How to Make Dogs Less Reactive Towards Doorbells, Knocking and Guests
Is Scruffy taking the guardian role too seriously?
Among the many behavioral cases I work on, a high percentage involve excessive territoriality and reactivity towards guests. Why are so many dogs reactive towards guests and other people coming to your home? What causes this? Are certain breeds more prone to this? How can you reduce this behavior? And why should you reduce this behavior? Today, we will take a look at the dynamics behind territoriality and reactivity and how to reduce this problem behavior.
First and foremost, what causes Scruffy to react in such a way? Why is such a dramatic display needed? What makes certain dogs more reactive than others? There are many explanations, but since we may never get entirely into our dog's heads, we can only make assumptions. Let's take a bit of tour inside a dog's mind and look for some possible explanations.
Many dogs are fearful and aloof of new people entering their home. Often, this is seen in those small dogs, often referred as "yappers". These creatures can make keen watch dogs because they are very quick to sound the alarm and are very opinionated. Actually, many take the role so seriously they will bark at the slightest noise, even the birds chirping or the cows mooing even though they have heard that noise several times. When a person enters their home, they will put up a dramatic display or barking, lunging and acting as if they are ready to take a chunk of your arm off.
Yet, if the person coming into their property challenges them or frightens them, they will quickly back away while barking or hide. So this is mainly a big "bluff" and perhaps part of the Napoleon complex seen in so many small dogs. These dogs will raise the hair on their shoulders so they look much bigger, will bark as if they are about to kill you and will even show their pearly whites. While most decide to run away when challenged, some may be bold enough to bite the moment you turn away to leave (so watch your back!) or when they are cornered with no way out.
Is your dog OK with people on walks, at the park and at vet's office and then when people come close to the home or the car they turn into Cujo? If so, you may be dealing with territoriality. Some breeds are more prone to this form of "aggression". These are breeds that have a history of being selectively bred to be guardians, therefore, protective of their property and belongings. Rottweilers, Doberman pinshers, and Mastiffs are a few examples of dogs that have it in their blood to be protective and this is an instinct. These dogs will often bark the alarm. However, some like the Rottweiler have more of a 'wait and see" approach, meaning that they will think before reacting instead of sounding off the alarm right away.
*Note: it is important to distinguish a "watch dog" from a "guard dog", these terms are often wrongly used interchangeably. Watch dogs are simply dogs that bark at the sight or sound of something unusual. Guard dogs are dogs that take things a step higher and are professionally trained by personal protection dog trainers for the purpose of protecting property. Never, try to train a guard dog on your own; true guard dog candidates are dogs with a stable, well-rounded temperament and need to be able to tell friend from foe; they do not operate on fear. They are a far cry from the reactive, weak-nerved territorial dogs you see barking at the smallest triggers. Personal protection dogs are highly confident dogs that will not react unless there is a REAL threat.
- Learned Component
Reactivity towards guests may also have a learned component. In other words, dogs learn through the rehearsal of behavior what is most effective to keep people away from property. It may all start with a warning bark. If the person getting near the property leaves, the barking will be reinforced, in doggie words: "it worked, I am a tough guy and sent that person away! This is awesome so I will continue doing that!". But, if say another person refrains from leaving, the dog will find the need to increase the display. So next time, he will bark louder and perhaps even lunge, moving forward in a threatening display. Since, this may work to send the UPS or pizza guy running, the dog will continue using this strategy and soon the behavior establishes and puts roots.
So why is your dog reactive towards guests? It could be he is either fearful or he is territorial. Or he could have learned how to effectively keep people away. It may be a combination of all three. Since we may never know what the exact cause is and can only make assumptions, we can at least find out what triggers the aggressive display and work directly on the problem.
What Triggers Your Dog?
So what triggers your dog's reactivity towards guests? Does the knocking on the door drive your dog nuts or is it the doorbell? Most dogs learn quickly that these noises lead to guests. Dogs learn through associative learning, so they quickly are able to pair the door bell and the door knocking with guests. For other dogs, they may simply dislike when people enter the property or get up to leave. Some dogs are reactive but settle and become your guest's best friend once the guest is over and welcomed to the house. Regardless, you know you have an issue and you need to work on it, or your guests will stop coming over!
Step 1: Desensitizing to the Door Bell and Door Knocking
So your dog goes into a barking frenzy when he hears the door bell or knocking? Then you may want to start working on this issue right away. Put a leash on your dog so he does not rush to the door and rehearse the unwanted behavior. First, you need to make the noise less threatening, and then, through associative learning you need to change your dog's emotional response towards it. If you are into learning more about the science of desensitization, you can read this interesting hub: Dog Desensitization.
So how do you make the noise less threatening? You need to find a way to knock without your dog going into a frenzy. Perhaps try knocking on a table, first very lightly and then gradually louder. As your dog does not react, make sure you give a treat right after the knock, so it would be like this "knock, treat, knock, treat, knock treat". If your dog reacts, you are going too quick in the process and your dog is over the threshold, so make sure you take a few steps back and knock lighter. As your dog gets good at this and after some repetition, something wonderful will happen, at every knock instead of reacting, your dog will look at you for the treat!
The same exercise can be done with the doorbell. Try making the doorbell noise less intimidating, have a helper ring it from a distance while you keep your dog in another room far from it so it's not too loud. Or perhaps, use a recording of a doorbell noise and play at a low volume. Your goal is "doorbell treat, doorbell, treat, doorbell treat". Do this until your dog starts associating the doorbell noise with the treat. Repeat, several times, and then start working closer to the doorbell or if you are using a recording, play it at a higher volume. Don't be surprised if Pavlov's law starts taking effect; your dog drools at the sound of the doorbell!
