A Job, New Rules and Boundaries Help Sparky Stop Being Territorially Aggressive

By: David Codr

Published Date: January 21, 2015


Sparky is a one and a half year old mini Australian Shepherd who’s owners were concerned that his protection was starting to become aggressive; barking intensely whenever anyone passed in front of their home and “trying to break down the door to get to UPS or FedEx delivery drivers.”

When I arrived for the session, Sparky started barking in an aggressive and territorial way. He would charge at me barking, then veer off or back away before circling back again. I kept him in front of me projecting a calm and determined energy. While this established a boundary, Sparky was getting so worked up he was having difficulty controlling himself.

Australian Shepherd’s are herding dogs who circle and nip at their charges from behind. It was clear that Sparky was applying at least part of this technique in an attempt to control or dominate me.

Because his reaction seemed to be intensifying, I changed up tactics after a minute and turned the tables on Sparky. The next time he challenged me, I walked directly at him. This challenge clearly confused Sparky as he moved to the edges of the room to bark at me from under a desk or table or behind objects that shielded him from me.

I continued to move forward until Sparky, effectively herding him. After persistently following him, Sparky backed himself into a corner and stopped barking. He was clearly still intense, but after removing his ability to bark and move away, Sparky was forced to come up with a new way of dealing with a stranger. I stopped about 10 feet away from him and waited a moment to allow him to collect himself and calm down into a more balanced state of mind before continuing.

I pulled out a straight leash and slipped the end through the handle to fashion a loop, then offered it to Sparky for inspection. Sparky continued to practice avoidance looking away so, I slowly moved the leash over his head. Once in place, I coaxed him out of the corner and back into the living room where his owners were waiting for me.

I sat down and stepped on the leash about 18 inches from Sparky’s head to prevent him from moving away. I didnt attempt to interact with him at all. He pulled at the leash for a minute or two before stopping and standing as far away as the leash would allow. A minute later, he calmed down a bit more then sat down.

While Sparky continued to practice avoidance, it was clear to see his energy level was dropping. His body became less stiff, his breathing returned to normal, he started to use his nose and he even looked in my direction in a non challenging way.

I started to discuss the situation with his owners, offering them some tips on communicating more effectively and suggesting ways to incorporate some rules, boundaries and limits. I also suggested that they look into agility training as Sparky is a high energy working class dog. Even a daily 45 minute walk is likely not enough to drain the energy the dog has. But done properly, a structured activity like agility training can become a “job” for Sparky while also providing an outlet for any unspent energy.

A few minutes into this discussion Sparky got comfortable enough to lay down next to me. I didnt want to directly interact with him yet, but I did want to bring out more of the dog in him so I tossed a few high value treats on the floor in front of him. Sparky took note of them and leaned over to investigate, but he stopped short of eating the treats on the floor.

Now that he was relaxed and no longer attempting to pull or get away, I offered him a treat by holding it out to my side in the palm of my hand. I had to offer it three times, but on the third attempt Sparky sniffed it, then gingerly took the treat from my hand.

Because Sparky has identified defending the home as his job, I went over an exercise to help the dog start to see and identify his owners as being in the leadership position. One by one the members of the family conducted the exercise. It took a little practice, but within minutes, Sparky was looking to the humans for guidance and was practicing self restraint.

Because Sparky’s response to guests knocking at the door provoked the most intense reaction, I showed his owners how to claim the space around the door while enforcing a boundary of 10 feet. We practiced having a guest arrive and knock on the door until Sparky’s owners were able to keep him under control.

To completely rehabilitate Sparky, his owners will need to increase his energy burning or add structured activities like flyball or agility training. Giving Sparky an outlet to drain his unused energy will help him become less reactive while also increasing his confidence and self esteem.

But dealing with the energy will only go so far. Until Sparky sees and identifies his owners as being the authority figures who are in charge of the door and visitors, he will continue to react as he has in the past. Practicing the leadership and self restraint exercises while claiming the door and communicating in a way he understands will combine to help Sparky learn to defer to their calm non reactive response when guests arrive. As they continue to practice, Sparky’s reaction and behavior will evolve until he no longer reacts in an aggressive way to passers by and guests.

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