Strangers At the Door
New people coming to or even through the door is a really common trouble spot for many dogs and their human companions. In many cases, the trouble starts very early in the dog's development, usually in puppyhood, and most often due a lack of socialization to strange people of all shapes, ages, sizes, and backgrounds. Ensuring that unknown (or in more acute cases - known) people are safe coming to or through your door involves leveraging the very short socialization window our dogs experience as puppies.
All that said, this critical period of socialization varies depend on who you talk to, but in a general sense when we talk about socialization windows we are broadly (and quite generously) referring to the time of birth right up to about the four-month mark. In an ideal setting, puppies will be exposed to no less than 100 different people by the time they're 8-weeks old. Unfortunately, most breeders are not on board with this level of human-dog integration, which means that when the puppy arrives home new puppy parents must work triple-time to ensure that puppy gets into the hands of as many broad and varied people as possible.
But what do we do when we've got a dog who wasn't socialized well enough during the critical socialization period?
Much of this entirely depends on the behaviors your dog displays in relation to strangers in and around the home. In this blog I'm going to focus on territorial behavior in and around the home.
I'm going to use aggression and reactivity interchangeably in this section, with the full understanding that many folks in the science-based/force-free training camps won't like it, even without any quantifiable, scientific reason why not other than a ridiculous notion of trying to control "appearances"(I was once publicly shamed by a well-known dog trainer here in Toronto on the use of the word "aggression" when I was just starting out as a dog trainer. A truly unforgettable experience.) I use both of these words interchangeably so that my readers who see reactive behavior and think "aggression!" are not confused as to any sort of implied difference between the two. For the layperson, reactivity = aggression, and that's okay!
When we are working with a territorially aggressive or reactive dog, we have a number of things we must do immediately. And when I say immediately, I mean immediately. Not taking action at the early signs of territorial aggression could cost you your dog's life.
1. Make safety your #1 priority.
Once a dog successfully lands a bite on anyone and learns that this behavior works to get the target to move away you can bet that behavior will be repeated any time the dog finds herself in a similar situation. Is it important to understand the emotion underlying the problematic behavior? Absolutely, but if we make that our first priority, we risk a bite habit developing in the dog and the devastating consequences that come with it.
Making safety the priority involves measures like taking the bite out of the dog with a muzzle protocol. Muzzles of the best safety measures we have that allows us to honor the needs (breathing, eating, drinking, interaction) of the dog and keep our communities safe from the fallout of problematic behavior. If it were up to me, every dog in the city of Toronto would have a muzzle protocol in place. All that means is that the dog has been appropriately conditioned to wear one. This can usually be done in a day or two, and is much easier to do than you probably think. The most common "problem" my clients have with incorporating a muzzle into their dog's daily management has to do with the way the muzzle "looks."
All I can say to this kind of prioritizing of appearance over function is to ask yourself one question: "Would I rather have to deal with social discomfort of having a muzzled dog at my side or no dog at my side - at all?" If your answer is "I'd rather have no dog at all" well... by not incorporating a muzzle protocol into your dog's life, you're right on track for exactly that.
2. Give your dog a safe space away from the "action" and condition the dog to associate "very good things happening" with that space.
Dog behavior is extremely context specific. If you have a dog that engages in territorial aggression/reactivity with humans who come through, or just to, the front door (known OR unknown), it is imperative that you provide the dog a safe space away from the 'trigger' (the new person). This space should be thoroughly conditioned as a "good place to be" and must be made a part of the dog's daily life - even without the presence of guests.
This step helps us in two ways.
The first part addresses the problem of habituation. By providing your dog a safe space you give the dog a break from rehearsing the problematic behavior. Habituation is, bar none, the most powerful force informing dog behavior (the good and the bad), with genetics coming up a distant second. The second involves keeping other humans and your community safe from the potential consequences of the problematic behavior.
Now, I want to spend a minute on this last point. It is neither advisable nor appropriate to wait until after a territorial dog makes contact with a human to implement a management strategy. Do it at the first sign of stranger-danger at the door, including when the dog displays aggressive/reactive behavior to people the dog knows.
The second part involves the neurochemistry of the dog. We understand that every time the dog has an aggressive or reactive episode, huge spikes of cortisol and adrenaline occur in the canine brain. Now, the neurological situation the dog finds himself in is more complicated than that, but for the purposes of territorial dog management, we'll focus on just these two.
Working via the endocrine system found in all mammals, cortisol amplifies a number of physiological processes within the dog: digestion, anxiety management, blood sugar, and control of inflammation. The important part is understanding that chronically elevated levels of cortisol in the body and brain result in chronic problems with digestion, sleep, mood regulation, inability to focus, heart problems, and even weight gain. Chronic Adrenaline spikes can result in urinary incontinence, pacing, whinging, diarrhea, compulsive behaviors (ie. chewing on paws until they're raw), hypervigilance (dilated pupils, stiff posture, and increased frequency and severity of reactive/aggressive displays of behavior). While these lists of consequences are by no means exhaustive, the effects of unchecked cortisol and adrenaline are cumulative. Left unchecked, these will get worse over time and can become catastrophic to your dog's health and well being.
3. If you want to improve or even eliminate these types of behaviors, enlisting the help of a professional who has experience working with territorial dogs is critical. You cannot do this alone, and the reasons why are actually quite commonsensical. To begin with, your relationship with your dog will confound your ability to assess the dog's territorial behavior in context. We often talk about being "too close" to a problem to be able to solve it, and our love for our own dogs is no exception to this general "rule". In addition, your desire to get the dog's behavior "turned around" will incentivize you to rush through the behavior modification process. When I'm talking to my clients about the challenges I face in dog training and behavior modification as a professional, this is always the very first thing that comes to mind. We want our dogs to do well, to be well adapted socially, to be happy, healthy, and included in every aspect of our daily lives. Unfortunately, this desire doesn't help our aggressive/reactive dogs. In fact, it quite often makes the situation much worse as we push the dog through the stages of the process before they're ready.
A professional eye many degrees removed from the closeness of the dog owner's relationship to their dog allows for a more rational and accurate assessment of the behavior and the protocols by which modification of that behavior is to be achieved and whether or not those measures are proving to be effective.
A quick note here that if your dog trainer does not quantify (track with data collected over time under controlled conditions) your dog's progress through any behavior modification program they are only guessing as to the dog's progress relative to baseline (the behaviors as they are expressed at the beginning of the training program, and a great many who refuse to incorporate data tracking into their work miss the mark, invariably making the problematic behavior much worse or, in the best case scenario, not changing it at all.) We must insist on better standards for this critical work among the professional base.
Incorporating these strategies will provide you with an effective management plan to help reduce the severity and frequency of your dog's territorial behavior, but they will not "cure" it. The extinction of unwanted behavior, or behavior "switchover", is an iterative process that takes time, dedication, and professional guidance. What's more, there are a certain percentage of dogs for whom territorial aggression and reactivity will present an intractable or "treatment resistant" issue. Thankfully, intractability in dog behavior isn't actually all that common when addressed early and thoroughly. If you think you're experiencing territorial behavior with your dog, implement these strategies right away and enlist the help of a qualified professional.
Camille Salter is the founder of All Dogs Toronto and a certified, knowledge-assessed dog trainer (CPDT-KA). She is the author of two books on dog behavior: Pandemic Puppy, Decoding the Dog Park, and the Big Book of Dog Training.