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Territorialism: The psychology of dog territorial behavior

Territorialism is a fascinating phenomena in the psychology of a dog. The existence of this phenomena can support numerous behaviors which are problematic in human society, or, in some cases, can be a threat to life and safety. Many of my news interviews given over the years have concerned this behavior. And, as is often the case with the news, these weren't happy stories. Many headlines might have read "Pit bull attacks child." One such story was a tragic event where a child wandered into the territory of a dog and suffered a horrific bite to the face. It wasn't the so-called pit bull's genetics which led to this incident. It was territorialism.

Dogs who exist outside of family structure tend to live in a state of perpetual fear. This fear can lead to various psychopathological behaviors which are intended to maintain their survival. Many of these "misbehaviors", which often plague our dog/human relationships, are a part of this intelligent system of misbehavior designed to cope with chronic states of insecurity; states which can lead to symptoms in dog behavior that are identical to post traumatic stress disorder in human veterans. These symptoms can include hypervigilance, social avoidance, aggressive outbursts, self-destructive behavior, and territorialism.

What is territorialism?

Animal territorialism is defined as the geographical area which is inhabited and defended against competition. This is a rather vague definition, and I'm always one to challenge and reduce these things to their smallest parts for examination. Competition connects with survival, and, therefore, a sense of security. If one does not compete for scarce resources in a limited geography, one might not survive. The unconscious human mind, for instance, is always looking for ways to maintain territorial security, and this need has eked its way into every aspect of our society and even our architecture. For example: why do you lock your doors at night? Why are so many bedrooms located in the back of the house? Or upstairs. What is the point of a property line or governmental boundaries?


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Territorialism stems from a dog's perceived ownership and possession of property and resources. This property can be objects such as toys, but it can also be geographic areas in the home, such as a hallway. Or it can be an area just in front of a kitchen closet. Or a person's lap which is defended against encroachment.

Dogs tend to defend what they own. This is why many dog rescues understand that meetings between unfamiliar dogs are best done off-site, so as to avoid confronting this ownership dilemma. These areas are often referred to as "neutral ground"; areas not owned by either party.

How do dogs become territorial?

There are a few widely recognized means by which dogs take, or express, ownership of things. They might stand over an object, or simply occupy that space and push against others who encroach. Another method is the chemical marking of space by urinating on it. A third underlying method, and one which is rarely recognized and understood, occurs through decision-making. Dogs own what they decide. Meaning if they decide to get on your sofa, they own it. They have taken possession through choice-making. This phenomena of choice-making doesn't get much attention because it is invisible. Choices cannot be seen, scanned, or imaged in any way. The only way to "see" them is to see the result of them; which means we only see the behavioral outcome of a decision. In the human realm, "seeing is believing." If only the complexity of nature were always so obvious.

What do we do about it?

If dogs own what they decide, then we have to consider the important path of "becoming the decision-maker" in our dog's life. And to maintain ownership of ourselves and our homes for everyone's security. We don't allow young children to be overwhelmed by hundreds of high-level, executive decisions each day. Why then would we be interested in burdening our dogs? Especially those who are young and don't yet understand the way of things; ones who are not yet educated on safely navigating the structure of human society. This is why many dog trainers and behavior experts recommend a "permission-based" system of living. In this culture, dogs must be authorized to do certain things. Here, dogs find liberation in a competent caregiver who will bear the burden of making thousands of choices on their behalf; an advocate and protector who will provide for ongoing security through leadership.

Once these various issues of primal security are addressed, and certainty over one's safety has been established, then we, as humans, are free to open ourselves to more vulnerable states. This, in turn, supports the development of more enriching relationships within a family. A dog's experience is no different.

If you need help with your dog's behavior, please reach out for assistance. Online video training is also offered to clients who live out of state.


Aaron McDonald is a canine behaviorist, author of Three Dimensional Dog, A Unified Theory of Canine Behavior, and President of Three Dimensional Dog, an in-home canine behavior consultancy firm located in Birmingham, AL. Three Dimensional Dog behaviorists offer private, in-home canine behavior and "parent training" services for the Greater Birmingham area. We can be reached at 205-563-8383 or visit

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