What is Barrier Aggression?

a black dog sticking his face through a green wooden fence

Barrier aggression can escalate quickly and result in euthanasia if this issue is not taken seriously. Barriers, such as; fences, gates, windows, screen doors, balconies have the potential to generate high levels of frustration and stress, resulting in incessant barking, or worse, aggression.

Barriers “train” dogs to become hyper-territorial because it has a built in reinforcement mechanism: people come, people go. People approach the barrier – resident dog barks – people retreat from barrier. The dog, unaware that this was their intention all along, pats himself on the back for a job well done. The same pent up aggression can occur with dogs, cats, squirrels and birds. 

Why is this a problem? I want my dog to be territorial.

Black and brown large dog behind a barrier giving an aggressive expression

One benefit to having a dog is knowing that the dog may help deter intruders. The problem is the rate at which territorial behavior can snowball when dogs are left to their own devices. True protection dogs are trained to have an “on” AND an “off” switch. Dogs that are left outside unattended, for example, never learn how to “turn it off.”

Bites occur when gates pop open unexpectedly, or when you invite a friend to bypass the front door and walk into the yard. Postal workers rack up the most serious dog bites, because dogs have a well established reinforcement history of “barking them off the premises.” The day that the postal worker needs to deliver a package to the front door, is the same day that the dog will deliver a bite. The problem becomes even more serious when a nervous dog learns to transfer this aggressive behavior to other social situations.

What to Do If Your Dog is Barking by the Fence:

#1 Supervise Your Dog Outside. 

Opening the door and allowing dogs to go outside unattended can set the stage for problematic behavior, especially in young dogs or those with a history of excessive barking. Accompany your dog outside for potty breaks. Think of your backyard as your very own privately owned park. Make outside time more interactive by practicing the training recommended below. The best way to manage excessive barking is to keep your dog on a six foot leash or 10-15 foot long line whenever they are in the yard, and be present.

#2 Work on these Three Training Skills 

For me, there are three skills that any dog will benefit from to prevent or minimize barking in the yard. Dogs are very context specific, so if you want your dog to be more responsive in your yard make sure you are practicing in your yard.

Check-ins

The first skill is to teach your dog to check-in with distractions. A check-in exercise is when you reinforce your dog for acknowledging a distraction and then looking back in your direction. This helps dogs learn to be calmer and less impulsive with common distractions and will decrease the frequency with which your dog alert barks with neighborhood activity.

“Come” When Called

Teaching your dog to come when called is also referred to as a “Recall.” In order to recall your dog in more challenging situations you need to start the training with mild distractions. Systematically work your way up the ladder of difficulty 

Build enthusiastic responses by using high value reinforcement. Recall training could be a life saver – especially if someone forgets to close the gate properly or if there is a dangerous animal lurking around your property. This means that when it comes to building strong, reliable responses to your recall cue you will want to use “super treats,” save small bits of tasty foods (like steak or chicken) and use this to reinforce your dog whenever you call them in from the backyard.

Once your dog is responding reliably to your recall cue in more controlled set ups, you can use it to call your dog away from environmental distractions. You can even use if they alert to sounds or activity that may otherwise trigger barking.

Mat Work

The third skill is to work on relaxation exercises on a training mat. I also refer to this as “mat work.” This is not an obedience exercise where you are “commanding” your dog to stay on their mat with the use of verbal cues. Instead, this is a “conditioning” exercise that will help your dog shift into a calmer, more relaxed state with practice and repetition. 

Reinforce your dog for calm behavior on their training mat when you walk to the door, touch the door knob, open the door or if they appear to be acknowledging any sights, sounds or smells from the outside. You can do the same thing out in the yard when you notice that they see or hear things in the environment that might ultimately result in barking.

Be proactive and train when your dog is relatively calm, this will set the stage for success in more challenging situations.

You want these skill sets to become automatic. In order to make this happen, try doing short 5 minute sessions once or twice each day. Short sessions usually create the strongest results in training because your dog will start to look at these sessions as a fun and rewarding way to connect with you. The intensity, frequency and duration of barking will decrease and your ability to connect and communicate with your dog will increase.

Behavioral Training Classes

The remaining tips will look at how to supercharge your training to make sure that you are getting the most out of the time you are putting into your training. If you’re interested in training with me, take a look at my online classes. Follow along with a well structured training plan that breaks these skills sets down into easy to follow steps. If you sign up for my live online sessions you will also learn about how to integrate these exercises into your dog’s specific triggers.  These classes are specifically designed to address anxious, fearful, hyperactive or aggressive behavior.

Check out my behavioral training classes to learn more.

#3 Good Fences Make Good Dog Neighbors

Chain link fences + unsupervised time outside + a dog that is predisposed to territorial behavior is a perfect cocktail for barrier aggression. 

Whenever possible, choose solid fences that will better insulate your dog from environmental sounds and activities. This will also do a better job of keeping your dog safe from other dogs, wildlife or kids that might provoke or taunt your dog.

