Reducing Territoriality in German Shepherds Who Dislike Guests

If your German shepherd doesn't like guests, this must be tackled with great care. Owning one can become a great liability if they engage in territorial behaviors beyond alerting about an intruder.

Reducing Territoriality in German Shepherds Who Dislike Guests
Poorly socialized German Shepherds risk becoming fear reactive

Milan Krasula via Getty Images

Why Does My German Shepherd Not Like Strangers in the House?

If your German Shepherd doesn't like having guests over, you may be looking for solutions. Certainly, this is something that needs to be addressed with great care considering the risks of owning a large dog that is potentially capable of causing harm.

Territorial aggression is the technical term used to depict dogs who act aggressively (barking, growling, lunging and threatening to bite) when people or other animals approach their perceived territories. When outside of their perceived territories, such dogs will not display such territorial behaviors.

It's not surprising why many homeowner insurance companies have blacklisted German shepherds along with several other dog breeds known for engaging in territorial behaviors.

When exploited, these dogs' guardian behaviors can get out of hand, and cause problems that may lead to territorial aggression, which involves bites and threats to bite that should never be underestimated.

However, when well-trained and well-socialized, German shepherds make wonderful companions with stable personalities.

A German Shepherd's Predisposition for "Territorial Behavior"

German shepherds are described as vigilant dogs who remain quiet and poised until a circumstance demands, and they switch to being eager and alert. They then are willing to put their life on the line to defend loved ones.

These traits have made German shepherds cherished guardians of the home and farm. These dogs are not the average Golden or Labrador retriever who, as social butterflies, rush to greet and befriend anyone they meet.

Rather, as German shepherds mature, they edge more toward the reserved side, and their breed standard clearly states that their aloofness "does not lend itself to immediate and indiscriminate friendships."

With this breed's innate predisposition, it is important to recognize how, without proper socialization, training and guidance, one is walking on a fine line.

A German shepherd's natural aloofness can easily morph into suspiciousness, mistrust, and even excessive territorial aggression.

Some dog breeds—typically guarding breeds and herding breeds—appear to have a low threshold for developing excessive territorial aggression. This may be compounded by inadequate or inappropriate socialization, leading to a comorbid diagnosis of fear aggression.

— Lore I. Haug, board-certified veterinary behaviorist

At What Age Do German Shepherds Become Territorial?

In general, young German Shepherd pups are happy and eager to greet people. As they meet and greet, they are all wiggly and may solicit attention and petting from people.

Things may start to change when German Shepherds reach the adolescent stage, a time when their attitudes about people being nearby their properties shift into territorial behaviors.

At around eight to ten months of age, you may notice how strangers or other dogs approaching have now become potential threats to your German Shepherd pup. From wiggly and eager upon meet and greet, your young teenage German Shepherd may now bark or even growl upon noticing intruders.

While it's not unusual for teenage German Shepherds to act this way, you don't want your pup to rehearse these "protective" instincts, at least not until he's more mature and better capable of discerning a real threat from a fake one.

In general, a German Shepherd's tendency to act protective of the home expands and consolidates in general between 12 and 36 months of age, especially when his environment is not carefully managed.

My client's German Shepherd started showing fearful-reactive reactions toward strangers at around six months.

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The same German Shepherd barking and lunging in response to people getting out of a car

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The Importance of Addressing Territorial Behaviors Early

It goes without saying the importance of tackling territorial behaviors early and nipping them in the bud.

Upon noticing those first barks or growls directed towards a stranger, you should acknowledge the alert, thanking your pup but asking him to immediately sit or lie down on a mat, informing him that you have the situation under control.

By doing this, not only are you distracting your pup, preventing him from going over the threshold, but you're also teaching him that it's not his job to worry and that you'll take over.

You can also work on creating positive associations with strangers passing by your property by making a smacking sound with your mouth and feeding treats upon noticing strangers from a distance walking by.

What's Acceptable, What's Not

Generally, in a well-socialized and well-trained German Shepherd, we expect them to react to intruders warning us about their presence.

After the warning, we should be able to ask them to step down and let us take care of letting the guests enter our property or our home. However, we can't ask them to stop keeping an eye on them during their visits. This alertness is an instinctive trait and what makes many people treasure these dogs.

When we are not around, the ideal guardian dog will carefully evaluate the situation and may emit a low-level threat in the form of a bark or a growl; then, based on how the intruder reacts, they may react accordingly.

Problems arise when German Shepherds take the role too seriously and engage in territorial aggression, ignoring the owner's requests to settle or when the aggressive display is directed toward strangers who have shown no signs of being a threat.

Whether a German shepherd develops aggressive territorial behaviors or not may vary based on several factors such as hereditability (the puppy’s parents were prone to being fearful/aggressive), lack of socialization and training, encouragement/exploitation of the behavior and lack of guidance (puppy left alone to make bad choices).

When a predisposition for territorial aggression is combined with the immature adolescent stage and lack of confidence, this can become a recipe for disaster.

As an adolescent, your GDD pup may struggle to make savvy decisions about whether someone is a friend or foe. This should not be underestimated, as even a young adolescent German Shepherd can cause harm with his sharp teeth if he manages to bite.

