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I am puzzled by the behavior of certain dogs, each of them living in a yard or a garden across a fence from a somewhat busy road with frequent pedestrian/runner/cycling etc. traffic (for example, a marked hiking trail). Once a human appears on the road, which is no rare occurrence there, the dog starts running the full length of the fence back and forth or closely following the passer by, constantly barking at the "intruder", showing his teeth, often bumping into the fence. The whole scenario looks like it can hardly be very healthy/enjoyable for the passer by or for the dog. I wonder what the owner typically thinks; I don't know any of them personally. If this is meant to be "watching", then it feels to me like a house alarm that goes off fifty times a day.

I'm torn about what to think about these situations. Some resources indicate that this is desired, specifically trained behavior that is employed for protection of the property. Other resources discuss barrier aggression as territorial behavior automatic to dogs, and yet others (usually discussing a scenario with another dog, not a human, on the other side of the fence), are discussing it more as a bad habit to be untrained. Of course it's quite possible that each of such dogs on my map falls into a different category but I can't tell the difference.

My question is: How much of such dog behavior is under control of its owner/trainer, how much is determined by its breed and the environment? Would a carefully trained "watch dog" (trained to watch the property, not the road) do more of this, or less of this?

I'm not asking about unrestrained dogs attacking people in public places, and I am also not asking about a normally calm dog in a one off situation caught by surprise.

I am not asking this question about my own pet; I don't have a dog although I'm on first name terms with several dogs.

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    As you say, "barrier aggression" is something that comes naturally to dogs. I'll wager it is stronger in some breeds, and weaker in some. In either case, it is a bad situation to place your dog in, and the responsibility is always with the owner. The question seems rather futile, though. It is though you want to ask "Is it fair to blame the owner", and the answer is "Yes, it is. They should not put their dog in such a stressful situation. If the dog cannot handle it, it should not be there." – TLP Mar 12 '15 at 17:33
  • As for training the behaviour away, I would say that it would be a very difficult task for the average dog owner, bordering on impossible, given that most of the aggression occurs when the dog is unsupervised, and this is a natural instinct, which is difficult to suppress. – TLP Mar 12 '15 at 17:35
  • @TLP - Thanks for your insights. I'm not planning to police the owners, I'm more interested in learning to see the situation the dog's way. E.g., stress+fear vs. playfulness vs. sense of duty toward something. – Jirka Hanika Mar 12 '15 at 19:45
  • Its interesting that you should say that. Just the other night, when I was walking my dog, I was thinking of how our neighbourhood would appear to her. Me, I see lots of houses where people live, people who own dogs. But to her, its just empty hills, and when we happen to meet someone, they are from whereever, far away, and strangers. Dogs only react to what is present, that is something to keep in mind. They have no recollection, or understanding of duty or moral behaviour. – TLP Mar 13 '15 at 22:43
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There are indeed dogs that are kept specifically for this behaviour. Their job is to act as an alarm and deterrent. In cultures where dogs are routinely kept chained up or penned in small enclosures, that's what they are kept for: to keep people from entering the property and provide an alarm if there's a risk that they will do so. It's not a happy environment for the dog, but that's not the point.

Here's are a couple of blog posts that may help explain this approach to dog ownership and the issues with it, from the Dogstar Foundation, who are a brilliant small charity that work with street dogs and owned dogs in Sri Lanka:

http://www.dogstarfoundation.com/blog/why-having-an-owner-does-not-always-equal-good-welfare-/
http://www.dogstarfoundation.com/blog/giving-dogs-a-life-worth-living-/

It sounds like the dogs you are encountering are given more freedom than this and are in a first-world country, but the owners may still have the attitude that they wish to encourage barrier protective behaviour to protect their property.

There are dog owners that consider fence running to be 'fun' exercise for their dog. I don't have supporting evidence for that, other than that I've met dog owners in the UK who have told me this. They believe the dog enjoys barking and that the exercise of fence running is stimulating for an active dog that might otherwise be bored.

