend. This necessitates the dog working for whatever they require or desire (food, toys, attention, access to the outdoors, etc.). They must, in effect, “earn” all valuable resources by first obeying a command like “SIT” or “DOWN.” If the dog sits automatically before the owner issues the command (i.e., anticipates the owner), the owner should issue a different command before providing the desired resource to the dog. The goal is for the dog to obey the owner’s commands as soon as they are given. If owners stick to this approach, the dog will learn to rely on them for everything they need or want, including food, freedom, play, and social interaction. When a dog learns to respect his or her owners in this way, they will be more likely to seek guidance from them when they are challenged or afraid, and they will be more likely to follow directions.
Ensure that the dog gets enough exercise on a daily basis (20 to 30 minutes of aerobic exercise daily is a minimum).
Feed a non-performance diet that is healthy.
Training in Obedience
Regularly train the dog in obedience on a daily basis to improve their response to one-word voice commands and to strengthen owner leadership. It’s usually enough to do one or two 5-minute sessions per day. Click-and-treat training may make training easier.
A halter for the head
Use a gentle leader head halter to maintain complete control over your dog in aggressive situations. The head halter establishes the owner’s leadership and control of their dog while also ensuring the safety of visitors. Head halters exert gentle pressure around the muzzle (“maternal point”) and at the nape of the neck (“leader point”) to send a biological signal of the owner’s leadership. This will teach the dog to respect his owners’ authority, which will make it easier to meet new people and give the dog a treat for staying calm.
A Muzzle in a Basket
All dogs who have previously shown aggression toward visitors should be trained to wear a basket-style muzzle. The dog can pant, drink, and accept small treats while wearing a basket muzzle, which prevents biting. In our opinion, these muzzles are more effective and humane than standard muzzles. Once the territorially aggressive dog has been taught to wear the muzzle, it can be forced to wear it in any difficult situation.
Controlling fear-based territorial aggression is a more difficult approach. The whole program is based on desensitizing the dog to approaching strangers and using counterconditioning to change the dog’s associations and behavior as it is slowly exposed to visitors in a planned way.
Confrontations should be avoided.
Avoid exposing the dog to situations and people that may trigger aggressive behavior, except during training sessions. Remember that the territorially aggressive dog is reacting in order to get the intruder to leave. When a dog is allowed to threaten and the subject then flees, the dog is rewarded for his aggressive aggression. This can make the unwanted behavior happen more often and with more force.
Counterconditioning halts unwanted behavior by training the dog to respond to a command or activity that is incompatible with the aggressive behavior’s continued performance. When owners can identify and predict the situations that trigger the dog’s territorial response, this technique is most effective. Counterconditioning may be enough to solve most of the problems if the dog can be distracted by food or games.
It is helpful to train dogs that do not readily respond to food or play to relax on command by responding to verbal and visual cues from their owner. Owners should teach their dogs to sit and watch them in non-stressful situations in exchange for praise or a food treat. “Watch me,” you say first, as you move a finger toward your face. Reward the dog with a small food treat or lavish praise if they respond by paying attention in a relaxed and focused manner. For five days, perform this relaxation exercise. Increase the amount of time the dog must pay attention in a relaxed position before receiving a reward each day. The dog should be able to remain for 25–30 seconds no matter what the distraction is by the end of the fifth day.
When owners detect that their dog is about to engage in unwanted behavior, they can use this counterconditioning technique to intervene before the behavior escalates. It’s critical to repeat this exercise on a regular basis to ensure that it’ll work when you need it.
Air conditioning in the house
Owners can also teach their dogs to do a 20-minute “down-stay” on a special bed or mat that is only used for training during indoor sessions. After the dog has mastered the basic obedience commands, they can be taught to do long down-stays while the owner moves further away. Begin by teaching your dog to “down-stay” on a mat or dog bed. If the dog remains still for 10 seconds, reward them every 20 seconds, then every 30 seconds, and so on.
When the dog grasps the concept of the long “down-stay,” the owner can switch to intermittent rewards. A verbal correction should be given every time the dog breaks the stay, indicating that there will be no reward, and the dog should be escorted back to the mat. The dog will quickly learn that breaking the stay will result in their being returned to the mat, but holding the “down-stay” will result in them being rewarded. When a dog performs a consistent “down-stay” when their owner is present, the owner should ask for it as they move further away from the dog. The “down-stay” should then be used while the owner is present but otherwise occupied in the room. The dog should then be required to remain in position while the owner leaves the room but remains close by. Maintain the distance and time the owner is away from the dog until they can stay in a down-stay without the owner for 20–30 minutes.
People and Uncomfortable Situations: Counterconditioning
The next step is to teach the dog how to react differently to people and situations that trigger aggression. All exercises should be done on a lead, preferably with a head halter and, if necessary, a basket muzzle.
