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Territorial Aggression Toward People in Dogs

By: Dr. Nicholas Dodman

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The approach to controlling fear-based territorial aggression is more problematic. Key to the entire program is desensitization to approaching strangers along with counterconditioning to alter the dog's associations and behavior during progressive, planned exposure to visitors.

Avoid Confrontations. Except during training sessions, avoid exposing the dog to situations and people that may trigger the aggressive behavior. Bear in mind that the territorially aggressive dog is reacting because he wants the intruder to depart. If a dog is allowed to threaten, and the subject then retreats, the dog is rewarded for showing aggression. This can cause the unwanted behavior to increase in frequency and intensity.

Counterconditioning. Counterconditioning interrupts unwanted behavior by training the dog to respond to a command or activity that is incompatible with continued performance of the aggressive behavior. This technique is most effective when owners can identify and predict the situations that trigger the dog's territorial response. If the dog can be distracted by food rewards or games, counterconditioning on its own may circumvent the brunt of the problems.

For dogs that do not readily respond to food or play, it is helpful to train the dog to relax on command by responding to verbal and visual cues from the owner. Under non-stressful conditions, owners should teach the dog to sit and watch them in order to receive praise or a food treat. First say, "watch me," and move a finger toward your face. If the dog responds by paying attention in a relaxed and focused manner, reward him with a small food treat or praise him lavishly. Perform this relaxation exercise daily for 5 days. Each day, increase the amount of time that the dog must pay attention, in a relaxed pose, before he receives a reward. By the end of the fifth day, the dog should be able to remain focused for 25-30 seconds no matter what the distraction.

At this stage, whenever owners sense that their dog is about to engage in the unwanted behavior, they can use this counterconditioning technique to interrupt the behavior before it escalates. It is important to practice this exercise on a periodic basis to ensure its effectiveness when it is needed.

For indoor sessions, owners can also train the dog to perform a 20-minute "down-stay" on a specific bed or mat that is used only for training. Once the dog has learned the basic obedience commands, he can be trained to perform long down-stays while the owner moves progressively further away. First, train a "down-stay" on a mat or dog bed. Initially, reward the dog every 10 seconds if he remains still, then every 20 seconds, 30 seconds, and so on.

Once the dog understands the concept of the long "down-stay," the owner can switch to supplying rewards intermittently. Every time the dog breaks the stay, a verbal correction should be given to indicate that there will be no reward, and the dog is escorted back to the mat. The dog will quickly learn that if he breaks the stay, he will be put back on the mat, but if he holds the "down-stay," he will be rewarded. Once a dog performs a reliable "down-stay" when his owner is in the room, the owner should ask for this behavior as she moves progressively further from the dog. Next, the "down-stay" should be utilized while the owner is in the room but otherwise occupied. Then the dog should be required to remain in position as the owner exits the room, but remains nearby. The distance and time the owner is away from the dog should be increased until he can remain in a down-stay for 20-30 minutes in the owner's absence.

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