6 Tips for Training Your Territorial Dog
My neighbour’s chocolate lab Murphy is a fence-barker extraordinaire. He seems like a nice enough guy in other contexts – I’ve seen him sit peacefully in the front window, looking like a postcard image of a loyal lab – but in the backyard, his territorial barking takes on a threatening keen. When Murphy’s out, my dogs and I don’t dare take the sidewalk past his house.
It’s normal for dogs to guard the resources that matter to them, like burying a favourite toy under a couch cushion or barking when a stranger knocks on the door. But if your dog shows warning signs like excessive barking, growling, or snapping, it’s time to step up your training game.
Living with a territorial dog is stressful for you and the dog, and can become downright dangerous if territorial behavior turns aggressive. These tips for training your territorial dog will help you and your dog go from stressed to smiling.
1. Get back to basics
Basic obedience lays the groundwork for troubleshooting problem behavior, and basic commands can be incredibly useful in a tense situation. For example, if your dog has a solid “sit-stay,” you can use it to keep her calm in another part of the house when someone knocks on the door.
Even if you’ve already been through basic obedience training with your dog, a refresher will help both of you focus and bond. Aim for a few five-minute sessions each day, and be sure to make training worth it by offering rewards.
Once you get in the habit of reinforcing basic obedience on a daily basis, it’ll be second nature, and you’ll have a go-to toolkit for managing territorial behavior.
2. Total recall
Recall, or coming when called, is among the most important things you can teach your dog, and for a territorial dog, it’s a key command to keep her out of trouble.
You can and should work on recall anywhere, but if your dog is especially territorial in the yard, start indoors. Again, be sure to reward her for getting it right! You want your dog to know that good things come to those who come when called.
Once her indoor recall is rock solid, you can gradually move out to the yard, then increase the distance of the call by using a long line. Remember, as with all training, slow and steady is the way to go. Your dog won’t go straight from lunging at the fence to jogging happily to your side when the mailman walks by, but over time, reliable recall can interrupt territorial behaviour.
3. Nothing in life is free
Once your dog has mastered the basics, you can reinforce good behaviour by practicing “Nothing in Life is Free” training.
Territorial dogs are guarding resources, and for many, problem behaviour occurs when their resource-guarding has been reinforced. Maybe your dog begs at the table until you lose your patience and toss him a scrap just to keep him quiet. Later, he growls when you try to take away a chicken bone that fell on the kitchen floor. Your dog isn’t being vindictive, he’s simply learned that he is entitled to tasty treats, and making noise means he gets to keep them.
It’s time to re-train your dog (and yourself) that all resources come from you. Again, start small: require your dog to “sit” before you reward him by putting the leash on to take a walk, or sustain a “down” command for a few minutes before being released to eat his dinner. Asking your dog to work for everything he wants is a positive, safe way to remind him that you control the resources, and can greatly reduce guarding behavior.
4. Quiet coyote
If your dog tends to bark when she senses a threat to her territory, teach her a command that means “be quiet.” In my house, that command is “settle.” Don’t wait for your dog to be like Murphy, stuck in a barking loop in the backyard, before teaching her to calm down.
Start indoors, in a peaceful environment, and gradually introduce more distractions as your dog becomes better at calming on cue (Source). The idea is not just to elicit a desired behavior (although let’s face it, sometimes we just want our beloved buddies to quiet down!) but to reinforce a calm emotional state. This is a step beyond the basics, but when practiced and reinforced, a “settle” command can help an anxious, territorial dog relax.
5. Control the environment
Training can go a long way, but while you’re still working on the basics, if your dog is especially challenging and you need to keep the peace, it’s up to you to reduce potential triggers. This may mean closing the curtains for a dog who barks at the window, or feeding your food-possessive dog in a space removed from other people or pets.
After you’ve spent some time working on the other training steps listed above, you can gradually introduce desensitization and counterconditioning to change your dog’s reactions to triggers (Source). It will take some time and effort, but in the end, it’ll be worth it to have a calmer, happier dog.
It’s not easy to live with a territorial dog, but with consistent, positive training, you can manage potentially bad behavior and make life more peaceful for dogs and people on both sides of the fence.