Between the constant barking and general anxious behavior, you’re left feeling hopeless and embarrassed each time someone comes to visit or another dog walks by your yard. The good news is that territorial behavior can be alleviated in many dogs if you’re willing to put in the work.
Back to the Basics
The first step in curbing territorial behavior is to ensure your dog already knows basic commands. Sit, stay and recall are all vital to helping reign in your anxious or aggressive pup—without them, you won’t be able to tackle the problem. Spend time each day with your dog getting back to basics in a quiet room away from distractions. Once he follows your commands without question you can move him into a different area with more noise.
Anxiety is one of the primary reasons dogs engage in territorial behavior. When not properly socialized at a young age, dogs can develop a fear of both people and other animals. This leads them to develop severe anxiety that presents itself in the form of barking, growling and, in serious cases, aggressive acts like biting. If this is the case with your pup you’ll need to take steps to reduce his anxiety levels.
Begin by removing his access to sightlines to the outdoors. Use curtains and gates to prevent him from spotting visitors and curb his access to the front door. You might even benefit from feeding him in a separate room if he’s taken to guarding his food.
There are also medications available to help reduce anxiety in dogs, which you should discuss with your veterinarian. Thundershirts and puzzle toys can also help to keep your dog occupied and calm in situations that could bring on stress.
Once you’ve reaffirmed your dog’s basic commands and have found solutions to reduce his anxiety, it’s time to begin the difficult task of counter conditioning. The goal here is to reduce territorial reactions through desensitization: slowly adding triggers into your dog's life and rewarding him when he behaves in a desirable manner.
If your dog rushes the door when visitors arrive, one method to try is to have him wait in the hall and practice sit and stay as they approach. If he listens, praise and treat him generously. One thing you want to avoid here is having your visitor walk away from the door when your dog displays aggressive behavior. This will only reinforce his territorial patterns.
Similarly, you can practice this with another dog in the backyard by having them wait on the other side of the fence until your dog calms, then treat him generously before moving the other dog inside the gate.
For more detailed information, check out the Humane Society’s guide to counter conditioning and desensitization.
Socialization is the most important aspect of training a pup, and it should be done as often as possible beginning from puppyhood until old age. It’s also necessary to curb territorial behavior once it has begun. In a controlled environment (i.e. on a leash!) begin to introduce other people and dogs to your dog on a daily basis. Begin outside the home in places like dog parks or on walks where you can keep your dog leashes and quickly remove them from dangerous situations. Once your dog is used to others, then you can start working on socializing him at home.
The goal here is to get your pup used to what he sees as other dogs infringing on his territory until he understands that they’re not a threat. Teach your dog to “settle” when he gets wound up and reward him heavily when he complies. Eventually, he’ll be comfortable with another dog or person coming to visit if he associates them with rewards.
Retraining a territorial dog is a task that will take months, if not longer, to accomplish so give up if you don’t see immediate results. Remember, it’s all about desensitization and getting your pup to associate others with good moments rather than bad ones.
Ben Kerns is a freelance writer, photographer and outdoor adventurer based out of San Diego. When he’s not busy working you can find him hopping across the world looking for new places to climb big rocks. He’s also fanatically obsessed with funding his outdoor obsessions for as little money as possible.