Ding dong! Chaos erupts as Molly skids barking down the hallway to get to the door before her human, Pat. “She’s such a sweet dog, but why does she explode into barking when someone comes to the door?” asks Pat.
To answer that question, Pat needs to think like a canine, says Eileen Proctor, dog lifestyle expert and author of Relief for the Latchkey Dog. “When a dog sees people walk down the sidewalk, he barks and the people go away. The mail carrier comes to the door, rattles the mail slot, the dog barks and he goes away. It’s a dog’s job to protect the pack. When intruders leave, he’s successful.”
“The doorway is a high intensity location,” adds dog psychologist Linda Michaels. “There’s an unseen person on the other side, a human who needs protection on this side, and often, it’s a cramped space. This is the line a stranger crosses that can increase the dog’s desire to protect.”
In other words, when your dog barks at the door, he’s only following his natural instincts. That doesn’t make it any less nerve-wracking for you, though. Luckily, there are ways you can help train him to stop treating the doorbell or a knock as a trigger for hysterical or aggressive behavior.
1. Acknowledge his efforts
Since a dog believes barking is in his job description, praise him for doing it – but set limits. A warning bark or two is fine to let you know someone’s at the door. Extended barking is not. Retool his job description to “alert” rather than “make the stranger go away”. It’s easier than you think…read on.
2. Choose a command, and don’t shout
Yelling doesn’t help. Already in a frenzy, the dog may hear “Save me, save me!” instead of “Knock it off” or “Quiet!” when you raise your voice. Choose a verbal cue like “That’s enough” or “No bark”. Use a fi rm voice rather than a loud one. Eileen uses a simple, “Thank you, good dog.” That says to the dog, “Stand down while I check the threat level.” He then knows the two of you are working as a team and the responsibility is not all on him.
“Consistency is the key,” adds Eileen. “Make sure all the people in the house use the same phrase. Practice makes perfect for both the human and the dog.” Have everyone in the family work with the dog so he doesn’t think the lesson applies to only one of his humans.
3. Make it more satisfying not to bark
Barking turns into its own reward because it gets attention, good or bad. To make it more rewarding for the dog to alert and then be quiet, pick a high value treat or toy that stays by the door. Its only use is as a reward for alert/quiet. The goal is to change the meaning of the doorbell or knock from “Danger!” to “Somebody’s here! Gimme a treat.” Linda concurs: “Teach the dog: ‘I can bark at the door, or I can get cookies.’
“Safety first is always a good rule,” she adds. “To diffuse the dog’s heightened emotions, have him move away from the door to a spot where he can see what’s happening but not be between his person and the visitor.” A baby gate works well as you train for calm behavior. “A handful of tiny treats scattered over the floor will distract him from territorial guarding,” says Linda. “His guarding instincts won’t disappear. He’ll just have better control.”
4. Do some practice runs
Friends who have the willingness and patience to stand on your porch and ring the doorbell while you train are priceless. Another option could be a neighborhood kid with time on his hands. If all else fails, knock on the inside of the door yourself. When the dog rushes to see what’s going on, show the reward, use the verbal cue and take him to the chosen location where he has more space to move around and time to calm himself.
Several ten or 15-minute sessions are better than 30 minutes of continuous training. End on a successful note. If you or your dog begin to get frustrated, have him do something different, such as a few sits and downs, then reward him and take a break.
5. Open the door
Once he knows the routine – alert, move to the calm spot, get the reward – it’s time to let the person come into the house. If your dog remembers the new division of labor – he alerts, you check it out – the visitor can talk to him from a distance.
If it’s still peaceful, bring the dog closer while he’s leashed. A leash gives you control over sudden jumps, inappropriate sniffs, or a body slam greeting. If he walks nicely, let him approach the visitor. If he gets excited or pulls on the leash, stop where you are to see if he remembers that only good behavior gets a reward. Is he still overly excited? Go back and start again from the calm spot.
Watch for a wagging tail. Give your guest tiny treats too. Your dog needs to see company as a good thing. If he’s relaxed, sit down and talk to your visitor for a few minutes. Take the dog back to his calm spot, scatter treats and then escort your visitor back to the door.
6. Praise good behavior!
Whether it’s a practice run or the real thing, remember to always praise or treat your dog when he does what you want him to. “The best way is to use positive reinforcement for wanted behavior,” says Eileen. “Don’t punish bad behavior.” Friends, relatives, the UPS driver or mail carrier – the number of people who have occasion to come to your door can be legion. And each one can be a learning experience for a happy human and a well-mannered dog!