Putting an Stop to an Insecure Dog’s Territorial Aggression

By: David Codr

Published Date: January 1, 2015

Ragnar and Neo

Today I dealt with a case of territorial aggression from an insecure dominant dog by the name of Ragnar (Pictured here on the left with his roommate and buddy Neo).

When I arrived for the session Ragnar’s owner was holding him back as the dog was barking, lunging, growling and snapping in my direction. He was doing everything in his power to communicate that he disagreed with my arrival at his home.

While it may seem logical to hold a dog back when it’s acting aggressively in this manner, in actuality this restraint can actually intensify the dogs reaction. The restraint causes the dog to intensify its efforts to break free which in turn ramps up the dog’s energy level. This is a cascading effect that put Ragnar in such a frenzied state of mind that he was oblivious to his owner and everything else. In addition to this restraint, his owner kept repeating the phrase “good dog” while his dog was exhibiting anything but good behavior.

After sitting down in the living room with his owner, Ragnar was still as excited and aggressive as when I walked in the door.  I asked his owner to drop the leash and got puzzled look accompanied by the question, “Are you sure?”  After reassuring him that I was, he tentatively dropped the leash. As soon as the tension from the leash was removed and he was able to move freely, Ragnar took two or three steps towards me, stopped barking and then started to sniff me intensely.

For some dogs, the inability to sniff can cause them uncertainty or even stress. Now a dog can smell you without getting right up in your business and this is how they initiate a sniff greeting with other dogs. They don’t immediately press their nose against another dog unless very comfortable with it as that would be rude. Just as its rude for a dog to do the same to a human it doesnt know.

I left Ragnar get a few good whiffs, then stood up to claim my personal space. As soon as I stood, Ragnar backed away from me and moved next to his owner. But when he did this, he hunched his body up, got stiff and a little twitchy and barked at a distance. When he started to bark at me to disagree with my defending of my personal space, his owner instinctively reached over to pull him away from me (which was unnecessary as the dog was keeping a good distance) while repeating the “good dog” expression he used earlier. When I pointed this out to his owner, it caught him by surprise. But after thinking about it for a second, he started to shake his head in agreement.

In addition to the “good boy” comments, I noticed that any time the dog got near him, his owner reached over and started to pet him. While I hate to say petting a dog can be a bad thing, petting an insecure dog in an unbalanced state can send the wrong message. The dog interprets it as, “I am getting this attention because I am barking or acting aggressive.” In effect, Ragnar’s owners were reinforcing the exact behavior they wanted to stop.

Making matters worse, Ragnar is an insecure dog. He knew a few commands, but only followed them when he felt like it. When he would bark in protest at me, he would bounce or dart away as soon as he barked. Whenever possible he would sit next to or on top of his owners and any time that they started to pet their other dog Neo (who couldn’t possibly be a more laid back dog), Ragnar attempted to get between them to hog the affection for himself.

I went over some basic communication techniques and suggested they add some rules and structure to help Ragnar start to see and identify himself as a follower. Ragnar is part Sheltie which is a working class dog and it was clear that he sees defending the house as his “job.” To change this perception, his owners will need to assume to a leadership role in his eyes. Adding rules, boundaries and structure and enforcing them will give his owners practice at leading and each time he follows a command, Ragnar will be able to practice being a follower.

I also strongly suggested that they start walking Ragnar at least 45 minutes a day. Ragnar is a higher energy dog and still a pup, so draining excess energy will go a long way towards decreasing his intensity when guests knock at the door. It will also help with his confidence as a well exercised dog is almost always calmer.

Next I showed his owners how to claim the doorway to their home. This was a bit challenging at first as the dog’s learned reaction was to charge the door and his owner’s learned reaction was to get tense. I had one of his owners leave through the back and wait a few minutes before knocking on the front door. We sat and relaxed in the living room until the knocking. As soon as he heard it, Ragnar raced to the door barking in an excited territorial way.

I got up and calmly walked over to the door. I told his owner it is important to not rush as this can communicate uncertainty or discomfort with the arrival which will only intensify Ragnar’s aggression. I walked past Ragnar then turned to face him with the front door to my back. I walked directly at Ragnar which backed him away. He attempted to get around me, but I moved to the side to block him from getting past me. While this was going on Ragnar was barking at the door and at me for disagreeing with him and claiming the door area. I ignored the barking as it usually subsides as the dog’s intensity decreases.

Once I had backed Ragnar 10 feet away from the door I walked backwards to the door and giggled the handle. As soon as he heard the giggle, Ragnar started to charge the door again so I made a sound to disagree with him while marching right at him. As soon as I did this he stopped moving forward, stopped barking and backed away. I kept marching at him until he was at the 10 foot boundary from the door that I wanted him to respect. Once he passed that line, I stopped moving forward.

I waited for him to stop moving, then stepped backwards to the door again. By keeping my waist and shoulders squared at the dog, I was keeping my authority right in his face. This time when I giggled the door knob, he barked, but did not try to rush the door.

I grabbed the door knob and twisted it. As soon as he heard that sound, Ragnar started to rush the door but I made a sound and stopped him without needing to step towards him this time. Next I cracked the door a bit and repeated the sound when Ragnar started to the door.

Eventually I opened the door and let the owner in. It took about three minutes but we were able to keep Ragnar away despite knocking at the door the entire time. As time progressed, Ragnar’s barks lost their vigor as did his energy level. He certainly wasn’t what I would call calm, but he was about half as intense as when I arrived for the session.

I coached his owners through the exercise as it will be most important for them to claim the doorway to stop this territorial aggression. The more we practiced, the less intense Ragnar was and the easier it was to disagree with him or move him away. By the last run through, Ragnar kept himself at the 10 foot boundary himself the entire time. He was still barking, but with far less enthusiasm. It was almost as if you could hear the territoriality leaving his system.

I suggested that all the members of the home call or text each other when on the way home so that they can all practice this exercise. This practice will help Ragnar see that his owners have the new arrival under control and also help him learn to defer to their authority.

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This post was written by: David Codr

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