Treating Territorial Aggression: Don’t Touch My Car!

In the previous blog, we had discussion about dogs who engage in territorial aggression related to the car.

For photo purposes, the window is open. Never leave a dog in a car with windows down so far the dog could jump out. This means no trips in hot weather if you can’t stay with the dog.

Territorial aggression is when the dog shows aggressive behaviors when a person approaches what the dog perceives as his territory. Examples of a dog’s ‘territory’ include his house, yard, car, bed or feeding area.


Since the function of territorial aggression is to chase off strangers, the treatment of the problem would involve teaching the dog that good things come from people and because they are near your ‘stuff,’ it doesn’t mean bad things will happen.

Of course, the easiest solution is to prevent the problem in the first place by exposing puppies at an early age to people and experiences in as many environments and situations as possible. And, also obvious would be at the earliest sign of a potential problem, intervening so the problem doesn’t get worse.

But, you’ve got dog who goes crazy when someone comes to the door or approaches the car while you are in a store. What do you do?

The treatment of territorial aggression will involve counterconditioning.  With the dog who is protective when strangers come to the front door, teach an alternative response such as “sit” or “get on your bed.”  Have some helpers pose as strangers who give the dog a treat when she is calm.

Eliminating aggression related to the car is a little more difficult since the dog is in a confined space. If you were going to tackle this problem, you would:

1. Park the car in a space away from other cars, people, distractions.  You don’t want to be doing this in a crowded parking lot.

2. Set up sessions with helpers the dog doesn’t know. Maybe you could do this at a dog training class.

3. Start with the dog on leash beside the car. The helper approaches, pets the dog, and gives a treat.

4. Dog is inside the car, you hold leash, door is open. Helper approaches and gives treat in car.

5. Dog is in car, door closed.  Of course, we assume the temperature is cool enough that the dog is comfortable. Helper walks by car, you open door, get in, give treat.

6. Over time, you will introduce different helpers and extend length of time between the helper walking by and you getting in car. If you had to be away from the car for a long period of time, ask yourself if it is really necessary that the dog go along on this trip.

If the dog has been ‘protecting’ the car for a long time, this may not be an easy fix.

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AKC Canine Good Citizen Director, Author of the AKC's official CGC book, "CITIZEN CANINE"
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11 Responses to Treating Territorial Aggression: Don’t Touch My Car!

  1. Janet Mines Krings says:

    My dog went through a period (after a bad experience at a vet hospital) when he did not want anyone to approach him. He was especially sensitive to being approached when we had the back hatch to the SUV open. Since we are at dog shows, classes, and events a lot, this was a frequent and serious problem. He did not bark or make a fuss, he would just quietly growl if anyone got near. I did not like that HE felt stressed, and was worried that people would unknowingly stick their hands in to pet the quietly growling dog. Folks do things like that. So I started his counter-conditioning program in a similar way to that outlined above. I stood next to the back of the open hatch, facing peope walking by. As each person passed, I used happy talk to the dog and gave him a treat. Ohhh..nice people!! treat. Ohh…look..more people!! treat. Who’s that?? treat. And so on. I asked people to walk close to the car….Treat. I kept his mouth busy and his mind happy. After that, I asked the strangers to take a treat and toss it into the car for him. He loved that game. Ohhh..look…here comes a treat!! Oh Boy–another treat for you!! And so on. After that, I asked strangers to use an open palm to offer him a treat, then walk away. He was very happy to take treats from them by that time. Once I saw he was happy and relaxed, I asked them to give him a treat, and a quick pat as well. Over time, the pats turned into serious rubs and kissy face experiences, as my dog decided he really did like all these wonderful, friendly, generous strangers coming up to the car, because that is really his nature. The big test came when we were at a Match Show on the grounds of a facility for disabled adults, and I turned away from the car as I was unloading my gear. When I turned to look back, one of the residents had partially climbed into the back of my car and was sitting there with my dog. I caught my breath–but he was happily licking her ear–maybe telling her secrets?

  2. Robin says:

    Or then, there are those of us who choose protection breeds deliberately, and do not WANT an uber friendly lab-type temperament that will welcome the robber/thief/mugger into our car or home.

    I say my car has a stereophonic alarm system. It’s called a Doberman (rather amusingly backed by a Min Pin) telling them that the car belongs to her, not them. Fine with me.

    • I completely agree. I have two GSD’s who were specifically trained to be protective. Over the years people have gotten angry with me because the dogs bark when someone walks by the car. I now have bright yellow stickers on my car stating there are K9’s in the car. If they get barked at it is their own fault for not heeding the stickers and coming too close to the car.

  3. Hilary says:

    My senior lab developed car aggression late in life. It seems to have coincided with worsened arthritis and limited mobility. Is this normal?

  4. Carole J in MN says:

    Robin, I’m with you… strangers shouldnt go up to my car if I’m not there! and my GSD’s know that it’s OK then when I am nearby.

  5. Robin says:

    It should be noted that yes, my dogs are car protective and yes, I am fine with that; but my dogs are also always safely crated in my car. Dogs are not hanging heads out the window (as shown in the photo) barking. People walking by my car are quite safe.

    • Robin,

      Letme second that as well. My dogs are always in metal crates with locks that are tied down to the car interior. No way for the crate to move. I have an SUV and when we go for training I leave the rear gate opened for air. But, as you stated anyone walking by the car is safe. Hence the stickers so people keep their distance and are forewarned

  6. Fred says:

    What are these people looking in my vehicle anyway? My windows are normally up most of the way, I leave them cracked or down an inch or two for air circulation. If they are sticking their hands inside my vehicle…good luck to them. When my Scottie makes his move it is silent and the hand never comes back inside.

  7. Dorothy Nelson says:

    It is your dogs job to keep your car, house, grounds free of intruders. On leash he should behave politely.

    • Robin says:

      On leash work is totally off the subject of the article. But of course you are correct. My home and car protective dogs also interact with the public on a very regular basis. In addition to being shown in agility, rally, obedience and more, they also participate in community events and demos where they may meet hundreds of people in a single day, including many children. They are excellent canine ambassadors. They know their jobs.

  8. Bob Nixon says:

    I have 4 very well trained GSD’S that are trained to protect me and my vehicle. If someone just walks by my car they do nothing. But if someone touches my car then thats a different story. I witnessed a young lady carrying a small child in the parking lot of a local mall. She passed by a car that had a very large GSD in it. she did not touch the car, did not even look at the car, but the dog went crazy, clawing at the windows, barking. The lady jumped and almost dropped the child. This is not a good citizen. If I am giving evaluations and I walk by the car that has one of my dogs to be tested and he shows this type of behavior then the test is over. I agree that dogs should not be left in vehicles, but what about the trip to the vet and someone on the sidewalk walks by the car and the dog goes off. I see this too much and am in the process of training several dogs with this problem. I think that the CGC test should be updated and have this situation in the evaluation.

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