Well I guess that title pretty much sums up what this blog will be about and I was prompted to write this because I found that more than 50% of the questions thrown at us at the Dog Lovers Show was about that. So many dog owners told us their dog either ran out the door, barked at visitors at the door, jumped all over them and even tried to bite them. Ouch!
So here is a common scenario. You hear a knock at the door and before you know it the dog has darted off its mat and charged at the door barking. You then run down to try to stop it, trying to grab it and move it and tell the visitor you are coming. All the visitor hears is noise and thumping on the other side. As you try to open the door, your fingers get jammed because your dog is still trying to jump at the door and you embarrassingly flick the screen door open, let your visitor slide in while still trying to contain your dog. Now you have this poor person standing against the wall as your dog goes nuts and it is one apology after another. Sound familiar??
Now back to the Dog Lovers Show where one question really upset me when a lady asked me for advice because her tiny Chinese Crested x would not stop barking and nipping at her friends when they came over. The behaviour didn’t upset me, it was the treatment she received when another trainer had come to her to resolve the issue. Tissues everyone!
So we had a terrified little dog who tried its hardest to make strange people go away and it had been doing this since it was a puppy. The owner was unaware that this dog was actually anxious and felt that she was being naughty but she did recognise she was also scared. In came ‘the trainer’ who told her he could fix it in one lesson for a ridiculous amount of money. So his solution, after he demeaned the owner telling her she was soft and weak and that the dog was purely a brat, was to spray it over and over again with a water pistol. But hang on, this didn’t work so he then resorted to ‘sweeping’ it away, yep, he swept it with a broom into a corner to try to stop it from barking. Now you can imagine how on earth could this make it better and in fact it made it worse. This poor dog then went on to not only bark but then also lunge and snarl and eventually it also vomited, urinated and pooped itself out of extreme fear. It made me literally sick to hear what this dog went through and it actually brought me to tears.
So what do we do to stop dogs misbehaving or freaking out when it comes to visitors at the front door and entering your home? Read on and give this a try and I can guarantee there are no brooms involved nor are there water pistols, yanking on leashes or yelling or whacking. All we have are clear instructions, rewards, safe zones and loads of practise.
Now the pointers below will be for excited dogs as well as nervous dog but let’s make a distinction about how they present themselves.
Excited dog: makes a run for the door when it hears a knock and might bark in a high pitched tone, it bounces and leaps at the door and as you open the door, it leaps on the person, it might lick or even mouth the person and is very hard to control, its bottom will be wobbling, its tail will be thumping, breathing will be rapid, tongue hanging out and it will struggle to focus on the owner. It might be out of control but it appears happy and excited, it may continue to bark for attention and even if you are holding it by the collar and yelling at it, the excitement just goes on!
This dogs loves human interaction but is a tad greedy and gets all silly when people come over. This happens because when it had its first visitor, the excitement was reinforced through attention- patting while jumping, revving up, talking to it while jumping, getting very excited when the door opened, making a huge fuss when the person entered, encouraging the dog to run at the front door, not instructing it to settle down and so the habit becomes self reinforcing and sticks.
Nervous dog: makes a run for the door when it hears a knock and it might bark in a mid to low tone, hackles may rise on back of neck, it might throw itself at the door in a more desperate way and when you open the door, it may leap at the person but its head will be lowered, it may have back feet outstretched to make a quick get away, the hackles may have risen even more down to the tail, its pupils will be dilated (they appear larger), it seems to be staring, it has a rigid appearance and the mouth may clamp shut or be opened extra wide, it appears to jump at the visitor but then recoil, it may mouth or nip, the tail is very stiff or tucked down, it may urinate when the visitor bends down to touch it, the ears are lowered, the face looks worried, it tries to move away quickly and it keeps barking at the person as they enter, even when they are sitting down, it may be snatchy when taking treats from the owner, it may flick its tongue, it may do lots of yawning, it may shake its body like it is wet. It may growl and even snarl or snap and it may glare at the person. It struggles to settle down and it cannot follow instructions from its owner. It may express its anal glands. It may try to go and hide in another room and it may look confused as if it wants to meet the person but is also scared of the person at the same time. All this dog wants is for that stranger to go away.
This dog does not love human interaction or is unsure about it and prefers to be left alone. This happens because it was not socialised well enough when it was a puppy, it had bad or poor experiences with people when it was younger during critical developmental phases, it was cornered and not given an escape option, it came from a very isolated breeder setting (puppy farm, pet store), the parent dogs were nervous of people (copied and learned behaviour when it was a puppy), the dog was punished when it greeted a person, it is a generally anxious dog, fearful or phobic dog.
As you can see, both behaviours are motivated by the attention the dog gets from the visitors. We have the first one screaming for interaction and the second one begging for space.
Before you can even tackle this issue, you need to work out whether your dog actually wants to see these people or wants them to go away. The training will be very similar however there is more emphasis on creating a safe space for the nervous dog and ensuring everyone is safe and sometimes a little more intervention is needed for the anxious dog.
Basic skills required:
- COME (to call away from the front door)
- Go to MAT (to send to a target to settle- a mat, a crate, bedroom, couch, laundry, wardrobe, etc.)
- DROP (to encourage the dog to settle down)
- STAY (to encourage the dog to not move and remain settled)
Now if your dog is an outside dog and it cannot rush at the front door but you would like it to come and say hello to your visitors (providing that it what your dog wants), then you can skip Step 1 and go straight to Step 2.