Step 2: Desensitizing to the Door Opening
Most likely, your reactive Rover is not only reactive towards the doorbell and knocking but also the noise of somebody opening the door. Enroll a helper and have him repeatedly open and close the dog while your dog is at a distance where he is less reactive. Have the helper open the door, while you give the dog treats. When the helper closes the door and leaves, stop giving the treats. This training method is known as "open bar, closed bar". And it consists of giving treats when the trigger is present, and stop giving treats when the trigger is gone. This confirms in your dog's mind that good things happen when people are opening the door and all good things end when the person leaves. You can read more about this here: Dog Behavior Open Bar Closed Bar.
As your dog starts associating the opening door action with treats, you can then upgrade to having the helper take a step inside and then leave. At this point, you will give the treats only when the person takes a step inside and stop giving treats when he is leaving. As always, if your dog gets reactive, you are working too fast for his taste, so take a few steps back in the process.
Step 3: Desensitizing to Having People Come Inside
As your dog learns that opening the door makes great things happen, your next step is to have your guest come inside your home. This needs to be done in baby steps. Your guest may need to take just a few steps inside and then leave. Make sure you treat promptly when the guest enters and continue to treat until he leaves. This means you may have to give several treats in a row. If your dog is doing well, then you can progress and have the guest come inside some more.
At a certain point, your guest may be close enough that he could toss your dog a few treats. Have him toss several treats away from him so your dog will not get too close and then get startled. Then when your dog is about to finish the last treat, have him leave. Repeat, repeat, repeat. This will further confirm to your dog that it is the guest that brings great things and that when he leaves all good things end.
At this point, you will have the guest sit down, and your dog can get more treats tossed in the same manner and when he is down to the last treats, your guest can leave.
Once your dog has mastered listening to the doorbell without reacting, hearing the door open without reacting, having a guest takes a few steps inside without reacting and sitting down on the couch without reacting, your next step entails chaining all these behaviors together. Basically, your guest will ring the bell, open the door, step inside and sit on the couch and toss some treats and then leave when the dog is finishing the last crumbles. Once your dog has graduated to this without reacting, give yourself a pat on the back! But don't sing victory yet; it takes some time to make behavior change reliably, so read on to prevent fallouts!
Wouldn't it be great if Rover could be calm upon seeing people passing by?
Tips and Warnings to Make Your Program Work
- Use very high value treats. Skip the kibble or dog biscuits. You want soft, bite sized treats that are easy to eat. Hot dogs, freeze-dried liver, tripe or small chunks of chicken work great. The smaller the better, so your dog can eat them quickly and make great associations.
- Use those high-value treats only for these training sessions. This way your dog looks forward to them and the session.
- Keep your dog leashed so to prevent him from rehearsing the barking and lunging behavior. The less your dog gets to rehearse this unwanted behavior, the better.
- Learn how to read subtle signs of stress in your dog.
- If your dog is reactive towards guests walking towards your property or pulling their car into the driveway and car noises, make desensitizing to them part of the program.
- If your dog is reactive towards stimuli at the window, discourage looking out, place a barrier or keep the blinds down or work on counterconditioning him to them.
- If you are into clicker training, play the 'click the trigger" game. Every time your dog sees the door opening or the guest, click and treat. Or try Leslie McDevitt's Look at That game.
- Always work your dog under the threshold.
- Make sure all your guests call you before they come see you so you are ready with the leash and treats and can work at a distance from the door.
- If you feel like you have little control over what the guests do, are caught unprepared or just feel like your dog has a bad day, put your dog in another room and try at another time.
- Work on using less stimulating guests at first. If Scruffy is less reactive towards Aunt Sally use her first, then upgrade to the plumber and finally to the USPS/Fedex guy your dog hates.
- Always end the sessions on a positive note. For instance, if your dog is not reacting to the person stepping in, give a jackpot (several treats raining from the sky) and stop the session. Next time, your dog will look forward to another session.
- Prevent reactivity towards guests by keeping a jar of treats right by the entrance and having your guests deliver them upon coming in. Have the mailman deliver cookies just for your dog.
- Don't rush through the process; slowly and systematically is the right way to go. Behavior takes time to change and will not happen overnight!
- Setbacks are a normal part of the process. You will have days where your dog is more reactive, but if you are consistent and give it time, they should become more and more rare.
- Your dog may not completely settle down once your guest is in the home and may become reactive again should the guest move suddenly, talk louder or get up to leave. If you notice these triggers, work on repeating them and desensitizing and counterconditioning your dog to them.
- To keep up the training practice without making the training session tedious, make short upbeat sessions lasting no more than 10 minutes at a time.
- To be successful, your dog should have more good responses than bad. In other words, your goal should be to have out of 10 knocks on the door, no more than 2 bad reactions.
- If your dog has an "oops moment" and starts barking at the guest, don't have the guest suddenly leave or your dog's barking will be reinforced. Rather, have him stand there and toss a treat only when your dog is quiet and then leave or take a few steps away and continue the process once your dog is calmer.
- To play it safe and have a higher rate of success, enroll a dog trainer well-versed in dog behavior or a reputable dog behavior consultant.
- Make safety your top priority. If your dog is aggressive or has a bite history, consult with the pros and use a muzzle.
Disclaimer: if your dog is aggressive towards guests or has a bite history, don't try this exercise alone and enroll guests putting them and yourself at stake! Rather, please make safety your top priority and consult with a veterinary behaviorist or a certified applied animal behaviorist. By reading this article you automatically accept this disclaimer.
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An example of doorbell desensitization
Is your dog reactive to door knocking and doorbell ringing?
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