Doors, greetings and all that drama
Doorbells ringing and people coming and going, amid the excitement, can cause dogs a lot of distress. Not to mention the distress their dog’s behaviour can cause pet owners, who are trying to welcome guests while wrangling canine greeters.
There’s no time like Christmas and holiday celebrations to really test any control you thought you had over door and greetings goings-on!
While most people believe that their dog’s behaviour at the door is motivated by excitement, that’s not always the case. And it’s more than likely that most dogs experience a range of emotions and expectations when they hear the door.
Dogs can’t be expected to differentiate between intruders and welcome guests, but yet we want them to welcome visitors with calm and friendly behaviour, while scaring away gurriers up to no good.
For the most part, door action will cause arousal for dogs. This makes them more likely to become excitable, to bark, and even to aggress or have other strong emotional responses.
Dogs who approach the door with a wiggly body, they may or may not be barking, and generally calm and quieten once the guests enter are probably ok. The exercises described here will help.
But if a dog barks and continues to bark at the person coming in, jumps repeatedly, lunges or moves forward directly toward the guest or slinks away and attempts to avoid interaction, get some help before putting advice into play.
Management that includes confinement away from doors and incoming guests may be best, at the very least.
Dogs barking at boundaries, when people are approaching or passing, is related to distance increasing behaviour and the inner conflict they experience. Of course, most of the time, people pass on or leave shortly after arriving, and your dog’s behaviour functions for them in achieving distance.
Dogs do behaviour that works, so they bark each time.
You can imagine then, that when a stranger doesn’t leave, the dog may feel they have no choice but to try harder to scare them away. So, for some dogs, it’s safer for them to be confined away from the action altogether.
Even if you think your dog is excited to greet guests coming into the house, it’s important that we keep greetings low key. There’s a lot going on, with lots of excitement, so your dog’s normal tolerances may be stretched thinly.
Enthusiastic greetings, with lots of touching, petting and hugging, is not going to help you or your dog remain even a little calm as people enter or move about. Helping your dog learning to like being out of the way a little during the festivities is probably going to be better in the long run.
An ounce of prevention
Use leashes, baby gates and other management strategies to keep the peace at doors and greetings.
- confine and secure your dog in another room, with a tempting treat, chew or toy to work on before guests arrive (More on preparing your dog for confinement here.)
Have your guests call or text, rather than ringing the doorbell or knocking.
- let your guests come in the door and settle before introducing your dog
- bring your dog in on lead to prevent jumping
Guests will probably be wearing nice clothes, specially for the occasion, so even a friendly dog jumping up or getting too close may be uncomfortable.
- you (don’t have guests feed your dog) have high value food rewards for the dog and drop them every couple of seconds, or scatter a handful – this HIGH rate of reinforcement will help your dog to focus on this game, rather than losing control in excitement
Guests don’t need to pet or greet your dog too emphatically – let things settle before you think about letting your dog choose to interact, or not.
- some dogs like to hold something in their mouth when excited; have a favourite toy type available at various spots around the door and areas where guests will be welcomed. Give this to your dog to carry before they greet guests.
- don’t yell at your dog for barking – scatter treats, ask him for behaviours or tricks, hold a stuffable toy for them to lap, or remove them from the room
If your dog is more cautious meeting guests, try a new guest greeting routine to see if that helps them settle. Practice NOW with familiar people so your dog learns the pattern, without all the excitement of greetings at Christmas.
Many dogs are more comfortable greeting new people outside in more open spaces:
- have your guests call or text when they arrive
- they wait outside on the street, away from the house
- bring your dog, on lead, out and walk in a wide loop around your waiting guests
- your guests move into the house and ahead of you and settle
- keep your dog back far enough that they are not reacting, barking, staring or straining on the lead to get them
- once your guests are settled, enter with the dog on lead and feed him really high value food rewards really regularly
- remove the dog after a couple of minutes and confine in a safe room with plenty of things to keep him entertained
A dog this uncomfortable with guests may not settle enough to be truly comfortable and may be better off confined away safely, with regular visits and outings on lead, or may do better with a pet sitter or with familiar people having quieter celebrations.
If a dog is unable to settle and can’t largely ignore guests after a few minutes, remove the dog and give them a break in another room.
Please be aware that sometimes, a dog appears to have settled because he has stopped barking and is ignoring the guests. The absence of barking or growling does not indicate comfort or happiness.
If your guests move, laugh or talk loudly, get up or come back into the room, your dog will start to bark or become unsettled again. This is a good indication that your dog has not been comfortable, and can’t cope with the extra stimulation and change to the guest.
Remove your dog and settle them in a safe confinement spot.
Sniffing & Snuffling for door management
One of the most effective ways to control your dog’s arousal related behaviour is to redirect them to an equally absorbing task, but something that gives them more appropriate outlets for their excitement.
Sniffing and snuffling are the perfect alternative behaviours because they really encourage the dog to focus on the task at hand (finding food rewards), while helping them calm and preventing them practicing unwanted behaviour.
Start practicing today so that doors and greetings don’t cause drama at all this holiday season!
Practice this simple exercise each time you come into the house on the run up to Christmas.
Establish a Sniffing Station inside the door, or other appropriate greeting spot, at which you greet your dog. Use a snufflemat or similar snuffling puzzle, or just scatter treats onto the floor as soon as you enter.
Have treats in a tub in the car or your pocket so you are prepared as soon as you walk in, or just inside the door. Enter the house and excitedly bound to the Sniffing Station; scatter treats liberally for your dog to snuffle.
This helps to change your dog’s expectations. Instead of anticipating this spike of arousal and great excitement when someone comes to the door, they will think sniffing is best instead.
If others practice this too, and you put this into place with guests entering, you will have a calmer door situation, with lots of snuffling and sniffing!
Doorbell = Snuffle Party
Teach your dog that the doorbell signals a snuffle party! Instead of your dog running to the door, they run to you and their Sniffing Station to snuffle for treats; then you can bring your guests in calmly and quietly.
Establish a Sniffing Station with a snufflemat, a snuffle puzzle, or simply scattering treats on the floor, on a blanket or towel, or in their bed.
Practice in short sessions of just a minute or so at a time.
Begin working close to the door so your dog can quickly check that there’s nobody actually there. But as their comfort increases, you can move your Sniffing Station to the spot you want your dog to go to when the door bell sounds, such as another room, a confinement area, a crate or their bed.
Be exciting as you bound to their Sniffing Station – it’s a snuffle party after all!
Use a recording of your door bell or a similar sounding bell. The one I use can be found here.
You gotta practice door management games before you really need them but they are simple to work into your daily routine and require only 30-60 seconds practice per day.