Step 1. As soon as you hear a knock at the door or the doorbell alarms, if your dog runs to the door, immediately call it back to you. Avoid grabbing it by the collar as this can heighten its excitement and sometimes even make it nervous. Your dog needs to learn to come away without restraint. If you don’t trust that your dog can contain itself and may run out of the door, then pop it outside temporarily until the visitors are inside and the front door is shut. Please also note that you will need to let your visitors in on the training otherwise they might wonder why they have been left outside while they hear you talk to your dog! As much as they have to be patient, they will appreciate it when they see how well behaved your dog is!
Step 2. Send your dog to its mat or crate and reward it. Whether your dog needs to control its excitement or needs to feel safe, sending it to its special space can help enormously as it gets a grip on its emotional state. For the nervous dog, ensure that safe space is far away enough that it does actually feel safe. There is no point putting its mat right next to the couch where the visitor is if your dog does not like them. Look at placing it at the end of the room, out of the pathway or even in a bedroom or laundry. Remember that if your dog does NOT like visitors, then isolation is actually relieving! If your dog has had a history of biting, then I recommend a crate so there is no chance it can reoffend and again don’t forget to give your dog plenty of rewards for settling down. You can also ask your visitors to toss treats to your dog.
Step 3. Teach your dog to DROP on its mat so it has a better chance of relaxing. Don’t be afraid to repeat this step a few times until it holds that position and remember to reward it when it gets it right.
Step 4. Teach your dog to STAY and this means your dog does not get off the mat until it has been instructed to. I would only instruct the dog to come off when it is calm and willing to engage and everyone has entered and is seated. Your dog will need to learn to STAY once it hears the door knock, when the door is being opened, as the person is being greeted, when the person enters the house, as the person walks into your living area, as the person sits down and as the person settles. You will need to remind it to STAY in a variety of situations.
If your dog breaks from its position at any stage, calmly ask it to return to its mat and start all over again and don’t forget to reward it for the right behaviour. Over time it will understand the concept of STAY and begin to settle down providing you are consistent with it. That means you cannot afford to have a ‘that will do’ attitude as this will confuse your dog because the rules are not clear.
Please instruct the visitors to ignore the dog completely, no patting, no touching, no speaking as this will only encourage the excitement or fear further. Your dog has to see the visitor as a boring, neutral object!
Step 5. Give your dog something else to do that is pacifying such as licking a stuffed Kong Toy, a chew toy, an antler, etc. By giving it another job that has a calming effect, it learns to entertain itself rather than seek attention from your friends or worry about them.
Step. 6. If your dog is settled and would like to come and greet the visitor, calmly instruct it to come over and SIT for a pat. Ensure that the person does NOT engage with the dog if it jumps up or begins to get excited and instead send it back to its mat. Then try again once it has resettled. Your dog needs to learn to approach calmly and remain that way when greeted.
If your dog has settled and prefers to stay away from the visitor, then leave it alone. Don’t forget your friends are here to see you, not your dog. The last thing we want is to add more pressure to your dog so just being quiet and settled is a huge achievement for a nervous dog.
Now some of you know that my boy Stanley is very nervous around people and dogs but he has exceptional skills in place and something that helps him a lot with building confidence with people is to use those skills. So when people come over Stanley has a training lesson with them. He is still instructed to go to his mat and settle and stay and he does this easily. When he is settled I then give my friends a handful of treats and they then ask him to perform various skills such as sit, look, drop, roll over, shake, mat, etc. Each time he does it they toss him a treat and he starts to trust them because they are predictable and clear with their rules. This helps break down those fears and after a few sessions he is comfortable around them. Once the training is over, they send him back to his mat and he goes to sleep! He could never do this initially as he was worried and would growl and stare at them but with lots of practise and very predictable outcomes, he learned to trust me and that I could guarantee him that when he was on his couch, he could relax; nobody was going to come over and touch him.
So if your dog loves training, use this as a way to break the ice and encourage the dog to try to interact with that person but only if it appears willing.
One last piece of advice relating to dogs that do NOT like visitors. If at any stage you do not feel you can trust your dog, your dog has bitten or seriously threatened a person or your visitors do not feel safe, then you will need to consider seeing a Veterinary Behaviourist. Training can work well and resolve many issues but if your dog is suffering from a generalised anxiety disorder then training on its own will not be enough, learning will be limited and the anxiety will not be addressed. Please think carefully about this and seek professional advice if you feel your dog is really struggling or potentially dangerous to adults or children.
And another piece of advice relating to sourcing out trainers! If a trainer suggests water pistols, rolled up newspaper, bottle filled with nails, brooms and rakes, electric shock collars and sticks and physical force as a way to train this out of them, do yourself a favour and hang up or shut the door. There is no need to use force when it comes to training a dog. You are supposed to be the person your dog trusts and finds stable so if you are yelling or smacking, not only is your dog going to rush at the door and develop a negative association towards the visitor, it will also try hard to avoid you. You don’t have to dominate it to stop it rushing at the door, you just have to train it!
I shall leave this in your hands now and I will also set a challenge. If you succeed in getting your dog to remain calm on its mat while you have visitors sitting nearby, upload your photo to my Point Cook Dog Training Facebook page so I can share your amazing efforts!
Best of luck everyone!