All You Need to Know About Territorial Behaviour in Dogs

Revolutionise Your Dog Training

All You Need to Know About Territorial Behaviour in Dogs

August 22, 2022 Uncategorised 1

Do you have a dog who struggles to settle in the home or garden if there is noise outside? If so, this article will help you understand what’s going on with your dog. You should also find some strategies to help you cope.

Many reactive dogs struggle in the home. Although they may bark and lunge when out on a walk, they may also struggle in the home too.

You may see this if your dog settles in places where they can see out of doors or windows. Some dogs sit on the back of sofas or on tables especially to get a good view of the outside world. Like the troll in The Billy Goats Gruff, they seem to lie in wait for anyone wandering into view, never quite at rest.

They may also choose to lie in doorways or behind gates.

Other dogs struggle if windows are open. The sound of cars, pedestrians or other dogs barking can cause them to growl or bark. Summer months are miserable with dogs who are intent on policing the noise levels in the neighbourhood.

You may also find that your dog struggles with guests to the home. Some dogs cope better with people they know well, but you may find that your dog growls, barks or even snaps at people who arrive, even if they know those people very well.

Other dogs struggle with any kind of movement within the home. Perhaps the guest looks at them, making direct eye contact, or your dog keeps a watchful eye on the guests just in case they do anything unpredictable, like standing up or going to the toilet.

This post is the fifth in a series of ten looking at the reasons why dogs struggle to cope with strangers on the street or in the home.

So far, we have explored:





You should definitely consider the role played by fearfulness, anxiety and impulse control.

Some dogs also fight with other dogs they live with at doors and windows or behind fences when there are triggers outside. This behaviour is often rooted in frustration as they cannot get to the trigger itself. It is not unusual for dogs to turn on each other at these hot spots even though they cope in other situations. The combination of emotional arousal and a small space can result in difficult situations for many dogs.

What is territorial behaviour?

A number of species from birds to humans are territorial. What this means is that not only do they stick to a preferred area to live, they also actively defend this space too. For animals, the space is often determined by the density of food resources or by mating opportunities.

Territorial behaviour of other canids

Although dogs are very different from their wolf cousins, it is often helpful to consider how other canids behave. Researcher Rick McIntyre who has written extensively about the wolves in Yellowstone Park reminds in his books that the main cause of death for adult wolves is to be killed by a rival pack. This is something that we often forget when thinking about the dogs who live with us.

Although there are significant changes to the way dogs live in groups, how they mate and how they raise their young, we should not forget that meeting unfamiliar dogs or humans can cause our dogs a significant amount of stress.

Researchers in Voyageurs National Park have extensively documented the movements of wolf families using GPS data. As you can see from the image above, the families have clearly delineated ranges and rarely make excursions into another family’s territory. As McIntyre says, to do so means the wolf is placing themselves in great danger.

Other canids from jackals to coyotes behave in similar ways.

Territorial behaviour of street dogs, village dogs and free-roaming dogs

Of course, we understand that dogs are not wolves. Our domestic companions do not have to hold a territory to assure they have sufficient food. Nor do they have to fight over territory when times get tough. Neither do they have to disperse from the family group in order to find a mate. Dogs do not form social groups in the same way as wolves. They are much more gregarious and they are unlikely to kill rivals who enter their territory, though it can happen.

We do have free-roaming dogs who can help us understand how our own family dogs might well behave if they could. Research on dogs who live completely outside the sphere of humans suggests they form small but stable groups and that they stick to territories defined by resting areas and delineated by access to areas where food can be scavenged or acquired. Human refuse provides most of their food and we already know that dogs do not form parental pairings as wolves do.

Although most research on free-roaming dogs has related to the spread of disease, particularly diseases that affect humans such as rabies, we can see a relatively common pattern of behaviour. Dogs generally stay with their own social group, although that is less likely to be determined by biological connections. They also have clearly delineated ranges that they stick to on the whole. Encounters between groups usually end with interlopers dispersing and the dogs on home ground staying in position.

Where dogs do not have to acquire food but they can roam freely, the same pattern is evident. The dogs stick to a small range and if they encounter another dog when off their home range, they will usually disperse. However, if an interloper comes onto their own home range, they will usually stand their ground.

Although it is usually less fatal for dogs to wander than it is for wolves, having a small home range that you defend from outsiders is common. This offers a great deal of security and safety. Unlike our visions of dogs like The Littlest Hobo making their way across the continent, most dogs don’t move very far at all from their base. Encounters with strange dogs can be tense. There are definite benefits to being part of a small social group that can see off a single visitor.

