Wolves defend the land on which they hunt from trespass by other wolves: they are territorial. Your dog's territory is probably smaller than the wolf ancestors', but may he defended just the same. The criterion or degree of territoriality in dogs can usually he changed by a learning process: teaching the dog that invasion from visitors brings good rather than bad experiences.
Most of us only want a dog that barks but does not bite: that is enough to deter burglars. A biting dog is a liability that at least will lose you friends and could lead to a prosecution if someone is bitten.
Some breeds are much more territorial than others, Yorkshire Terriers and German Shepherd Dogs being good examples. Cavaliers and Irish Setters are notable for their lack of territorial instincts, because they have been bred that way.
Frequent contact with a variety of people, from puppy days onwards, limits the development of territorial behaviour. These contacts must be rewarding in outcome, and an unfortunate kick or unpleasant experience at the hands of a stranger can spark off latent antagonistic tendencies.
A Fort Knox house in which few visitors come or strangers are seen develops an antagonistic tendency in the dog. This is particularly seen at doors and along fences through which neighbours etc. can be threatened. Daily and more frequent off-territory walks will change this tendency.
If someone could possibly be hurt, ensure your dog is muzzled or restrained on a lead when conducting the behavioural therapy outlined below. Muzzles do not make dogs more 'mean": they behave much the same as if they were unmuzzled.
You must be cool, off-hand and rejecting to your dog before you expect visitors, and at the moment of bell ringing. The greater your affection or closeness of contact, the more territorial or protective your dog.
Frightened people are more likely to be bitten: rapid and jerky movements, together with unnecessary direct eye contact elicit attacks from territorial dogs. Thus, invite people who are calm, who like dogs and can stand still.
Visitors should come equipped with food, or shortly after arrival they should take your dog for a walk. This will produce a positive expectation of the outsider.
Punishment from the owner for excessive barking or territorial aggression should be modest, well timed and more with the intention of interruption than pain. A powerful sound stimulus is a Rape Alarm air canister or a flick of water from you the owner. Visitors must never punish your dog.
Response Substitution Therapy
The aim here is to train a response which is incompatible with launching an attack upon a visitor.
Train your dog to sit or lie, on a particular place (e.g. a mat inside and near your front door) or hall, within sight but out of reach of the visitor.
The training can be reward-centred for titbits, independently of the presence of visitors. When a real visitor arrives, have them toss titbits at your growling dog.
- Ensure multi-person handling of the puppy from as early as possible.
- Exercise your dog frequently, in public areas.
- Accustom your dog to "nice" experiences at your veterinary practice going equipped with favourite titbits which nurses and colleagues can give your dog.
- If in doubt about how your dog might react, muzzle it. By doing so you are just being responsible.