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Territorial Aggression Toward People in Dogs

By: Dr. Nicholas Dodman

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Although dominance-based territorial aggression is easier to manage than fear-based territorial aggression, both forms of territorial aggression can be addressed reasonably well by means of management measures, proper control, and containment.

Safety Precautions. Owners should keep doors secured to ensure that no one enters the property without warning. A dog that has bitten a stranger coming onto the property should not be allowed to roam unsupervised while there is the faintest chance of a stranger entering his zone. For these dogs, all off-lead exercise should be conducted in safe places, with constant supervision by an informed owner who has realistic expectations of the dog's behavior. Electronic fences pose a particular problem for dogs with territorial aggression. The dog knows where his territorial boundaries are - but visitors do not, and they may unwittingly cross the line. In general, dogs tend to be more territorially aggressive when they are behind a fence, because a fence allows the dog to know exactly where the boundary lies, and he will patrol and protect it. Finally, owners should consider posting a "Beware of Dog" sign as a responsible reminder that a dog is on the property.

Medical Rule-outs. Consider testing the dog for medical conditions that might be contributing to increased anxiety, especially hypothyroidism. Borderline-low levels of the principal thyroid hormone may be associated with increased anxiety, and thus aggression.

Nothing in Life is Free. Unlike humans, dogs have little sense of equality and will always aspire toward the highest possible rank within their social group. When dealing with territorially aggressive dogs, it is essential that owners establish a leadership role with respect to the dog in order to safely manage the dog's territorial tendencies. A non-confrontational approach to leadership is the best way to accomplish this important task.

The approach we advocate is the "Nothing in Life is Free" leadership program. This requires the dog to work for anything he needs or desires (food, toys, attention, access to the outdoors etc.). In effect he must "earn" all valued resources by first obeying a command, such as SIT or DOWN. If the dog sits automatically before the owner issues the command (i.e. anticipates the owner), the owner should issue an alternative command, before giving the dog the desired resource. The objective is to have the dog follow the owner's directives as and when issued. If owners are consistent with this approach, the dog will learn that he must look to them to obtain anything he needs or wants, such as food, freedom, play, and social interaction. If the dog learns to respect his owners in this way, he will be more likely to turn to them for direction when he's feeling challenged or fearful and will be more likely to heed directions

Exercise. Ensure that the dog receives regular daily exercise (20 to 30 minutes of aerobic exercise daily is a minimum).

Diet. Feed a healthy non-performance diet.

Obedience Training. Engage the dog in regular daily obedience training sessions to sharpen his response to one-word voice commands and increase owner leadership. One to two 5-minute sessions per day are usually sufficient. Click & treat training may facilitate training endeavors.

Head Halter. Employ a Gentle Leader® head halter to exert the optimal control of the dog in aggression-inducing situations. The head halter gently, but firmly, establishes owners' leadership and control of their dog, as well as providing for visitors' safety. Head halters send a biological signal of the owner's leadership by exerting gentle pressure around the muzzle ("maternal point") and at the nape of the neck ("leader point"). This will cause the dog to defer to his owners' authority so that he can be introduced to people under pleasant circumstances and be rewarded for remaining calm.

Basket Muzzle. All dogs that have shown aggression to visitors in the past should be trained to wear a basket-style muzzle. A basket muzzle allows the dog to pant, drink and accept small treats, but prevents biting. We find these muzzles to be effective and more humane than standard muzzles. Once trained to the muzzle, the territorially aggressive dog can be required to wear the muzzle in any particularly challenging situation.

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