Teaching a dog to behave when visitors come knocking
Talking Dogs: Advice on how to teach a dog to respect guests at the door from Lisa Moore's pet-behavior column.
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I work with many dog owners on a variety of door issues involving their canines: darting out the front door and running off, incessant barking when the doorbell rings, jumping on people entering through the door, etc.
Dogs usually become highly aroused with anything associated with the front door, because experience shows them that there is something — or someone — exciting on the other side, and that freedom and exploration into the world beyond the door is a possibility.
We help to create this behavior in our dogs simply by responding each time there is a knock or ring at the door, and while our attention and focus is on the person at the door, our dog's behavior is poorly managed.
I spend a lot of time desensitizing my dogs to the various stimuli associated with the front door. I know for certain that I do not want my dogs darting out the door, and I don't want them to bark or jump up on people entering my home. Rather than wait for these troubling habits to form, I have a few tricks that I do with my dogs to prevent these unwanted behaviors from forming in the first place.
When I have a new puppy or dog to house-train, I will very often use the front yard for elimination purposes. I always take the dog out on leash, but these frequent visits to the front yard help to "demystify" the environment.
My thought is that if my dog is consistently denied access out front, but I get to go in and out as I please, I'm creating a natural curiosity about the world beyond the front door, and my dog's curiosity will drive him to get out that door just to see what all of the fuss is about. So instead, we frequently go out in the front yard — to eliminate, to get the mail, to watch the garbage truck come and go, etc. This way, my dog is no more excited about going into the front yard as he is about going into the back yard.
I rarely pass by my front door without knocking on it. My dogs hear the knock at the door, or the ring of the doorbell nearly every day, and do not associate either sound with the presence of a person on the other side. Think about how many routine beeps, rings and other noises your dog hears on a daily basis, but doesn't bark at. The reason he barks when he hears a knock or a doorbell ring is because he has associated that sound with activity at the front door. My dogs rarely even look in the direction of the door when hearing the knock or doorbell; most of their previous experiences indicate there is nobody on the other side of the door.
I teach all of my dogs to go to a specific place (usually their own bed or mat) and lie down when instructed to do so. This comes in quite handy when I actually have a person at the front door. When someone knocks or rings my doorbell, I send each dog to its place to lie down before opening the door. This way, I can deal with the person when I open the door, perhaps even invite him or her inside, without any unwanted behavior occurring from my dogs. They can't bolt out the open door and can't jump on the visitor, because they are lying down on their mats.
I usually wait a few minutes before releasing my dogs from their mats when I have company. This way, my dogs can get accustomed to the new person in the house from a distance at first, so when they are allowed to come into contact with my guest, their behavior is calmer and more relaxed.
With just a few simple concepts, taught over a period of time and maintained by my frequent knocking and ringing of my own doorbell, I can enjoy the benefits each time a visitor comes to the house. I find this a much better approach than scolding my multiple dogs and having to hold onto collars while I try to let someone in the house, and having to apologize for my dogs' rude and jumping behavior. This "peace at the front door" can be accomplished with your dogs, too, with a small investment of time, and the right instruction of a trainer focused on teaching behavior, rather than correcting mistakes.
Lisa Moore's pet-behavior column is an occasional feature. Write to Moor at The Modesto Bee, P.O. Box 5256, Modesto CA 95352.