In my work with clients and their dogs in behavior modification I see a lot of anxiety, fear, impulsivity, overexcitement and aggression. One of the first things we do as a foundation of good behavior: Set a dog up to succeed and learn as much as possible by reducing unnecessary stress, overexcitement and opportunities for them to practice being out of control. The front door is a frequent source of triggers and stress for dogs, and their owners, so this is a great place to start.
A door is a simple thing to humans but so often it is extremely exciting to dogs. It sets off loud barking, frantic jumping, dogs dashing outside off leash and even sometimes aggression. Action at the door leads to overexcitement and stress which raises cortisol levels which increases the risk of aggression, even if the excitement is “happy” and not fearful. I see it often in multi-dog households where dogs who are allowed to rush the door all at once often end up in scuffles with each other and possibly whomever is coming in the door.
As humans, we do a lot of things in relation to the door that can increase a dog’s excitement or stress:
Get up and/or speak suddenly at the sound of door knock or bell, running to see who it is, talk loudly to whomever is there. When we are coming into a house, especially our own, we talk often in high-pitched tones or “baby talk” to the dogs, pet them exuberantly and reinforce their frantic jumping up and barking with this attention.
Instead, here are three simple steps to increase safety at doorways and decrease the stress on our dogs:
1. An Ounce of Prevention
Prevent the wrong behavior of overexcitement, frantic running, jumping up and dashing outside by keeping the dog on leash when people are arriving or leaving, keep the dog in a fenced backyard or in a separate room, install baby gates if possible to block the dog’s access to the front door. For those unexpected visitors or UPS deliveries, you can tape over or disconnect the doorbell and/or hang a note asking visitors to text or call instead of knocking. “Please don’t knock or ring bell, dog in training” is a simple way to put it and can even be painted or chalked on an artsy sign.
2. Pavlov at Your Door
Teach dogs that the door always means good things! Knocking and doorbell sounds should be followed with yummy treats whenever possible. It helps to keep the dog on leash at first to prevent running away from you to the door and to keep them close so you can apply the treats, preferably before they start barking. A few sessions of several repetitions of doorbell + treat and your dog should be looking at you quietly with a relaxed jaw “smile” and wagging tail. You can also have visitors come in quietly and toss treats on the floor for the dog.
3. Reward the Right Behavior
Whenever your dog has all their feet on the floor and/or is quiet when there is action at the door, pay them for it with treats, toys and attention! You can also teach your dog to go to a mat, bed or kennel at the sounds of a doorbell or knocking. Make sure when you come home and when guests arrive, wait until the dog is calm before giving attention.
If your dog is already fearful and aggressive around doors or gates and has snapped at or bitten visitors, please seek the advice of a certified positive reinforcement trainer or behavior specialist.