Regardless of whether you own a Poodle or a Pit Bull, there are leadership and relationship issues that revolve around the territory in which a dog inhabits. In a dog pack, the ability to scope out and secure territory is paramount. We must recognize that skilled leaders project an air of confidence, are in control of all the valuable resources and are capable of securing and controlling the territory.
Responsible human pack leaders will be in a parental, protective relationship with their dogs. Just as parents protect their children, dog owners must protect their dogs. It is not unusual for pet owners to believe that their dogs should protect them, instead of vice-versa. Is this realistic?
Let’s think it through.
Certain dogs may sound an alarm by barking at unusual noises and intruders, and some will even defend their territory with aggressive displays or actual bites. But common sense and scientific research tell us that even the most intelligent of dogs does not have as much reasoning ability as a two year old human toddler. Who would trust a two year old to protect their family? Instead, the toddler needs to be under his parent’s protection, or that of another responsible adult, at all times. If there is an emergency, even a break-in at your home, the adult human beings are the ones capable of picking up the phone and dialing 911, securing a weapon or even grabbing the car keys and locating a safe exit.
All this to say, please don’t feel hesitant about making it clear to your dog that you control the territory. If your dog has the full run of your house plus a doggie door where he can go outside any time he pleases, he controls the territory. If your dog is calm and laid-back, without any barking or overprotective issues, and responds to you promptly on obedience commands, never challenging you, then it is fine for him to continue to have access to all of the territory. But if your dog has any behavioral challenges at all, then you need to take back the territory.
How to do this? When you are not home, confine the dog to a comfy crate or a certain section of the house (don’t allow free access to the entire house). If there are barking or other issues when the dog is outdoors, then do not allow the dog to go outside unsupervised (either walk the dog on leash for exercise and potty breaks, or go stand outside with him in a fenced area).
When you are home, if a visitor comes to the door, you should immediately stand up and make it clear to your dog that you have everything under control. For example, doorbell rings, dog instantly barks but you stand up and say “Bart, here” and Bart (our doggie example) comes to your side. You can then either confine the dog (if he is still having either over-friendly or overprotective behaviors at the door) or you can allow the dog to walk with you to your foyer, then tell the dog to “place”, directing him to the spot where you would like for him to sit and stay while you see who is at the door. Never, ever allow your dog to barge in front of you to greet a visitor. Parents do not allow two year old children to open the front door, and you should not allow your dog to be the first one to greet a visitor either.
When your dog needs to go out, if you have a fenced yard, then you should give the dog a “wait” command, as you open the door, then take one step outside, wait one or two seconds, then say “okay” and look back at the dog and release him to come outside. Why? This exercise is the equivalent to you opening a door and looking outside to make sure the “coast is clear” before you allow a child to come outside with you. Dogs pay a great deal of attention to our body language, and they understand the subtle clues that we are giving when we make them wait a few seconds, instead of letting them go bounding and barking outside. Dogs which do the “bound out and bark” routine are announcing to the backyard (and sometimes to the whole neighborhood) “Hey! I’m outside and I am in control!”
If your dog is already at a point where it is impossible to perform these simple control exercises, then run, don’t walk, to a professional trainer. Don't choose one out of the yellow pages. Ask your veterinarian who they recommend. Chances are, they know which trainers in your area are skilled at solving behavioral problems (versus the trainers who work more with just getting puppies started, or who work primarily with competition obedience and agility work).
When a dog is exhibiting aggressive behaviors, I recommend reducing the dog’s territory drastically. Your dog should be crated or on a leash right by your side while inside, and on a leash each time he goes outside, even if your yard is fenced. In this manner, you are communicating that you are in control and you are not giving him any leeway to display territorial aggression. This may or may not be a “forever” type of program, but it is not wise to allow dogs the freedom to explore and claim territory on their own if they are putting themselves or others at risk with their aggressive behaviors.
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