Training a Territorial Dog to Follow His Guardians Lead

By: David Codr

Published Date: May 3, 2016

Oliver (Cocker Mix)

Oliver is a one-year-old Cocker Spaniel mix in Santa Monica who has been getting protectively aggressive around his guardians; barking, lunging and charging the door when guests arrive.

I usually try to arrive at my session the same way that my clients welcome guests into their home. This gives me an opportunity to see how the dog acts when meeting new people which often provides great insight into the dog’s personality and behavior.

That was certainly the case when I met Oliver for the first time.

It doesn’t take a dog behaviorist to see that Oliver was very upset with my arrival. When I sat down with his guardians to discuss the situation, he continued to bark at me in a very alerting and territorial sort of way.

Oliver’s guardians had been doing a lot of online research and started to incorporate some rules into his life which is an important part of any dog’s rehabilitation. When dogs act as Oliver does, its usually because they don’t have many rules, boundaries or structure in their lives. This gives them the impression that they have the same (or more) authority than their human counterparts.

We discussed a few additional ways to incorporate rules and structure into Oliver’s life as well as how important it is to increase his structured exercise.

Because Oliver had not settle himself down after 15 minutes of chatting up his guardians,  I placed him on the leash and then stepped on it a few feet away from his head. I wanted to block his ability to move away from me while barking. I call this a dog time out.

While there was certainly some bite to his bark, Oliver showed some small signs of insecurity. I wanted to confront this in a non threatening and dispassionate way; standing on the leash a few feet away from the dog allowed me to accomplish this.

Usually it takes a dog a short period of time to relax once it has come to the realization that he can no longer run away and bark. But Oliver showed amazing resiliency and I made a tactical error in releasing him from this leash timeout before he was completely calm.

Reflecting on the session, I very much regret not staying the course and outlasting the dog. One of the dirty secrets when it comes to rehabilitating a dog is to never back down and always outlast the dog. The dog needs to understand that you have changed and are willing to put in as much time as needed before it understands and starts to alter its behavior.

In Oliver’s case he had appointed himself as the sheriff and anytime that they had a guest in their home, he would react by barking and lunging at the person to communicate his disagreement. He also engaged intros behavior when a guest would get up or move about the room suddenly.

In order to stop Oliver from engaging in these unwanted behaviors, his guardians will need to help the dog change how he perceives his own authority. One of the best ways to accomplish this is to practice a technique that I like to call petting with a purpose.

It’s going to be difficult for Oliver’s guardians to refrain from petting him for no reason, but because they had given him so much attention without any structure attached to it, the dog was now taking it for granted.

If the guardians can consistently remember to ask the dog to sit or lie down before petting him for the next week or two, it will become second nature to them. Once that is the case, they will basically engage in a simple leadership reinforcement exercise every time that they pet their dog. When you factor in the number of times that this will happen over the course of a dog’s life, this is probably the easiest thing that Oliver’s guardians can do to change how he perceives his authority level in relation to humans.

While this positive reinforcement will help alter how the dog sees it self in relation to others, this is not going to stop him from reacting. To do that it will be extremely important for Olivers guardians to recognize the early signs and immediately disagree with him when he starts to show territorial behaviors. As with most dogs, Oliver starts things out with a stare. If his guardians can consistently disagree with the dog the instant he starts to initiate these territorial displays (with the stare), they will find it easier and easier to stop him before he really get started.

I went through a series of escalating consequences that I like to use whenever a dog is breaking a rule or not listening to his handler. Because I extrapolated these communication methods based on how dogs interact with one another, dogs usually respond to them immediately.

I showed the guardians an exercise to help them practice using these escalating consequences, but because the exercise is a bit of a challenge to the dog, I could only complete it with Oliver reacting in an unbalanced way. This was taking him in the wrong direction so I stopped demonstrating the exercise myself and instead tried to direct Oliver’s guardian through it verbally.

Because of the tighter quarters of the apartment, and not being able to demonstrate the technique myself, leading the guardians through the leadership exercise was more challenging than I’ve probably ever encountered on a session. Fortunately, his guardians were equal to the task and eventually mastered the technique.

It will be very important for both guardians to practice this exercise with the dog daily for the next 7-10 days (until they can achieve him waiting for 15 minutes) as it will help them improve their technique and timing when correcting the dog using the escalating consequences. Additionally the exercise will help Oliver practice the art of self restraint, a skill set that he is sorely in need of developing.

I also suggested a couple of structural changes to the dog’s daily life such as Petting with a Purpose, not allowing him to sit at the same level as the humans, reminding the humans to always get the dog to come to them, not walking around the dog so that it must get up and move out of their way and adding structure to mealtime.

Any of these individual changes will not make much of an impact. But combined they will become a powerful wave that helps redefine the leader follower dynamic in the home.

But one of the best techniques that Oliver’s guardians can apply to his territorial behaviors is to practice something called counter conditioning. I had one of Oliver’s guardians go outside so that he could open and close the gate to the building repetitively as it made a squeaky sound that was a trigger that Oliver had been trained to respond to.

Near the end of the session I demonstrated how the guardians can use this counterconditioning technique by getting up and down from a sitting position very slowly from across the room. I suggested that the guardians have a friend come over that will take direction from them precisely (the person need str remain still when no treat is being offered) so that they can continue to practice these counter conditioning exercises.

Counterconditioning is not the fastest technique, but it provides the best permanentsolution. Oliver’s guardians will need to repeat this exercise over and over in conjunction with any action or activity that he currently reacts to. At first from a long distance, but gradually closer and closer. With enough practice, the dog will start to associate the things that he currently disagrees with, as a positive.

In the meantime, I suggested that the guardians have friends meet them outside the apartment rather than coming to the door. Having more real estate in a public and open area will help the dog feel less confrontational.

I even suggested that the guardians stand outside before the guests arrive and leave a small pile of treats a couple of hundred feet away from the front door to the apartment building. This will give the guardian the ability to hand the leash to the arriving guests and have the guest walk the dog down the street to the pile of treats.

For many dogs, being on a leash helps them to adopt more of a follower mindset. Additionally, dogs generally enjoy going for a walk so having an unknown person escort the dog in one also has positive benefits. This activity should help Oliver change to a much improved perception of the arriving guest. In time, Oliver will look forward to the arrival of guests due to all of the benefits that accompany them.

Because of Oliver’s intense reactions throughout the session I advised his guardians to follow up with me in two weeks to let me know how the new techniques are impacting their dog.

Usually I enjoy mentioning that by the end of the session the dog was very well-balanced and behaved. However my tactical error in not outlasting the dog when I initially gave him the leash timeout was a big mistake on my part. Because of it I was never able to completely reach the dog the way I normally do. This is the biggest regret I had in a session in as long as I can remember.

However, I was impressed by the way Oliver’s guardians were starting to stand up and correct him. Their timing was improving as was their intensity and technique. It’s going to take time and a lot of practice, but the guardians discovered that when they were unified in their response to the dog, he responded well.

It’s going to be a road filled with many small victories, but if Oliver’s guardians stay consistent and watch for his warning signs while also assuming the leadership role, they should be able to effectively communicate that his current behavior is no longer acceptable and learn to relax.

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