TERRITORIAL AGGRESSION DIRECTED TOWARD VISITORS
Nicholas H. Dodman, BVMS, DACVA, DACVB BVMS, MRCVS, DACVB / PhD, CAAB
Territorial aggression is defined as a dog's physically aggressive response to a human visitor. The behavior goes beyond normal alarm barking to alert the household of a visitor; it includes threatening postures and sounds meant to intimidate, lunging, nipping and biting. The "territory," as perceived by dogs, generally includes the house and yard, sidewalks that the dogs regularly patrol and mark, and family vehicles.
When dogs exhibit aggression to visitors to their own territory, but do not respond aggressively to strangers in neutral territory, territorial aggression is the likely diagnosis.
DIAGNOSIS OF TERRITORIAL AGGRESSION
ETIOLOGY AND RISK FACTORS
- Causes - There are two primary motivations for territorial behavior, dominance or fear:
- Territorial aggression associated with dominance - Dominant dogs have a natural inclination to warn other pack members of a stranger's approach and they do this with confidence and authority. If a dominant dog detects the sound of footsteps on the driveway, he will spring to attention, run toward the door, barking, and will stand guard at least until the owner heeds the alarm. Dogs that are very dominant and do not heed their owners can provide a serious obstacle for any visitors to the home territory. Where owners have some control they can usually reassure the dog that the person is in fact welcome, at which point the dog will settle down. In most cases, once a stranger has been welcomed into the home, the dominant-territorial dog will relax and enjoy the visitor's company but it is necessary for them to run the gauntlet of intimidation first before being accepted into the inner sanctum.
- Territorial aggression associated with fear - Less confident dogs show a variation on the theme of territorial aggression that involves insecurity, fearfulness and learning. Such dogs seem to have a blend of dominance and fear and act aggressively to visitors to the home because of this dual motivation. As youngsters, they may have backed up and barked at the sound of approaching people, but as time goes by and they get larger, they find themselves progressively more intimidating. In short, they learn that their aggressive actions can have the desired effect, striking fear into unwelcome visitors and often causing them to leave in a great hurry. Uniformed visitors like the mailperson or delivery person are prime targets for this learned type of aggression. The mailperson comes, the dog barks, the mailperson leaves, and the dog takes credit. The behavior is reinforced. On the street away from their territory, such dogs may not have the courage to intimidate strangers but on their own tuft, or from behind closed doors or a fence, their courage wells.
DIAGNOSIS AND PROGNOSIS
The clinical picture is of a dog that barks and is aggressive toward strangers only on his own territory. The motivation is subtly different from aforementioned dominance-related territoriality. To distinguish fear-related territorial aggression from the purely dominance-driven variety, it is helpful to consider the following factors.
- Posturing dog shows during displays of aggression can help distinguish the fear-related type of territorial aggression from the territorial displays of a more confident dog. Territorial/fear aggressive dogs frequently show ambivalent body language similar to fear-aggressive dogs, including approach-avoidance behavior, tucked or semi-tucked tail, slinking gait, and an indirect approach.
- Territorial/fear aggressive dogs do not usually settle down completely while visitors are in the home and are prone to violent outbursts if visitors move suddenly or get up to leave the house.
- The bites of territorial/fear aggressive dogs are usually directed towards backside of the offender (buttocks, thighs or calves). Or, because of a tentative nature, they may simply nip at the person, ripping clothing. The bite is often in the form of a "cheap shot" hit-and-run nature.
- The difference between territorial-fear aggression and overt fear aggression is the level of confidence that the dogs possess. Fear aggressive dogs have enough confidence to be aggressive to strangers on or off their own territory. Territorial-fear aggressive dogs have less confidence so that their fear aggression occurs only on their home turf.
- Differential Diagnosis - Consider testing the dog for medical conditions that might be contributing to increased anxiety, especially hypothyroidism.
- Prognosis - 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 appropriate management measures, proper supervision, control and containment.
TREATMENT OF TERRITORIAL AGGRESSION
Safety Precautions - Owners should keep doors secured to ensure that no visitor arrives without warning. A dog that has bitten a stranger coming onto the property should not be allowed to roam unsupervised if there is the faintest chance of a stranger entering the home zone. Territorially aggressive dogs should, at all times, be supervised by an informed owner who has realistic expectations of the dog's behavior.
Off-lead exercise should be conducted in a safe place. Electronic fences pose something of a dilemma with respect to territorial aggression. These e-fences clearly define limits for the dog but not for visitors, who may unwittingly cross the line. In general, territorial dogs are more aggressive when they are fenced in, because a fence allows the dog to know precisely where the boundary of his territory lies and he will patrol and protect it. Finally, owners should consider posting a "Dog on Premises" sign as a responsible reminder that a dog is on the property.