If a solid wooden or vinyl fence is not an option, the next best thing is to create visual barriers. Hedges are a good long term plan, while tarps will work best in the short term. 

Another alternative is to create an inner fence line that would create more of a buffer from sounds and nearby activity. Use spring loaded hinges or some other automatic closing mechanism whenever possible to make sure that gates are never left open unintentionally. As mentioned earlier, bites are most common when gates or doors pop open unexpectedly.

#4 Choose Your Reinforcement Wisely

If your dog is excited for meal time it’s a great idea to use your dog’s meals. Your dog will be happier and healthier if you throw away the dog food bowl, or at the very least take them out of the mix for 2-4 weeks. 

Do training at meal time instead. This will also help you be consistent with the training. Good training is about being consistent. It’s not what you do for a day or a week, but what your routine looks like each day. 

All dogs can benefit from being on a good feeding schedule, but for even stronger results – use a high value training food. My go to is typically happy howie rolls or diced up chicken. Aim for a food that is moist, meaty and nutritious. If you want to learn how to get your dog more excited about meals, take a look at my video “How to Create a Healthy Feeding Routine.” 

A “Random Bit of Advice”

I used to live in New York, and one time when my dogs and I were enjoying off leash hours at Prospect Park an old man randomly gave me a bit of advice. He said, “if you want a perfect recall – use liverwurst.” And then he just walked off. I’ll never forget it. But it does beg the question – what’s your dog’s holy grail when it comes to training food? Find that super treat that makes your dog act like they are on cloud 9. Use that for your recall.

Tip #5: Make Training Fun

Incorporate fun break activities into every training session. I like to do 15-30 second training sets that build value for check-ins, recalls and mat work. Then give your dog a break. Here are three fun break activities that you can incorporate into each session in order to supercharge your training.

Option 1

For dogs that have high toy drive – play a 1 minute game of fetch or tug.

Option 2

Other dogs might want to spend their break sniffing the yard or searching for wildlife.

Option 3

Play a quick game of hide and seek by tossing a handful of food into a towel and then running off behind a tree or bush. Call your dog and reinforce them once they find you. 

Good training builds value for being calm and attentive in the presence of distractions, but it should also give your dog time to just .. be a dog. 

Avoid playing long, mindless or repetitive games of fetch. Long games of fetch can create an adrenaline junky, leading to a dog that is even more fired up and frantic after the play session ends. Think of the labrador that doesn’t stop barking until you throw the next ball.

This could also make some dogs even more fired up with environmental sounds and activities.

The healthiest play sessions involve a lot of “start and stop” patterns. Think of red light, green light or freeze tag. The rules of the game involve running excitedly – freezing – and then running again. This helps kids think through excitement and improves their impulse control. The same thing is true with our dogs. This is why I like sandwiching high arousal activity, in-between calming exercises when I am working to teach arousal control.

Tip #6: Motivate Yourself to do the Training.

Make sure that the training is fun for your dog, but also for you! Being creative about how you implement the training might also help you be more consistent. For example, set up agility obstacles in your yard or create search games. Practice check-ins and recalls in combination with these activities. The more you enjoy the training, the more likely you are to stick with the training and the more likely you are to see results.

Frequently Asked Questions

What if my dog starts barking, pulls to the fence and doesn’t take food?

Go back inside for 10-15 minutes. Work on calming exercises back inside the house will have two benefits. First, moving to a more relaxing environment will help your dog learn to de-escalate faster. Second, with repetition your dog will become more excited and responsive when you ask him or her to come back into the house. 

You will be especially thankful for this training on wet or cold nights where your dog happily comes running back to the house when you call them, and you no longer have to go searching for them in your pajamas.

Can I use a bark collar to address the barking?

Avoid the use of aversive tools or techniques to suppress fence barking. These approaches may appear to work in the short-term, but long-term your dog’s protective nature can become more intense and less predictable. If you do use aversive tools to address barking at the fence, you are likely to see an increase in aggressive behavior for two reasons. 

Reason 1

First, pairing the sight and sound of people, kids or other dogs with aversive outcomes is likely to heighten stress levels associated with their presence.

Reason 2

Second, without clear warning signs, like barking, a person may approach or interact with your dog through the fence line. This further increases the probability of a bite when an adult or child unknowingly attempts to pet your dog through the fence. 

This is also true with electronic fences. But they can create an even bigger problem in that these invisible barriers frequently fail when a dog’s level of arousal and adrenaline is so high that they plow through the barrier. For example, a dog might respect the barrier until they see a squirrel or another dog. A high level of adrenaline can numb the dog to the sensation of the shock.

The same is not true when the dog attempts to cross the barrier in the opposite direction. In this case, the electronic fence would actually discourage the dog from coming home.

Tell Me About Your Dog

What are your dogs biggest triggers? How do you see yourself using the information in this video to help address or prevent your dog from barking through barriers?

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