TEACHING YOUR DOG TO STAY CALM WHEN VISITORS ARRIVE
If your dog gets over-excited when the doorbell rings, or mugs visitors as they enter your home, you can easily teach him or her to greet guests politely.
First, look for the reasons for your dog’s reactivity. Does the doorbell noise startle him? Is he excited at the prospect of extra company? Do you rush to the door in what he perceives as an excited state, prompting him to join in? Or is he nervous or anxious about new people or experiences, and views these as sources of potential danger?
If the sound of the doorbell is the cause of his reaction, you could change the tone to one that is less strident. Dogs’ hearing is far more acute than ours, and as the doorbell is designed to be loud enough to get your attention, it may actually hurt his sensitive ears. This, coupled with the shock of the unexpected noise and with you moving quickly towards the door, is likely to put your dog in a state of high alert and possibly even one of anxiety. Switching to a less harsh sound, or lowering the volume, can reduce your dog’s stress levels when visitors arrive.
If your dog enjoys company and gets over-excited at the prospect of visitors making a fuss of him, you can teach him to sit a short distance from the door when he hears the doorbell. This will help him to calm down, as a dog in the sitting position can’t jump all over your guests! You’ll need the cooperation of a patient friend to help you to teach polite door manners to your dog.
Fill your pocket with high-value food rewards and ask your friend to ring the doorbell. Your dog will rush to the door. Instead of opening the door, stand calmly and ask your dog to sit. He’ll be expecting you to open the door, so don’t worry if it takes a few moments before he sits for you. As soon as he sits, reward him with praise and a treat. Now move towards the door. If your dog gets up, stop immediately and ask him to sit. Reward him again. Call to your friend in a low voice, asking him/her to ring the doorbell again. It may take a while before you can actually start to open the door, and each time your dog moves you’ll need to close the door again. If your dog jumps up as your friend gets partway through the door, ask your friend to go back outside while you close the door and start again.
Be patient, and avoid getting annoyed if your dog is slow in figuring out what’s expected of him – once he ‘gets it’ it’ll make a huge difference to his approach to visitors. For your friend’s sake, aim to teach door manners on a day when it isn’t raining, as your friend may be outside for some time on the first day of lessons!
When your dog stays sitting as you open the door, your friend can enter. No fuss should be made of your dog at this point, as you want him to stay calm. Greet your friend, close the door and, if your dog is acting calmly, ask your friend to call him to him/her for a pat and ‘hello’. At any signs of over-excitement, such as jumping up, your friend will need to turn his/her back to your dog and stop all attention being paid to him. As soon as your dog has all four paws on the ground he should get praise and a pat. Avoid rough play or any exuberant greetings from your visitors, as this would only prompt your dog to become over-excited. Providing you’re consistent, and ask your dog to sit every time the doorbell rings, he’ll soon do this automatically. Remember to praise and reward him every time during the first week. After that, you can keep up the praise every time, and just give an occasional food reward.
If your dog is nervous of visitors, you need to teach him to develop a positive association with guests entering your home. Often the behavior of reactive dogs is made worse by guests who encroach on your dog’s personal space and who expect him to interact with them in a friendly way. Be clear with all visitors that they must not directly face your dog, or stare at him, or loom over him – this would only increase his tension. Slow fluid movements and quiet, low-pitched voices will help to reassure your dog that no danger is imminent, so ask your guests to follow through with this.
You can start by teaching him to sit when the doorbell rings (as with over-excitable dogs). However, with a nervous dog who may lunge out of fear if he feels trapped, you may want to have him on a loose leash so that you can calmly move him away if necessary. A ‘loose’ leash is important, because a tight leash will set up additional tension – a dog on a tight leash can’t remove himself from potential harm, and any tension or anxiety that you’re feeling will be transferred straight down the leash to him as if it were an umbilical cord. As soon as your friend is able to enter your home without your dog running away, jumping up or lunging, ask him or her to calmly and silently move past, at a safe distance, averting their eyes and dropping a special food reward casually on the floor as he/she passes your dog. No attention whatsoever should be given to your dog by your guests, other than quietly dropping a piece of food in passing. You should praise him for coping with the presence of another person, and you can add a food reward of your own if you like.
Most of the dogs I have worked with who are nervous of visitors have their anxiety reinforced by guests who are determined to ‘make friends’ with the dog. Imagine how you would feel if a stranger forced themselves into your personal space – touching your hair, patting or squeezing you, even trying to hug you. Your instinct would be to shrink back, to tell him or her to go away, or even to bat away an intrusive hand. This is how your dog feels about unwelcome attention, and if he can’t escape he may feel there’s no option but to growl or snap. Ask guests to be considerate of your dog’s feelings, and to leave him alone to settle in a quiet space where he feels safe.
A polite greeting from your dog will help your guests to feel even more welcome. It doesn’t take long to teach your dog good doorbell manners, and it helps to foster good relations between him and your visitors.