Help! My Golden Retriever is perfect in every way but one: She goes bananas whenever anyone comes to our front door. She is never aggressive, but she gets frenzied and jumps all over our guests in her excitement. Is there anything we can do to stop her from doing this?
Boy oh boy, you would not believe how many times dog trainers get asked this one! It is a SUCH a big problem for dog owners coast to coast! I am happy to offer some real-life solutions.
Why do so many dogs go crazy when someone knocks at the door or rings the doorbell? There are a variety of probable reasons. Here are a few:
- Dogs make predictions, and they quickly link the door knock or doorbell to someone being on the other side of the door, and that can equal EXCITEMENT! FUN! PLAYTIME WITH THE NEW HUMAN!
- Some dogs are being territorial about “their” door and home, and alert other dogs and their owners with their preferred method of announcing of a visitor — LOUD barking.
- Inadvertent reinforcement of dog behavior at the door by the humans can increase their frenzied response.
Dogs are always observing us and their surroundings, and things we are not cognizant of can become a cue to the dog. I recently worked with a delightful woman from the Deep South. She is a very friendly person who recently adopted a large shelter dog. The dog had begun to bark (she had a loud bark!) whenever anyone rang the bell or knocked on the door. As I was reframing what those sounds meant to the dog, I was making good progress when, on a whim, I added these words in a singsong type of voice that I have heard many people from the South use: “Who is it?”
And that set the dog off, and she immediately barked. The owner asking “who is it?” had become the cue to bark. In all actuality, this dog was indeed a well-trained dog!
Owners can also inadvertently create havoc at the door by pushing the dog down, kneeing the dog, pinching the dog’s front paws, or running around like a maniac screaming: “Off! Off! Off, Fido! Off!”
We have a saying in dog training: You get what you reinforce. All the above actions, which may seem punitive to us humans, can look a lot like playtime to a dog. Alternatively, some dogs will accept the harsh feedback from a human because it still falls into the category of human attention. Most often, none of these attempts will stop the frantic door behavior.
Also, I never advocate using physical force to train any animal. Why go there when there are so many force-free ways to teach animals how we want them to behave?
Here are some tips to stop the unruly front door behavior:
1. Decide how you want your dog to act
Instead of being the Queen of No, think instead about what you DO want your dog to do when the doorbell rings. Many of my clients train their dog to run to a mat and lie down when they hear someone at the door. It’s impossible for a dog to jump on a guest while lying down. We all spend way too much time telling our dogs “no.” We make great progress as human coaches when we spend more time showing them what we expect of them and then highly reinforcing that behavior so they will offer us more of it.
2. Be armed with food
Leash your dog when you hear someone approaching (or pre-plan a guest’s visit) and have extra-primo meat or cheese training reinforcers on hand. Ask the guest to knock, and lure your dog into a sit using the food reinforcer. You lure by putting the meat treat just over the dog’s nose and pointing your hand with the meat in it toward the dog’s back end. Most of the time that leads to a sit.
I much prefer luring over a human saying “sit” in a highly charged situation, and it’s helpful when training new behavior, especially if the dog has had a million rehearsal sessions practicing the behavior we didn’t want. You can also practice this on your own by standing at the door, dog on leash, treats in hand, while YOU knock on the door. The dog may bark, but I ignore it and get busy reinforcing fast and furiously (at first) for any behavior I do like, such as a sit or no barking.
As the dog starts to understand, then I back off the ready-fire treat delivery and use a random rate of reinforcement. In other words, we want to teach the dog that a knock on the door is the cue for the dog to sit and look lovingly and calmly at the owner, who then reinforces the sit with food and later with praise alone.
3. Manage the situation
If your dog is 10 years old and has barked and jumped on every single person coming into your home for all of his 10 years, know that the unwanted behavior has had a decade to become fluid and predictable. In this case, you might consider management, which means you put the dog in the garage or in a back room when you know someone is coming over.
How to deal with unexpected guests? I would still work to teach the dog that a knock or doorbell means “sit,” but until the dog understands that you are asking for new behavior, consider leading him into a back room with that tasty training treat and not allowing him access to the front door until you’ve had time to really work on teaching him a new way of reacting.
Dogs make predictions, and most predict EXCITEMENT when they hear someone at the front door. It’s up to us to reframe that prediction.