The important point to remember is to gradually “up the ante” rather than expose the dog to the full intensity of the stimulus. During training, the dog should never be allowed to become aggressive. If they appear agitated, the owner must return to a previous stage of training. To begin desensitization, the owner should expose the dog to people who are unlikely to be aggressive toward them and train the dog in a location where they feel most at ease.
Steps to Exposing Strangers to Your Dog
- Ask the dog to “sit and watch me” or to “stay down.”
- At a distance, introduce a mildly anxiety-inducing person. For example, while a stranger walks by the end of the drive, it may be possible to cue the dog to lie down in a relaxed posture or sit and watch its owner, rewarding the dog with a food treat for remaining relaxed, calm, and in position.
- After that, the stranger may come to a halt at the end of the driveway and briefly enter the dog’s property before leaving.
- After a few repetitions, the stranger should eventually be able to stand a few feet away from the dog while it remains calm and under control. The stranger should be asked to toss one of the dog’s favorite food treats toward them at this point.
- When a visitor approaches the door, the dog can be trained to rest on a training mat or sit while focused on the owner.
- As long as the dog is calm and relaxed when the stranger approaches, the visitor can knock and eventually enter the house. If the dog remains calm, treats should be given. Visitors can give the dog a tennis ball or another favorite toy if the dog prefers.
- If these exercises are repeated often enough and with a variety of strangers, beginning with the least threatening and progressing to the most threatening, the dog will learn that their presence is associated with positive experiences. This concept will take the place of the previous aversion to borders and the need to repel them. If the dog refuses to sit still, an alternative strategy is to have the person stand still and walk the dog in progressively smaller circles around the person.
Assistants’ Training Tips
Assistants should be advised not to make direct eye contact with the dog or approach the dog head-on during the early stages of training. Instead, they should be asked to avert their gaze and take a circuitous route (as this is less threatening to most dogs). At this stage, no stranger should approach the dog.
If the dog is unable to maintain the required posture and expression and remains tense, barking and lunging at the stranger, the owner should return to a previous training phase. Ideally, no one should approach the dog close enough to trigger an aggressive response during the training process. If a person approaches too closely and the dog becomes aggressive, the assistant should stand still until the owner can get the dog’s attention, preferably by using an obedience command such as “cut it out” and rewarding the dog for complying. After that, the owner can ask the person to quietly retreat to a distance where the dog was previously at ease and resume training (as long as the dog is not too aroused).
If a dog is aggressive when people enter the house, it is best to isolate the dog first and then, once everyone is seated, bring the dog into the room on a lead and head halter if they remain relaxed. If the owner has the dog in the room with the guests at this early stage of the treatment program, the dog should be removed before the guests leave.
When the dog is relaxed when people are sitting quietly in the home, they can be taught to accept their movement. Owners can start by slowly assisting guests to stand and then sit. Visitors can be asked to take a few steps before returning to their seats if the dog does not react aggressively. Gradually increase the amount of movement that the dog will tolerate while remaining relaxed. Keep in mind that dogs who exhibit fear-related aggressive behavior are more likely to snap at people as they move away, such as when they are about to leave. If the dog is sitting or lying down and appears relaxed in the visitor’s presence, the visitor could gently slide a small food treat toward the dog. The goal is to teach the dog to associate the presence of a visitor with positive experiences.
Having Conversations with Visitors
The territorial dog can be allowed to interact with visitors once he or she has proven to be reliably relaxed with them in the home. All interactions with visitors in the home should be initiated by the dog. If the dog approaches a guest, have the person quietly offer their hand for the dog to sniff, and if the dog isn’t too “grabby,” offer a treat. If the dog expresses an interest in being petted, the guest may do so for a brief moment, but they should avoid reaching up and over the dog’s head as well as prolonged eye contact.
These exercises should be done with a variety of people. To teach the dogs that they are not threatening, assistants and visitors should be asked to engage in a variety of activities.
Punishment should be avoided, and reassurance should be given.
When a dog is acting aggressively, they should either be ignored or restrained. Punishment or reassurance are not appropriate responses. Punishment may increase the dog’s anxiety and make the situation worse. The dog’s fear will be confirmed by reassurance.
When limited to barking at the sound of approaching strangers, territorial aggression can be a blessing or a bane, depending on the circumstances and the owner’s control of the situation. If it is a bane, the owner can take steps to address it using the approaches outlined above, and can frequently make progress toward resolving the problem. When a dog’s territorial aggression has reached the point where it lunges, snarls, and bites, it is harder to treat, and a good outcome is not guaranteed, even though it is very likely.
Territorially aggressive dogs may benefit from anti-anxiety and anti-aggression medication in difficult cases.
The effectiveness of such treatments will vary from case to case, but the order in which they are used will be determined by cost, side effects, and other logistical considerations. The peak effects of most medications take several weeks to manifest. These treatments are applied for at least four to six months, but could last up to a year or two. To make the most of this therapeutic window, the right behavior-change therapy should be given at the same time.