Reinforcement History of Territorial Behaviors

Engaging in territorial behavior is perceived as reinforcing by the dog. Because the barking, growling or biting "works" in making the intruder go away, the dog feels compelled to engage in these "go away," distance-increasing territorial behaviors more and more.

The more chances they get to rehearse these behaviors, the stronger they become. If they are exposed to a constant flow of people coming and going, carrying things and producing lots of noise (a good example would be construction workers), they may escalate their behaviors since they keep coming despite their warnings to "go away."

On top of this, German Shepherds and other guardian breeds may get an adrenaline rush as they engage in territorial behaviors, and it may get addicting.

German Shepherds should not be allowed to make decisions on their own until at least they have reached a baseline of reliability and responsiveness to their owners.

German Shepherds are vigilant dogs who pay lots of attention to their environments.

Real Protection Versus Reactivity

It's important to consider the great differences between real "protection" and reactivity. Oftentimes, people confuse dogs being fear reactive with being protective.

A German Shepherd may be purchased with the hope of him being protective, but unless he's professionally trained, in many cases, the barking and growling stem from insecurity and fear.

You can't really expect your puppy to just grow on his own and develop protective instincts without guidance. Left to his own devices, you'll risk having a dog who barks and lunges at anything and anybody he's not comfortable with.

What you can count on instead is his mere appearance and alertness. That black and tan suit speaks volumes, and most people instinctively know they don't want to mess with this kind of dog.

A good German Shepherd will engage in his watchdog duties by alert barking when something is really amiss and will let you know. He shouldn't be going ballistic over normal things.

If you are looking for a real protection dog, consider that this can get expensive. Your dog may not even have the right temperament.

It’s not a “drop the dog off and pick up a totally trained protection dog” ordeal. Rather, it requires quite comprehensive training with maintenance sessions and ongoing work for a lifetime.

How to Stop a German Shepherd From Acting Reactive Towards Guests?

You'll need to take a multifaceted approach to stop a German Shepherd from reacting to guests. It's important to emphasize the importance of early intervention. The earlier you intervene, the better—considering how ingrained reactive/territorial behaviors become, the more they are rehearsed.

Start With a Vet Visit

It's always a good practice to start with a vet visit before tackling a potential behavioral problem when it comes to dogs.

Changes in a dog's health status can sometimes manifest through changes in behavior. For example, painful conditions can make dogs particularly irritable, points out board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Debra Horwitz.

Just imagine a dog who has neck pain. Owners often grab their dogs by the collar if a visitor is at the door. If this causes pain to the dog, the dog may associate that pain with a visitor, increasing his dislike of visitors.

Consider Working Alongside a Pro

In dogs who have bitten or have threatened to bite, it's important to seek the guidance of an experienced dog behavior professional using force-free behavior modification.

This is for safety and the correct implementation of behavior modification. Consulting with a board-certified veterinary behaviorist would be an excellent start. He or she can provide an accurate diagnosis and treatment plan. Medications may be prescribed to reduce anxiety in cases of fear-based aggression.

The Importance of Management

Because rehearsing territorial aggressive behaviors makes them more established, it is vitally important to implement management. Management simply means taking steps to prevent the dog from practicing the undesirable behavior.

Here's the thing, even allowing a certain degree of territorial aggression could potentially undermine the best behavior modification plan because it allows the dog to act on his own judgment, potentially contributing to making bad choices in the future.

On top of this, allowing dogs to engage in self-reinforcing undesirable behaviors, sometimes yes and sometimes no, puts them on a variable schedule. In other words, it makes dogs more eager to engage in these behaviors, sort of like the addictive nature of gambling and winning every now and then in Vegas.

In cases of dogs who act aggressively or have even managed to bite, their license to protect may therefore need to be revoked so as to play it safe and avoid rehearsal of problematic behaviors.

Have Safety Protocols in Place

The safety of people is of the utmost importance, hence the importance of having strict management rules in place.

Following are important management measures:

  • Dogs are no longer allowed to be outdoors in the yard alone and unsupervised.
  • Nobody should ever enter the premises unannounced.
  • Secure all gates and doors to prevent mishaps.
  • Place window film on windows to prevent barking at cars or people passing by.
  • When guests are over, keep the dog locked in another room or behind a secure pet fence or baby gate.
  • Disable the doorbell and put a sign to avoid visitors knocking. They should call you instead, giving you the exact time of arrival so you can lock your dog.
  • When outdoors, keep your dog tethered to you on a long leash.
  • Purchase a dog on-premise sign. Consider that the infamous "beware of dog" sign could open up the possibility of property owner liability if the dog escapes the yard.
  • Train your dog to wear a bite-proof basket muzzle.
  • Keep dogs always leashed on neighborhood walks since many dogs perceive their neighborhoods as an extension of their territories.

Become a Pro in Body Language 101

All owners of dogs that are prone to acting territorial/aggressive benefit from learning all the signs dogs give before they start feeling uncomfortable and likely to react.

Recognizing early precursors signs of the dog being uncomfortable in a situation is important so as to prevent the dog from going over the threshold.

