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Territorial Behavior in Dogs

Territorial behavior in domestic dogs reminds us of their wolf-like ancestors. The information gathered by wild animals during their territorial investigation is crucial to their survival. Regular patrols provide details regarding natural resources, such as the odors of prey. Territorial investigation also allows detection of intruders that could compete for food and water or threaten the safety of the young. Males tend to explore larger ranges than do females, and young males often break away from the pack to wander alone or in small groups. Dogs "claim" their territory by leaving deposits of urine or stool. Urine may be voided in a crouching position or in a standing position with a lifted leg. Both males and females urinate in either position, though vertical surfaces are more often targeted by mature males and, perhaps, by dominant adult females. A dog's walks around the neighborhood are the equivalent of territorial patrol by its wild relatives. Unmarked areas, as well as previous traces of other dogs, are marked by fresh deposits of urine or stool. A dog's territory includes the area surrounding its home and, eventually, anywhere your dog has explored or associates strongly with you: your car, the route taken during walks, or even a friend or relative's home in another town.


Territorial Aggression
Territorial aggression may begin as a dog approaches sexual maturity at 6 months of age but may not develop fully until around 3 years of age. Dogs are not born with equal territorial instincts. Some dogs show strong territoriality at a young age, while others never do. Many pet owners view territorial aggression as desirable. A dog that is praised for barking when it is startled by a noise outside may eventually become a good watch dog. For the most part, however, unless the dog has some inborn predisposition, it may be difficult for the average pet owner to train a reliable watch dog. Still, the intimidating effect of a large dog's size may compensate for its sociable nature. Undesirable territorial behavior can be unintentionally encouraged by dog owners. Barking and other forms of territorial aggression can be reinforced by attention, even if the attention is negative, such as scolding. Tolerating objectionable behavior is the same as encouraging it. If your dog's territorial nature has become a problem, teach it the limits of acceptable behavior. Train your dog to "sit" and "stay" when anyone, including you, enters or leaves the home. If necessary, use a leash during training. Teaching your dog to assume a calm and controlled attitude reinforces its submissive rank. The dog will gradually understand that it need not defend against or fear visitors. Territorial defense in males is not affected by castration, though this may reduce the size of their territory and the frequency of territorial marking. Other types of aggression influenced by sexual hormones, however, may contribute to the intensity of territorial aggression by adding to the dog's motivation or to its general state of arousal. People and other dogs passing near your home are potential intruders to a territorial dog. Joggers and even motor vehicles can trigger an aggressive response. The unhesitating approach of intruders, such as the mail carrier, may be particularly menacing. A dog's reaction to the postal uniform, for example, may become more aggressive over time and include anyone wearing a uniform. Introduce your new puppy to your mail carrier and encourage them to get to know each other. Problems are less likely if your puppy plays with that person or is fed a treat (by you or the mail carrier) when mail is delivered. If your dog is aggressive toward the mail carrier, teach it to "sit" or "down" and "stay" when the mail is due to arrive. Enforce the position and reward calm behavior with gentle praise. Ask your mail carrier to take a few minutes to become familiar with your dog. In more difficult cases, your carrier might agree to visit you after work, dressed in regular street clothes. With your dog on a leash and in a "down" and "stay" position, ask your mail carrier (or any other person threatened by your dog's behavior) to stand motionless at a distance that is tolerated by your dog. Maintain its calm and controlled behavior and reinforce it with praise. Gradually over many days, the carrier may slowly approach your dog, stopping at the first sign of uneasiness in your dog and continuing as the dog becomes accustomed to each step closer. If you cannot restrain your pet or do not have confidence in its response, prevent your dog's access to intruders and confine it to another area. It might also be wise to post signs around your yard, warning of your dog's territorial aggression ("Beware of Dog"). You are legally responsible for any harm your dog might inflict. In your home, your dog may also have favorite resting areas and can become very defensive if disturbed there. These areas may include your bed, especially if your pet sleeps near you, or under a desk or table. If your dog becomes aggressive when disturbed in a favorite place, 2 basic approaches are advised. First, recognize the predictable pattern and alert everyone else. If your dog rests near your bed and becomes aggressive when approached there, avoid directly confronting the dog when it is near your bed. In a happy tone, call it to "come" to you and lead it away from the area. Alternatively, block access to this area so the pattern cannot continue. Keep your bedroom door closed, for example. It is almost always unwise to punish an aggressive animal, particularly if it is in a confined space, because this usually results in a more aggressive reaction toward you.