Territorial behaviour of family dogs

Most of our family dogs no longer have the ability to roam freely. Despite the fact that dogs are very well researched, there are very few studies about how dogs respond to territory, especially if they have been selected for guarding behaviours.

There is a small amout of research carried out on livestock guardian breeds that suggests they are bonded to the flock rather than behaving territorially. In other words, where they are does not matter. Dogs who protect sheep are not acting out of territoriality but out of bonds with the flock.

Nevertheless, archaeological evidence suggests that dogs have long since been selected because they offer benefits as guardians. From early reports in the 5th century BCE of dogs secured outside town walls to alert residents of nighttime attacks to the famed Cave Canem mosaic in Pompeii, dogs have often been used to guard property. Indeed, it may have been one of their first uses. In Sumerian culture, many statues of dogs have been found buried at the lintels of houses, helping us understand a little that dogs have found a use in protecting our homes for thousands of years.

In the 1950s, behavioural biologists John Paul Scott and John Fuller undertook what is undoubtedly the most detailed exploration of behavioural heritability. One thing that they found was that canine vocalisation was highly heritable in two ways. Firstly, it seemed that some dogs needed less to cause them to bark in the first place, and that this was a trait that could be inherited from their parents. Secondly, they found that some dogs also barked longer.

Thus, you could find dogs who barked quickly in response to things, but did not bark very long. You could also find dogs with a hair trigger bark who also continued to bark much longer. What we can see from this is that is very possible to breed dogs, perhaps accidentally, who bark longer and more easily than others.

Alert and alarm barking

There seems to be two kinds of barking that we see that relates to intrusion into the dog’s home range.

The first is alarm barking. Alarm barking happens whether the guardian is present or not. This happens usually because the dog is afraid and the barking is a response to a trigger.

Other dogs bark to alert. This behaviour is more social. The behaviour is designed to alert others to the possibility of threat.

It can be very interesting to take video of how your dogs behave when you are absent.

Alarm barkers will bark anyway. This should assume that their barking is not distress at being left alone, of course.

Alert barkers have no-one to alert, and so they bark less frequently.

This difference is an important one to consider if you have a dog who seems to be very barky in the home. It will change your behaviour modification plan. Your attention is important to alert barkers; it is not important to alarm barkers.

Alarm barkers are often sensitised to neighbourhood sounds and activity. They should be helped to relax in the presence of neighbourhood noises so that they habituate to them. Their barking is much like goosebumps: it does not matter what you say or do as it will not change the fact the dog is having a largely involuntary emotional and physiological response. Their response is often worse when they are emotionally aroused.

Alert barkers may also need some habituation to neighbourhood noises, but their behaviour is much more dependent on what you do and is therefore more likely to be subject to consequences.

Identifying a dog who struggles with territoriality

Dogs who struggle with intrusions into their territory will have much reduced behaviour in other places. Off home ground, they may still struggle a little with unfamiliar humans or dogs, but they will be less likely to bark or lunge.

Your dog may also be choosing places in which they can survey the neighbourhood, such as the backs of sofas that look out through windows.

You may think of them as the noise police. They tell you every single time something happens outside the home.

You may also find that your dog is also afraid of strange humans or dogs, but there is a big difference about how they feel on home turf and how they feel out on walks or in other people’s homes.

They may struggle with guests, keeping a watchful eye on them until they leave.

The aim of a dog who is territorial is to see intruders off the property. Thus, meeting the dog off the property, you should find that they are less likely to hold their ground and that their behaviour is much less dramatic.

How do you train a dog to be less territorial?

It can be difficult to do this with an adult dog. The best training is preventative. Puppies should be comfortable with guests arriving on the property and should have had structured support to help them familiarise to noise and activity beyond the property.

If your dog is territorial but also reactive towards people or dogs off the property, you should always start off the property first. Make sure that your dog is safe and that you can work at a sensible distance to help them get used to seeing, hearing and smelling other dogs and people. Once you have done this, you will be able to work closer to home before transferring to the home. Working to create a programme with a trainer who is experienced with territorial behaviour should help.

You will also need to manage your dog so that they are not putting anybody at risk. Sadly, some territorial dogs become dogs who snap or bite, simply because they have had little help in coping with these situations.

Reducing barking in the home is vital. A dog who is constantly disturbed by neighbourhood noises is not a rested dog. Likewise, a dog spending all day on duty, alerting you to potential burglars is not a dog who is rested. The home should be a place of safety. It should be a sanctuary. It should not be a place of work or a place where the dog feels so unsafe that they spend long periods of the day barking every time something happens outside.

This alert and alarm barking protocol should help.

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