Are All Dogs Territorial?

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Sam Basso
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Are all dogs territorial?

Because it is illegal for dogs to roam, people these days don’t think much about why their dogs do what they do. I have had students that were upset that their dogs barked when strangers came to the door. They were also annoyed that their dogs didn’t accept guests as easily as people do, and upset when their dogs acted aggressively at the door or out in the street in front of their homes. I’ve also worked with dogs that displayed threatening behaviors in certain places that weren’t their homes. And so, people ask what that’s all about.

There are two concepts that need to be understood: Home Range and Territory. The tendency to live within a home range or territory are biologically programmed into animals.

Home Range: Most animals, from fish to birds to mammals, tend to consistently live in a general geographic area. They don’t tend to wander all over the earth, but instead tend to live, eat, and breed in a home range. Animals tend to live where they can comfortably survive and reproduce, where there is acceptable sources of food, water, shelter and so forth which meet their needs.

Territory: The difference between territory and home range is that when a home range is also an animal’s territory, those animals will patrol and aggressively protect that area from predators, and drive off competitors of their own species. Within a home range, there are often multiple zones, or territories, which individuals or groups of animals actively defend. The boundaries of territories are regularly patrolled and marked since animals aren’t humans which can build walls and fences to keep others out. Sometimes the boundary lines of one territory overlap the boundary lines of other territories. The defending of territories is also enhanced because animals that tend to defend territories show animosity towards strangers. Even migratory birds can have territories where they currently reside. The generally accepted theory why animals occupy and defend territories is that it gives them a biological survival advantage. They have a protected source of food and water, shelter, and place to breed. So, they defend it. It has also been demonstrated that in aggressive conflicts, those on their own turf tend to win fights against those that are intruding on someone else’s turf. It is also true that the deeper an intruder gets into another animal’s territory, the more aggressive the resident animals will be to repel that intruder. Not all animal species have territories, some don’t defend where they live. Other species do defend territories.

Dog Behavior: All dogs, to some degree, are territorial. They live in a neighborhood (their Home Range), but they also have a territory (an area including your property) in that neighborhood which they will defend. Dogs can also, like migratory birds, have more than one territory, such as the inside of your car, or a neighbor’s house where they regularly visit, which they will defend. The problems arise when we try to define what a dog’s territory should be by using human definitions of what territory should be, and we have problems when we have expectations that dogs will accept our guests the same way we do. Very friendly dogs don’t show much in the way of territoriality, but they will still bark at noises and still feel compelled to check out a guest. Others are very aggressive, and we use them to guard our homes. There are also exceptions to every rule. With wolves, there are individuals that don’t remain with a pack and don’t have territories. We call them “lone wolves”. So, when we see street dogs, many don’t have permanent homes to guard, so they roam about a Home Range. Some of our dogs would be nomads, too, if they were allowed to leave our property. Nature is never as rigid as it is portrayed in most dog training books.

People Behavior: Humans in modern cities tend to define their Home Range as Country, State, County, City, Neighborhood, and street address. Humans in modern cities have come to define their Territory as the outer limits of their property boundaries, such as where the surveyor marked their lot lines, or the outer walls of their apartment or condominium. So, we don’t mind other people living next to us, but we don’t like them coming into our property without permission. And if you enter our property too deeply without permission, we are inclined to use deadly force (gun, calling the police, a physical fight) to repel your intrusion. We also tend to guard our other ideas of property, depending upon the type of intruder, so we will aggressively fight back against an armed invasion from another country or foreign criminal group.

Dogs And People: Dogs have a different concept of Home Range and Territory. Home range is an area they are familiar with. So, the more walks we take with our dogs in our neighborhood, the more comfortable they become in that area. Territory is an area that is defended so as to make the dog feel safe from intruders. Some dogs have a smaller territory and some have a larger territory. One good way to determine a dog’s territory is to see how close a stranger has to get to the boundaries of a particular geographical place before the dog starts to alert and bark. In addition, what a dog thinks is right, and what the law says, are often completely different things. Intruders will be repelled by dogs. No law in the world will change that fact. Intruding into a dog’s territory is a provocation. However, there are different dog bite laws in every city. Our laws are often unfair to dogs. We do this to make dogs and dog owners conform to human ideas of territory.

Dogs Can’t Help It: Dogs will define an area where they live as territory and then defend it. Since our definition of where those lines are typically are closer into where we live, we tend to put dogs in situations where the dog feels that guests (intruders) have come way too close without permission, so the barking and aggression is greater than what we want or expect. Different breeds are more territorial than others, as well. Watchdog and guarding breeds are much more intensely territorial than more sociable breeds. So, instead of dealing with that, people start scolding their dogs, putting on bark collars, and all other punishing means of getting the dog to shut up. Which is unfair.

What To Do: If your dog is more intensely barking and defending territory than you’d like, you need to understand where the dog is coming from. It isn’t a human, it is a dog. It has a totally different idea of territory than you do. And if their defense of territory continues to be something that you don’t like, then DON’T punish the dog. That will only make the situation worse, and make the dog neurotic (meaning, you will cause your dog to do a wide range of other undesirable behaviors). You are then putting the dog in an impossible situation that it can’t resolve on its own. A dog can’t understand your views as a human, or obey human laws, regulations and homeowner’s association rules. It is our job to help them adapt to our world and our ideas of territory. To do this properly, you really should hire a good dog behaviorist to evaluate your dog, look at your living situation, and come up with strategies to make greetings go more smoothly, with less barking, and with less of a chance that your dog bites an intruder, such as another person or animal. You aren’t going to take the territoriality out of your dog. It is there to stay. Get used to it. I like it when my dog warns me of intruders. But, I also have to develop different ways of getting my dogs to accept strangers. I have to also have strategies to deal with my dog if he feels territorial in places away from my home, such as in my vehicle, or at some other place they regularly visit. None of this should be left to chance. A dog that leaves your property to repel an intruder can be killed by a car, or your dog can injure someone or some other animal and get you in a lot of hot water. So, hire a professional and get ideas about your situation.

Sam Basso is a professional dog trainer and behaviorist, in the Phoenix/ Scottsdale metropolitan area. He’s known for being fun, kind, intelligent, and humane. Sam Basso has a unique personal touch. He has appeared on his own TV show, been a guest radio expert, gives seminars, publishes a dog related blog, does rescue volunteering, and is active in promoting animal welfare and fair dog laws.