Adding Structure to Help a Dog Stop Being Territorially Aggressive

By: David Codr

Published Date: February 19, 2016

Rocky and Dipstick

Rocky (left) is a one-year-old American Bulldog mix who is getting progressively more aggressive towards strangers who visit the home. His room mate Dipstick doesn’t have those issues, but she is pretty demanding for attention; invading her guardian’s space and nudging them with her nose when she wants some love.

Rocky made it clear he disagreed with my arrival as soon as I knocked on the door. The writing was literally one the wall, er door for this session.

I could tell instantly by his direct stare with ears forward and a lowered head that the low growl he made was to be taken serious. I tried a few different methods to create a positive association with my arrival by avoiding direct eye contact, keeping my body slightly askew and tossing in some high value treats.

Upon reviewing the footage in the above video I made a mistake by telling he guardian to lead Rocky away. The reason I say that is Rocky started to move forward with flaring nostrils. Dogs are scent animals and should always meet with their nose first. So in the future, if the guardian sees the dog moving forward to smell, she should give him more leash while maintaining a vigilant gaze as the sniff can transition to more than that pretty quickly.

Something I did notice at the session was the family’s mother’s proclivity to put tension on the leash. While its natural to pull a dog back by the leash when its showing aggressive behaviors, this tension communicates to the dog that the handler is anxious. Because the new factor is the guest, many dogs start to associate the tension on the leash as stress from the guardian due to the guest’s arrival.

In my opinion, most of Rocky’s aggressive behaviors stem from the perception that he has the same authority as the humans in the home. When dogs live in a  group, its the senior ranking dog who handles security of the pack.

I suggested a number of limits, rules and boundaries that will help the dog start to see and identify the guardians as being the authority figures. Once the dog see’s himself as being in the follower position, he will start to take his lead from the humans and accept their corrections instead of barking or pulling past them.

One of the easiest ways to start this mindset change is to adopt a technique that I call, Petting with a Purpose.

Sitting and laying down are less authoritative postures for a dog. So getting them to assume those positions in order to get attention or affection from the guardians will go a long ways towards the dog adopting a follower mindset. It will also help the dog shift into those less authoritative positions on command from the guardians. This is a necessary skill that the dog needs to do immediately every time.

To better help the humans communicate and interact with Rocky in a way he understands and respects, I went over a set of Escalating Consequences I developed a few years ago.

Because these non verbal communication cues were derived from how dogs interact with one another, most dogs recognize and respond to them immediately.

In fact, its usually the humans who have difficulty adopting the new methods over the ways they have been communicating with the dog in the past. But with enough practice, Petting with a Purpose and Escalating Consequences will become second nature for the guardians and something they do without even thinking about it.

To help the humans practice the Escalating Consequences, I showed them a Leadership Exercise I developed a few years ago.

Practicing this exercise a few times a day while gradually increasing the length of time a dog has to wait will help both dogs develop their ability to self restrain. This self control will be an important skills that Ricky will need to fully develop in order for him to not get so excited when new people arrive. As his guardian sees him better control himself, her level of nervousness or anxiety will dissipate. This is a HUGE factor in most dog’s protective behavior. If the guardian is calm, most dogs will be inclined to follow their lead.

Another helpful exercise is developing the ability to assign and enforce arbitrary boundaries such 10 feet from anyone who is eating, staying out of the kitchen, away form the door, etc.

Every time the guardians enforce the no kitchen boundary this way, Rocky will deepen his respect for their authority. Its repeated efforts with small structure and discipline exercises that will turn Rock’s mindset into a follower.

By the middle of the session I was feeding him treats from my hand and shortly after we were able to let him off leash. Both guardian’s timing improving as we practiced and the family’s mother seemed relaxed as well.

That said, Rocky is a dog who can bite. But by changing his mindset so he identifies as being a follower, his guardians can reduce his territorial or guarding behavior. Combine the new mindset with practice at the leadership exercise, Petting with a Purpose, enforcing rules and boundaries and Rocky’s aggressive territorial behavior should dissipate. If it doesn’t completely fix his issues, a little counter conditioning should finish the job.

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This post was written by: David Codr