Here are a couple of articles that explain the different reasons that a dog might be barking: http://www.clickertraining.com/how-to-stop-unwanted-barking

The division into :

Alert barking.
Defensive barking. 
Attention barking. 
Frustration barking. 
Boredom barking. 

may be useful, but of course with a dog that you don't know well, it can be hard to tell which sort of barking he is doing. In fact, even the owner may well be unclear on that.

As to 'how much is controllable by the owner'- always a vexed question with dog ownership. Ideally, all of it, because even if you have a naturally 'guardy' and active breed such as a border collie or a German Shepherd, the owner should ideally be able to manage the dogs environment so that the dog doesn't spend all day guarding.

For example, when I have fostered rescue border collies and their crosses, I have found that they do have a tendency to want to guard the door from the postman, or race out into the garden barking if they hear someone go by.

I don't consider this appropriate behavior, and my opinion is that it is stressful for the dogs, so I keep an inner door closed so that the dogs cannot see the postman coming or rush right up to the letterbox, and I don't allow unsupervised access to the garden.

Instead, I distract and reward the dogs for the behaviour of NOT barking at passing pedestrians, particularly during the first few days in my house. And of course I walk them a lot in varied environments and play with them, so they do have other things to think about.

Because the dogs are not allowed to be unsupervised in a place where they can easily see and hear pedestrians, they fairly quickly learn how I want them to react. Eventually, like my own sighthounds (which are innately much less guarding-focussed dogs) , they can be allowed outside enjoying the sun without annoying the world with their barking, as they have learned that the behaviour is not permitted, before they are allowed in a situation where they might start practicing it.

This is of course much harder if the dog doesn't get other exercise and stimulation, gets little attention or training, must for some reason be left unsupervised before he has learned what to do, or if you live somewhere where it's simply not possible to manage the excitement because your house is small and there's nowhere available where the dog can't hear traffic, pedestrians etc, so is constantly reacting. In that sort of situation, problem barking can be very difficult for the owner to manage, and retraining will depend on the persistence of the owner and the individual characteristics of the dog.

Here's an article about stress in dogs, which helps explain why I personally don't feel barking is a good way for my dogs to relieve their boredom.

http://agilitynet.co.uk/training/stressedout_aileenclarke.html

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I think it depends a lot on how the dog was raised and trained, I have a miniature schnauzer which as far as my knowledge goes they're a pretty calm breed, people come and go in front of our house yet our dog won't make the slightest sign of aggression, I attribute this primarily cause ever since a puppy we taught her to not be afraid of strangers, if she ever got aggressive with someone we immediately make note of it and try to correct the behavior. This is why she can easily "ignore" the passers, I say "ignore" cause we noticed that although she's pretty comfortable laying down in front of our house, she is still alert of who comes and goes, always keeping an eye on things. If someone approaches the door and she doesn't recognize (I want to assume scent wise) the person approaching she would just let a growl out and stand up. I think she's saying "I see you stranger" and she will not attack but she will be incredibly loud for a dog her size. Even the type of bark changes, I think she feels the need to let us know someone she doesn't recognize is about to enter our property. What I'm going for here is that I do think it depends on the dog's training(she didn't go to pet school or anything, but we did took our time and effort to make sure she became the incredibly well behaved dog she is now) It's about putting up the time to be with your dog, let the dog know what its wrong and what its right. If you just let the dog run around and bark to the passers cause "the dog's playing" I'm sure that as the dog grows up this behavior will stop being a game and start being a character trait.

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  • I appreciate this answer although it isn't exactly "an answer drawing from credible and/or official sources" as per the bounty offer. It seems to be implying that the dog shouldn't be assumed to be under stress, because the behavior is rather a playful routine. Also, you are saying that the trait results from a lack of training rather than any intentional guard training. – Jirka Hanika Sep 17 '15 at 8:11

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