Escaping and Roaming
Young dogs with strong territorial drives commonly attempt to escape the confines of your home or yard. Inadequate attention and exercise, such as regular walks or play, contribute to the urge to escape. Roaming usually subsides as general levels of activity decrease toward the age of 5 or 6 years and is less common in older dogs. A single escape substantially increases the probability that more attempts will follow, unless the dog has an overwhelmingly negative experience while it is roaming, such as being hit by a car. Roaming gives a dog mental and physical gratification. It enables a dog to locate sources of food (even if these are in trash bins), potential mates or rivals. The best way to control roaming is to prevent escape and minimize the desire to roam. Increase your dog's physical activity with frequent leash walks. This also allows it to safely patrol its territory. Play with your dog every day, engaging in activities that incorporate obedience skills.

Apply obedience skills at every opportunity during your daily schedule, so that your dog's attention does not wander. If your dog is well exercised and mentally stimulated by you, it is less likely to attempt escape. Neutering may help to control escape attempts. It may curb the expanse of the territory patrolled during roaming and the frequency of dogfights, but it is unlikely to stop a dog from roaming. A dog that roams, however, should be neutered to prevent any contribution it might make to pet overpopulation during its escapades. Teach your dog to strongly associate your yard with positive experiences. Withhold your dog's food for 24 hours. Resume feeding in your yard at frequent intervals and in small portions. On subsequent days, gradually increase the time between meals and resume feeding the normal portion at each meal. The time of feeding should remain inconsistent for an extended period. In this way, your dog will associate food with the yard but will not be able to anticipate when it will be fed and will be less tempted to escape. Short-term use of sedatives or tranquilizers may be appropriate if your dog is particularly agitated and persistent in attempting to escape. Never leave your dog unattended in your yard for more than a few minutes. Install a permanent and sturdy fence to enclose your yard. If your dog learns to dig under or jump over it, you may need to extend it in depth or in height. Another precaution might be to attach your dog to a long lead anchored at ground level (problems can result from overhead "runners"). A pet door opening to an outdoor pen may be a helpful alternative. Hidden electrified boundaries have been helpful for some but cannot be recommended because they are not humane nor reliable for very determined escapists. Many dogs endure painful shocks as they cross the "invisible" barrier to freedom. Little benefit may be derived from an expensive investment. Electric shock collars are unacceptable for similar reasons. Both electric fences and collars may injure your dog and produce unintended behavioral changes. Your dog could become afraid of you, afraid of going out into the yard, or afraid of going outside at all. Ultrasonic devices are unlikely to be successful. These devices can never replace regular daily walks and review of obedience skills. Your dog's roaming behavior does not mean it does not appreciate you. It is easy to become frustrated by this behavior, particularly when it is incovenient to retrieve your roaming dog. When at last you locate your pet, do not scold it! Your dog will associate such punishment with you and its home. As difficult as it may be, never command a dog to "come" in angry tones. If the dog anticipates punishment when told to "come," it will quickly learn to run in the opposite direction. When you find your dog, convey a positive attitude. You may find it helpful to bring along a treat to reward the dog for approaching you. Be sure to have a leash with you. If the dog hesitates to approach you, command it to "sit/stay" instead. Give plenty of verbal praise before approaching the dog or repeating the command to "come." Turn any further hesitation into a game by running away from the dog. Calling it to "come" in a playful tone will encourage it to chase you. Your anxiety is best forgotten and directed instead toward preventing further escapes. A dog that is allowed to roam may become aggressive toward people. This is amplified when stray dogs form social groups. A roaming dog may form a pack with other stray dogs and become even more of a threat to people. If you or your child encounter an unfamiliar dog or one that shows the slightest sign of aggressiveness, even if this is displayed with friendly behavior, leave it alone. If you encounter an aggressive dog in its own yard or in its home, remain motionless. If you are calm and do not make sudden gestures or motions to run, chances are good that the dog will not attack you. Avoid looking directly into the dog's eyes; instead, avert your gaze and slowly back away from the dog while you continue to face toward it. If you are carrying anything, such as a briefcase or coat, use it to shield yourself. Keep silent other than to clearly and confidently tell the dog "no!" or "sit!" Report the incident to the animal control officer in your area.