Harsh, punitive tactics will only serve to increase the dog's negative response to the situation at hand and the end result over time will be an increase in the unwanted behavior.
- Nothing in Life is Free - When dealing with territorially aggressive dogs, it is essential that the owner establish a leadership role with respect to the dog in order to manage the dog's territorial tendencies safely. Taking a non-confrontational approach is the most humane, productive way to accomplish this important task. The approach we advocate is the "Nothing in Life is Free" leadership program.
- In order to receive any needs or desires, such as food, toys, attention and access to the outdoors, the dog must "earn" the valued resource by first obeying a command, such as SIT.
- If the dog sits automatically before the owner issues the command, the owner should issue an alternative command, such as DOWN before the dog receives the desired resource.
- The objective is that the dog should quickly follow the owner's directives and not be guided by his own agenda. If owners are consistent with this program, the dog will to look to them in order to obtain needs or desires, which are important resources from a dog's perspective. If the dog learns to look to his owner for all necessities and treats, he will be more likely to turn to the owner for cues when feeling challenged or fearful.
- Exercise - Regular daily exercise is beneficial; 20 to 30 minutes of aerobic exercise daily should be minimum for a healthy dog.
- Diet - Artificial, preservative-free, low protein diets may help in some cases (18 percent dry matter, as fed).
- Obedience Training - Regular daily obedience training sessions will sharpen the dog's response to commands and increase owner leadership. One to two 5-minute sessions per day are often sufficient. "Click and treat" training is a good method of improving owner-dog communication.
- Head Halter - Head halters are very useful to help owners gain control of the dog and signal their leadership in aggression-inducing situations. They send a biological signal of the owner's leadership to the dog by exerting gentle pressure around the muzzle (maternal point) and at the nape of the neck (leader point). Pressure at these points will cause the dog to defer to the owner's authority so that he can be introduced to people and rewarded for remaining calm. In addition, head halters help to ensure visitor safety.
- Basket Muzzle - All dogs that have shown aggression 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 not only effective but also more humane and safer for the dog than standard muzzles. Once trained to the muzzle, the territorial dog can be required to wear one in any particularly challenging situations.
TREATMENT FOR DOMINANCE-RELATED TERRITORIAL AGGRESSION
Some dogs restrict their territorial behavior to alarm barking and posturing. While they can appear to be quite menacing, these dogs rarely resort to frank aggression unless overtly challenged. This type of territoriality is normal canine behavior and may be considered advantageous by some owners. It is important, however, for owners to be able to turn off alarm barking if a stranger poses no threat or challenge.
For some dogs all that is necessary is a "good dog, thank you" response from the owner and the dog will quiet down. Other dogs must be trained to "shush," preferably using positive reinforcement. The concept of a "shush" cookie, a delicious reward that is provided when the dog stops barking, works wonders. A "no bark" or "stop it" command can be used to signal the owner's wish. The reward is given when the dogs stops barking for at least 3 seconds. The idea is to reward silence instead of punishing barking.
Suppression of dominance-related territorial aggression is facilitated if the owner is viewed as the dog's strong leader. Proper physical control of the dog with a head halter is important for visitor safety, and to teach the dog the right way to behave around visitors.
TREATMENT FOR FEAR-RELATED TERRITORIAL AGGRESSION
The approach to controlling this behavior is more problematic. The key to the entire program is desensitization to approaching strangers along with counterconditioning to alter the dog's perception and behavior during progressive planned exposure to visitors.
Avoid Confrontations - Except during training sessions, avoid exposing the dog to situations and specific people that may trigger an aggressive response. Bear in mind that the territorial dog wants the intruder to go away. If a territorially aggressive dog is allowed to threaten visitors and they subsequently retreat, the dog will see their withdrawal as a reward for aggressive responding. This will cause the unwanted behavior to escalate.
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 be sufficient to reverse the problem. For dogs that do not readily respond to food or play, it is helpful to train them to sit down and relax when given certain verbal or visual cues by the owner.
- First under non-threatening conditions, owners should teach their dogs to sit and watch them (command "watch me") in order to receive praise and food treats. If the dog responds appropriately, by paying attention in a relaxed and focused manner, he should immediately be rewarded with a food treat and lavish praise. This relaxation exercise should be performed daily for 5 days. Each day the owner should increase the amount of time that the dog must pay attention before receiving 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, when 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 is initiated. 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 farther away. First train the dog to "down-stay" on a mat or dog bed. Initially, reward the dog every 10 seconds for lying still, then every 20 seconds, 30 seconds and so on. Once the dog understands the concept, the owner can institute intermittent rewards. Every time the dog breaks the stay, a verbal correction should be given to indicate that there will be no reward and the dog should be escorted back to the mat. The dog will quickly learn that breaking the stay will result in his being put back on the mat, but holding the down-stay will be rewarded. Once the dog performs a reliable "down-stay" when the owner is in the room, the owner should ask for this behavior while moving progressively farther 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 a down-stay can be maintained for 20-30 minutes in the owner's absence.
