Dogcharmer: Territorial dominance

Training can keep the front door turmoil-free.

Dogs racing to greet a visitor may exert territorial aggression. — Sebastian Coman

Not long ago I met a couple at a BBQ who told me that their two Boston terriers started fighting when a visitor came to the door and rang the bell. They said they would send in the question asking why someone at the door would cause them to fight, but they never did, so I thought I would take the opportunity to delve into this issue, because it’s not new to me.

The most difficult case I had were two dogs trying to kill each other over who gets to answer the door first. It involved a Rottweiler and a German shepherd. The Rotty’s name was Joseph and the GS’s name was Robert, both young adults. (Easy names to remember because they’re so unusual.) Territoriality is one of the main reasons man and dog bonded in the first place. It’s why dogs bark when someone’s at the door, and why they’re first to get to the door. They can hear at 100 yards what we can only hear at 25 yards, which makes them one of the best alarm systems, especially because most people with bad intentions are less likely to enter a house with a barking dog. It’s why most people aren’t going to open the gate and walk into a yard with a barking dog on the other side of the gate. Territorial aggression.

“Dominance” is another form of canine aggression. Sometimes it’s why dogs mount other dogs. Joseph and Robert’s (Joe and Bob’s) owners, Jeffrey and Candice, told me it started with their growling at each other on the way to the door. As time went on, the growling escalated until it erupted into an all-out fight — a fight so serious that it resulted in both dogs needing to go to the vet for stitches, and Candice needing stitches at the hospital emergency room.

Another type of canine aggression is “displacement,” or redirected aggression. The classic example is your own dog, that never even growled, biting you down to the bone when you try to break up a fight it got into.

One of the basic parts of my normal training is what I call the door turmoil routine, teaching the dog a routine to eliminate the turmoil at the door, and this one was a tough one. Using people food treats, I started by teaching each dog individually. I started with Bob (with Joe in the backyard) and verbally rewarded him for going to the door to let me know of a visitor, then told the visitor, “Just a minute,” then lured Bob to his spot (within sight of the door) with a piece of meat, where he was told to lie down and stay. Then I let the visitor in, with Bob having to stay on his spot while I greeted the visitor. Then I verbally released Bob, at which point he came forward only to sit in front of the visitor to earn another piece of meat. The same routine was taught to Joe while Bob was in the backyard.

Next was having both Jeffrey and Candice execute the routine with one dog at a time, until both Bob and Joe were well conditioned to automatically do the routine for their meat treats. I also emphasized that performing this routine was the only time ever for the dogs to get meat rewards. I also suggested that the owners tell their friends to please call before they came to visit, with a reminder note on the door, so Jeffrey or Candice could prepare the dogs for the territorial intrusion. Preparing consisted of letting both dogs drag a leash whenever it was time for a visitor, which added to their conditioned response, not to mention if a fight did break out, the two-leggeds would be less likely to bleed using leashes to break it up. It took a lot of lessons, but ended up working beautifully.

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