“My dogs are horrible when people come to the door. Barking, jumping! It’s chaos. And really embarrassing. What can I do?”
I get this question a lot. A lot. I was asked it just yesterday in fact. The good news is there is lots we can do.
Well, first is figure out what your dog is exactly doing and when in relation to the door. Is it when the doorbell rings? Someone knocks? The screen door opens? A car door slams? A package drops? Is it only certain people? Or everyone regardless? Does your dog do the same or similar behaviors when you come in the door as well? All of the above? Only some of the above?
Notice all of the behaviors the dog is doing. Is it bark and retreat? Is it bark and charge? Is it a fearful bark or an excited one? Is there any urination? Does body posture change? What is body posture before, during and after? How long does it take for your dog to disengage or settle back down? How does your dog approach the door and the guests? Does your dog come close enough to be touched or stay out of reach? What happens when the person stops touching the dog? Or when they continue to touch the dog? And so on.
And figure out what your dog is trying to accomplish with the behaviors. Are they excited and thrilled you have people coming in the house? Are they afraid and trying to scare the people away? Are they unsure? Does it depend on who is there? And so on.
Then once you have all of that data consider how you can create a training, behavior and management plan to enable you to decrease the chaos and increase calm and safety around the door. There is no one size fits all for such a plan. There are too many factors to consider. A dog who finds static behaviors stressful and is nervous about people coming in the door would require a vastly different plan to be successful vs a dog who wants to be touched by people coming in the door and has little body awareness.
Regardless of those above answers, most effective is creating an environment where you aren’t in any rush to actually answer the door. And managing the environment so that you don’t end up in the situation where you feel pressure to open the door. A problem people often run into is they themselves get flustered or rush or move quickly to answer the door “Someone is here I must open the door!” and the dogs start feeding off of that and the arousal levels increase from there, “Someone is here! Someone is here!” When you have the space and time to practice the desired behavior you can then effectively be consistent. When you feel pressure to get the door open then you are more likely to degrade the criteria and set your dog up for failure.
For me personally, I handle the challenge of ‘pressure getting the door open for the person’ a couple of ways.
1. If someone rings the bell or knocks on the door, I don’t answer it. Anyone who is knocking or ringing the bell is not someone I want to deal with. We actually have a little sign on the door for people to not knock or ring the bell and it works. One of my very good awesome friends gave it to us as a gift. Yet another reason she is one of my very good awesome friends. It works so well that people have told me they stopped by unannounced, read the sign and were afraid to knock or ring the bell, they happened to not have their phone and so they walked away to go get their phone. Those responses actually make me happy.
2. People who I am expecting or who I would want to talk to/greet all know to either call or text before arriving. My little door sign also reminds people to do this, again if they don’t have my number they likely aren’t someone I actually want to talk with. Occasionally my sisters somehow think I don’t know they are there (I always know they are there!) because of course the dogs aren’t barking, and I’m slightly delayed in getting the door open. Instead of calling they knock once. They get a very annoyed me when I finally open the door.
3. Because people give me notice when they are here or that they are on their way I can then structure the environment to best fit the dogs I currently have in the house before I go anywhere near the front door. I can cue them to go to their bed, I can put certain ones behind gates or in crates or on the deck, I can make sure I have some treats at the ready, I can put ones who need it on leash, etc. I have the power to set the dogs up for success. Communication gives me options and the chance to create an environment where the desired behavior for the dogs when people come in the house is most likely to happen.
4. Because anytime someone rings the bell or knocks nothing exciting actually happens, those aren’t a trigger for my dogs. They don’t associate such events with anything exciting happening. So they don’t get excited, they really don’t even care, what reason would they have to? Seriously the doorbell rings and they don’t even get up. Neither do I. On the other hand I have had dogs in the past learn that if I ended a phone call with “ok see you in a minute” someone was soon to arrive which created a whole other bunch of behaviors of mine to be aware of!
What strategies have you found helpful in setting your dog and guests up for success at the door?