Systematic Desensitization - The next step is to desensitize the dog to people and situations that trigger aggression while engaging it in a behavior that is incompatible with an aggressive response (counterconditioning). We recommend that all exercises be performed with the dog on lead, preferably with a head halter and basket muzzle, if necessary, for extra control and safety. This will help keep the dog, handler and volunteers in a more relaxed frame of mind. The key point to remember is not to expose the dog suddenly to the full intensity of the stimulus (visitor) but to very gradually "up the ante." This is accomplished by decreasing progressively the distance between the visitor and the dog. At no point should the dog be challenged so much that aggressive behavior results during training. If aggression occurs, the training has proceeded too quickly and the owner will have to return to an earlier stage of training. For desensitization, the owner should start by exposing the dog to people least likely to cause aggressive behavior and train the dog in a comfortable location.
- Ask the dog to "sit and watch me" or remain in a down-stay.
- Introduce a mildly anxiety-inducing person at a distance. For example, it may be possible to cue the dog to lie down in a relaxed posture or sit and watch the owner while a stranger walks by the end of the drive, rewarding the dog with a food treat for remaining relaxed, calm and in position.
- Next, the stranger may stop at the end of the driveway and momentarily dip into the driveway before leaving again.
- Following a progressive series of incursions, eventually the stranger should be able stand a few feet from the dog while the dog remains calm and under control. At this point, the stranger should be asked to toss one of the dog's favorite food treats in order to stimulate interest and an appetitive response.
- Next the dog can be trained to rest on a training mat or sit while focused on the owner as the visitor approaches the door.
- Once the dog calmly accepts this level of approach, the visitor can knock at the door and finally enter the home as long as the dog remains calm. Occasional delicious food treats should be issued to the dog throughout this procedure. If the dog prefers, visitors can be asked to present the dog with a tennis ball or other preferred toy instead of food.
- These exercises should be performed frequently and with an assortment of strangers, starting with the least threatening and working up to the most threatening individuals. The dog learns that their presence is associated with a feeling of relaxation and other positive experiences. If the dog is resistant to remaining still, an alternative strategy is to have the person stand still and walk the dog around the person in progressively decreasing circles.
During the early stages of training, assistants should be advised not to make direct eye contact with the dog and not approach the dog head on. Volunteers should be asked to move slowly (but normally!), avert their gaze or look at the dog's ears or nose, and to approach the dog via a circuitous route as this approach is less threatening to most dogs. No stranger should ever reach out toward the dog at this stage of the training.
If the dog cannot maintain a sit and focus on the owner because of barking and lunging at the stranger, the owner needs to return to an earlier phase of training. Ideally, during the training process, no one should come close enough to the dog to trigger an aggressive response. If someone approaches too close and the dog becomes aggressive, the assistant should stand still until the owner can get the dog's attention, preferably using an obedience command and a treat for the performing the requested behavior. The owner can then ask the person to retreat quietly to a distance at which the dog was previously comfortable and resume training if the dog is not too aroused.
Once the dog is relaxed with people quietly sitting in the home, the dog can be taught to accept them moving about. Owners can start by having the guest slowly stand up and then sit down. If the dog does not respond adversely, the visitor can then try taking a few steps before returning to his seat. The amount of movement the dog will tolerate while remaining relaxed should be increased incrementally. Keep in mind that dogs with fear-related aggressive behavior have a tendency to snap at people when they move away, for example, when they are preparing to leave.
The dog should initiate all interactions with visitors to the home, not vice versa. If the dog chooses to approach a guest, have the person passively offer a hand for the dog to sniff and a treat if the dog is not "grabby." If the dog indicates that he would like to be petted, the guest may do so briefly, but visitors should avoid reaching over the dog's head and prolonged eye contact. Petting on the chest is best.
Avoid punishment - Dogs that appear to be becoming aroused should be brought under control by means of a command and the enforcement of that command, as by means of a head halter. Physical punishment is inappropriate and has the potential to increase the dog's anxiety and worsen the situation.
In rare cases, it may be necessary to treat territorial aggressive dogs with medication. Fluoxetine (Prozac), clomipramine (Clomicalm), buspirone (Buspar), or a dietary supplement such as the amino acid 5-HTP, are all reasonable treatment options. The efficacy of such treatments will vary from case to case, but price, side effects, and other logistical concerns may determine the order in which these treatments are introduced. The effects of most pharmacological treatments take a few weeks to peak. The duration of treatment should be months, rather than weeks, and, in many cases, a good fraction of a year. Needless to say, appropriate behavior modification therapy, as described above, should be conducted simultaneously to take advantage of the therapeutic window that medications may provide.