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We had a question recently about a territorial dog, and so we immediately thought of Alex Lato, one of the founders of 'Temperament Dogs- More than Residential Training' and the reactive dog expert based in Berkshire.
Alex is an expert in difficult dog behaviour, so we think you'll enjoy reading his answers.
Note: We've changed the names at the request of the owner, but the problems are the same.
Dear Woof Team,
I need some advice on my new dog.
I’m a mother of 3 boys and recently I adopted a 2 year old Beagle called Bertie. He’s adorable, and so gentle with the boys and I, but he’s started acting really territorial with others.
For example, Bertie will:
- Bark OBSESSIVELY whenever anyone walks past the window
- Sit in his bed but still growl the whole time a stranger is in the house
- Bark and lunge (when on the lead) at dogs he knows and plays nicely with off the lead
- Always walk in front of me on walks, with his tail held high (he also pees on things and kicks after going to the toilet)
- Even if we’re in the park, he’ll sometimes run towards a stranger and bark at them (he doesn’t try to nip or attack them - just stands and barks)
What are we doing wrong?
It’s getting to the point that I daren’t let him off the lead. Thanks in advance for any help you can give me.
We broke this down and asked Alex for his advice...
1. Why do you think the dog might be acting this way? Is it something Julie or her family is doing? Could it be breed specific?
From your description there seems to be a few things that are happening here, that are resulting in Bertie's behaviour.
Firstly, as we all know, any behaviour in our dogs is a combination of nature (genetic predisposition) and nurture (experience from environment around them but also result of good and bad handling habits).
However, it's important not to judge a dog only by it's breed.
With that said, there are often breed specific behaviours or tendencies at work - for example, I'm not that surprised if I meet an over-protective GSD (German Shepherd Dog), or a Labrador that suddenly eats a whole bag of food if given a chance!
In Bertie's case, the most obvious (to me) symptom is fear-based aggression. This is most common when a dog reacts when meets people and dogs he doesn't know, and when he's in close spaces or restrained on the lead. That does not mean that Bertie does not show or has any territorial or protective tendencies.
Julie or her family may be accidentally reinforcing those behaviours by either talking softly to a fearful dog (which can be seen as a reward for this behaviour) or shouting at the already-stressed dog (which translates as us barking at, or with him) leading to, of course, more barking and fear!
2. How could a dog owner tell the difference between territorial behaviour, and aggressive behaviour?
Is there really a difference? Let me explain!
We have different categories of aggressive behaviours but for the purpose of this question lets categorise them into:
1) Reactive Aggression
2) Active aggression (also called social aggression)
However, let's firstly, explore what drives aggression in most cases.
I class aggression as any behaviour that's intended to create more distance between the dog and the someone/something that he's acting aggressively towards.
So if my dog barks, growls or snarls at the postman, then he's trying to make the postman go away. So I class this behaviour as 'aggressive'.
Even urinating to mark a tree can be considered aggressive, as this is a message saying "Stay away - this is my territory".
Even though it's not directed at anyone in particular, it's still designed to increase the distance between the dog and the perceived threat, so we can, and do, class it as an aggressive behaviour (albeit mild!).
However, this DOES NOT mean the dog is dangerous!
Aggression drive is innate, and essential for survival in the wild.
However, in a domesticated environment, we often misunderstand aggression - not all dogs performing aggressive behaviours are dangerous. Also, not all reactive or territorial dogs are dangerous ones or they have intention to harm.
Usually this behaviour intensifies when the the dog has no other option to deal with the situation.
So this is why dogs are more comfortable off the lead and only seem to display aggressive behaviours, like lunging and barking, when they are enclosed in small spaces or restrained with the lead.
In contrast, the second type of aggression, 'Active Aggression', occurs when there is no danger, but the dog still act aggressively.
For example, fighting other dogs for a female or protecting valuable resources (such as bones, bedding or food).
Therefore even though we class both behavioural tendencies as 'aggressive', it's important to understand the nature of it, in order to find best training strategy to help the dog and owner.
3. Julie admits she lets him on the sofa and occasionally the bed. Do you think this is making it worse?
There are many myths in dog training and this is probably the biggest one.
The fact that a dog sleeps in your bed, pulls on the walk or goes first through a doorway does not mean he's trying to dominate you, or planning to take over the world 🙂
If I have a great relationship with my dog, then it doesn't really matter if he sleeps at the bottom of my bed - he still listens to me.
However if my dog is not focused on responding to my commands, pulls on the lead, or I struggle with aggression issues then maybe there is some room here for more structure my doggies life - and that would start with teaching the dog that my bed is a privilege, not a right.
4. If you could teach the owner just 3 principles to prevent this kind of behaviour, what 3 principles/ideas/lessons would you choose?
1) A solid obedience foundation and training. This can have a massive impact on your relationship with your dog. With improved communication we can guide our dog to, what I call 'alternative behaviour'. In other words, we replace the unwanted behaviour with a more acceptable and appropriate one that will make the unwanted behaviour impossible. For example, a dog that sits, cannot jump or lunge and bark at the postman, can he? 😀
2) Loose lead training. As I mentioned before, having a tight lead and trying to control the dog this way can get us in trouble and even intensify levels of reactive aggression. Instead, your dog should want to walk calmly beside you, with a loose lead.
3) Confidence/bravery training. I'm a huge believer in building a dog's confidence, and with that comes better coping strategies in all stressful situations. I run frequent workshops on this subject called Bravery Boost Training (BBT) during which I teach my students how to help reactive dogs, dog that are suffering from anxieties and phobias but also how to raise confident puppies and young dogs and prevent number of behavioural problems. Also we are creating 'Board and Train Programme' that will be specifically designed to help reactive dogs.
5. Why does he sometimes bark and growl at dogs he knows (mainly when he’s on the lead)?
This is where Loose Lead Training can make a huge difference. In a lead situation, if the lead is tight, it can intensify aggressive behaviours.
On top of this, our tendency is to make that lead even shorter because we know, from past experience, that our dog will probably react to whatever is coming the other way.
So we are, in fact, making the whole situation much worse!
Our dog thinks:
"My lead is tight, so I can't greet this dog in the proper way, or send friendly calm signals. I cannot run away or create any distance either. What if that dog jumps on me?"
"Wait...I had a few little arguments with him in the past, didn't I? I'd better play it safe, and make him go away!"
In fact, this is exactly how we train protection dogs. We have them on tight leads and harnesses, and when a 'bad guy' is coming, they know they cannot run away, therefore they act aggressively to scare the 'bad guy' and make them back off.
Therefore I cannot stress enough during my behavioural consultations the importance of loose lead walking and a loose lead when greeting other dogs.
Consider the body posture of a dog who's lead is tight: The whole weight is on the front legs, and the dog is breathing heavily. What signal is he sending to other dogs?
However, when the lead is loose, the dog is free to move, and can send friendly signals and greet the other dog appropriately.
Is there anything you would like to add?
It is important to understand the deeply emotional state of mind of our dog, if we want to help him to behave in a better, more relaxed way.
Also we need to understand how reactivity can be reinforced from environment and importance of breaking bad habits quickly and replace them with good ones.
And last but not least: Never quit on your dog and yourself!
Don't be afraid to look for help. Get it however only from experienced trainers in this area. Reactivity and aggression are one of the most, if not the most, challenging behaviours to help with.
Help your dog and yourself by having less stressful and more enjoyable walks!
So there we have it! Some great advice from Alex here, and we certainly learnt some new things.
Tell us in the comments your thoughts, experiences and anything you took away from Alex's advice.
About Alex Lato
Based in Hampshire, UK
Expert in reactive dogs