Most dog owners dread the chaos that ensues when the doorbell rings and this can be especially stressful when you live with a fearful and/or reactive dog. Having people over may be so overwhelming that we avoid this entirely, or when it does happen your dog may embarrass you with their reactive behaviour or not even allow your guest to move within your house. It can be a stressful and discouraging situation for all. The below information outlines how to set it up to have a successful visit and teach your dog a better response for when that doorbell rings.
To begin, let’s go through the steps for when family members come home and how to deal with your dog’s excitement levels. We should teach them that greetings are calm to minimize excitement. This is a critical step for all dogs and useful for our fearful/reactive dogs as we focus on calm behaviours first to ensure arousal levels stay low.
Excitement with Greetings
- When your dog jumps up, ignore their excitement (say nothing and do not make eye contact) until they keep all four paws on the floor. Most dogs are rewarded by us for jumping up because we still give them attention; even if it is negative.
- Wait for your dog to be on all four paws, and praise immediately while the dog is standing or even sitting. The reward is your attention, but keep your praise calm.
- If your dog gets too excited and jumps again, or are struggling to settle, just turn away again, and wait for them to put all four paws on the ground.
- If your dog decides to continue to jump at your back, leave the room. You only need to be out of the room for 5-10 seconds, and there needs to be a door between you and your dog.
- Return to your dog and follow the above steps.
- Continue repeating this exercise until your dog no longer jumps. You can set this exercise up by coming home (entering through the front door) often.
- Another great option for those really excitable pups is to strengthen sit when you come home. Have a treat ready in your hand and ask your dog to sit. This way your dog is working for you and earning your attention.
- Practice this often and set it up! Work with everyone your dog is comfortable and gets excited to see.
Be consistent with this and teach your dog that hellos and goodbyes are calm as it is important to help manage the arousal levels of your dog.
Changing the Doorbell Association
We are going to change what the doorbell means to your dog. We will be teaching them that when they hear the doorbell, they should go to their kennel or behind a gate. We are removing the dog from the situation, which is necessary for our fearful/reactive dogs. This keeps them out of all of the excitement, allows us to greet our guests and set up for a successful introduction. This is part of us being proactive versus reactive with our dogs as we are always aiming to set them up for success. To train this, follow the below steps:
- Ring the doorbell (your dog can see you do this as they are likely to still react).
- Cue the dog to go to their kennel or behind their gate and lure them to their spot. Do not physically pull them, but lure them. Drop treats on the ground, if needed, to keep them moving. It may take a while at first, but with practice, it will quickly speed up! *Note: your dog must be kennel trained or comfortable behind a gate.
- Toss the treats in the kennel or behind the gate, and close the door/gate behind them.
- Walk away and wait for your dog to settle. Stay out of sight and ignore all barking or whining.
- Once your dog settles, walk back to them (turn and walk away if they begin to bark/whine again). Let the dog out and completely ignore them and go about your business. We want to teach them that coming out is no big deal. The good stuff happens behind the gate and we want them coming out in a calm manner.
- Repeat until your dog happily goes behind the gate/into their kennel and is calm. Expect that you will always have some initial barking, but the dog should quickly go to their spot when they hear the doorbell versus running to the door.
- Repeat all of the above with family members or people your dog knows and is comfortable with coming to the front door and ringing the doorbell. Have family members do this every time they come home and set this up with friends/family who your dog knows and is comfortable with. Ensure the also follow the above Excitement with Greetings steps.
- Repeat, Repeat, Repeat!
Strangers Coming to the House
After your dog is now moving away from the door, it is time to start working with strangers coming into the house. Follow the below steps to set up a successful interaction with new people coming into the house and begin to teach your dog that strangers are well-behaved treat dispensers versus something scary!
- Follow steps 1-4 under Changing the Doorbell Association
- Greet your guests and bring them into the house. Take your time and get them seated.
- Review the key points with them (treats in hand, no eye contact, no fast movements and stay seated).
- Bring your dog out and have a trail of treats going to your guests to keep their approach slow.
- Keep the session short and positive and do not push your dog. In the beginning, end the session and put your dog back in their spot to avoid any set backs. Bring them out as often as possible for short sessions.
- Ensure your guests always have food on them and coach them on how to respond if your dog reacts: toss treats, stop movement and do not respond.
- Continue working to standing, moving around the house, etc. As you progress, you can begin to have your dog out when people come through the door. Keep sessions short and know that you may make mistakes. Learn from them and set it up differently for them moving forward.
- Repeat, repeat, repeat! The more sessions, the better. Have friends for drinks, dinner, etc. and use those that will listen well to start, and build up to the more excitable or scary ones for your dog.
- Keep sessions short and give your dog lots of breaks. If they show signs of discomfort or begin to become more active (faster movements, excitement, lack of focus) give them time away from the new people.
- Ensure they have choice. If they don't want to approach, they don't need to. If they want to move away, let them. Don't make them do anythning they are uncomfortable with.
- Saftey first. If your dog has a bite history always use a muzzle (condition your dog to a muzzle, don't just put one on them). If you have not worked with a professional trainer and your dog is fearful of strangers, book a consultation or do classes before working with strangers on your own.
Always remember to keep things calm and monitor the situation with your dog. If your dog reacts, remember you have pushed them and do not get angry. Teach them their spot is a safe and positive place to be as this becomes an important management tool for our fearful/reactive dogs!