Use of Desensitization

To learn how to not engage in territorial aggression, German Shepherd dogs must be exposed to low levels of the stimulations known to trigger the behavior. This is accomplished by using desensitization, a step-by-step systematic approach where dogs are exposed to low levels of stimulation so that they are kept under threshold.

Often one starting place is distance. Dogs are better under control and capable of being more responsive and receptive to training if we present intruders from a far distance. A good starting point may be letting the dog observe guests outside of the house first before allowing them inside.

Use of Counterconditioning

Desensitization works best when coupled with counterconditioning. In counterconditioning, the goal is to create positive associations with triggers (cars, people approaching the dog's territory) so as to change the dog's emotional response to them.

From wanting intruders to go away, dogs may therefore start looking forward to seeing them because they have associated them with great things (like super valuable tasty treats).

The goal is obtaining what is known as a "conditioned emotional response," where the dog looks forward to the trigger appearing (guests) rather than dreading it.

Desensitization and counterconditioning work best in cases where territorial aggression stems from an underlying fear, which, in many cases, it does.

Some techniques based on desensitization and counterconditioning include Leslie McDevitt's Look at That, Jean Donaldson's Open Bar/Closed Bar, and Suzanne Clothier's Treat/Retreat game (avoid having your guests hand-feed the treats).

Implementing the Training

Once the dog's emotional response has changed and the dog is in a better learning state, it is possible to implement some training. Telling your German Shepherd what you would like him to do rather than acting territorial is paramount.

It is best if what you choose him to do is a behavior that is incompatible with acting territorial. For example, training to go to a mat to lie down and chew on a frozen Kong is incompatible with rushing to the door and barking.

"Long-duration enrichment can help replace the time the dog spends guarding with a more appropriate behavioral outlet," points out Dr. Haug.

Hopefully, your German shepherd has been trained to respond to several cues. German shepherds are working dogs, and they thrive on being kept busy with training and brain games.

A well-trained German shepherd dog should demonstrate the ability to be under good voice control in spite of seeing triggers. Once this level of fluency is obtained, the German Shepherd can be kept on a leash or indoor tether when guests or delivery people approach and should be responsive to the owner's requests.

The dog, therefore, can be trained to look at the owner and rush towards him rather than charging at the fence or lying down on a mat rather than barking at visitors.

Desensitization and counterconditioning to strangers entering the home are beneficial for changing the emotional response. The dog is marker trained on leash at a distance from guests without fear, anxiety or aggression and given liberal treats for classical counter-conditioning.

— Kenneth M. Martin, DVM, DACVB

Here I am starting some groundwork on creating positive associations, working at a distance where he's better under the threshold.

Prognostic Factors

Depending on the case, there may be different outcomes. Following are several general prognostic factors, but of course, every dog is an individual, and there can be several variables.

History of Reinforcement

How long has the behavior been practiced? In general, the longer the dog has been allowed to rehearse the problematic behavior, the longer it will take to work on it.

Genetics

German shepherds coming from breeders who have paid little attention to temperament may be more difficult to treat. There has sadly been an upsurge in German Shepherds who are "weak-nerved" and overly reactive, and many dog trainers are seeing this.

Age

In general, dogs over the age of one may be difficult to treat since they may no longer be as malleable as younger dogs.

Owner Commitment

The more committed and willing the owners are to manage, supervise and train, the more they may be likely to succeed. Having the whole family on board can help.

Level of Management

Families able to better manage their dogs' environment are more likely to succeed.

Level of Dog Bites

The more severely the dog bites, the more risk is involved, especially if there are children living on the premises who enter/exit the home with friends.

The Problem With the Use of Aversive Tools/Techniques

It's important to make a final note about using aversion-based tools and techniques such as corrections delivered through prong collars, choke collars and shock collars or harsh physical methods such as scruff shakes, alpha rolls and muzzle grabs.

Aversive training methods are not recommended. According to the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists adoption of these methods can be dangerous to people as well as animals and pose a threat to the dog's welfare by inhibiting learning, increasing behaviors related to fear and distress, and potentially causing direct injury.

When interacting with an aggressive dog, all punitive measures must be stopped as these can increase aggression rather than diminish it, points out Dr. Horwitz.

References

  • American College of Veterinary Behaviorists: Position Statement
  • Clinician's Brief: Territorial Aggression in a Dog by Lore I. Haug
  • Veterinary Information Network: Behavior Modification for Territorial Aggression in Dogs
  • Overall, Karen. Clinical Behavior Medicine for Small Animals, Mosby, 1997
  • Do Dogs Mean to be Mean? Understanding and Helping Aggressive Dogs, Dr. Debra Horwitz
  • Territorial Aggression in Dogs by Dr. Lore I. Haug

If your puppy or dog shows signs of potential aggression (lunging, barking, growling, snapping, biting), please consult with a dog behavior professional for direct in-person guidance. Articles, videos, and general information provided online are not meant to replace in-person training/instruction. By using this service, you are waiving any liability claims or other types of claims related to any of your dogs' behaviors against you or others.

© 2023 Adrienne Farricelli CPDT-KA, Dip.CBST


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