The doorbell rings and your dog attacks the door. Then it’s WWE action as you struggle to get the door open without a takedown of your unsuspecting visitor. Or maybe you have a dog who watches from a distance, with her ears back and her tail low, as you invite your guest inside. All seems well while everybody is sitting but then they stand and head for the door and it’s game on. Small dogs in particular can become instant ankle biters.
Beyond dangerous, reactive behaviors like these are emotionally draining. You too can get hurt just by trying to control the mayhem. Having friends over just isn’t fun the way it was before you adopted you-know-who.
Dogs are certainly territorial creatures. They’re supposed to alert their leaders of an approaching alien. But growling, lunging, and snapping are not acceptable. An appropriate canine response looks more like the bouncer who checks your ticket to an exclusive club: possibly curt but only violent when truly necessary. (I’ve never been to such an establishment but I watch movies, so I know.)
The natural human response to a canine snuggle bunny becoming an instant land shark is yelling and grabbing for the dog’s collar in a frantic attempt to control the savage beast. These events should be easier – much easier.
Dogs are man’s and woman’s best friends because they share a lot of our social structures but there are communication differences. They believe that any response from their leader has been earned by their behavior of the moment. That means that when your dog freaks-out, your corrections would reinforce the chaos and encourage more of the same. You need to ignore – completely. Anything from you: words, actions, or even body language would be perceived by your dog as a reward.
But wait – you can’t do nothing while your dog is mauling your friends. Actually, a dog with a history of reactive behavior toward guests has no business around them unless and until she has learned to work for her leader. Instead of the old knee-jerk lunging and histrionics she should look to you for opportunities to earn resources like petting, praise, and a tasty tid bit. It sounds simple but teaching reliable behavior takes time. Success begins with avoidance.
Setting your dog up to not react is essential because he must absolutely stop believing that his antics have been effective. Even without your participation the rampaging and aggression are self-rewarding behaviors. That’s because, sooner or later, every visitor eventually leaves. You canine security team takes full credit, patting himself on the back for a job well done. Repetition of this scenario only advances a dog’s “skill”. Start down the right path by eliminating the cause-and-effect in his mind: Put him in another room before opening the door.
How about the dog who appears relaxed as you and your pals chat happily over tea and then explodes when a visitor shows the temerity to stand and move? That pupster wasn’t as chill as you thought; she was watching and waiting to overdo her job of chasing off the scary monster.
You really would love to have a dog who accepts your friends, the plumber, housekeeper, and the electrician without all the drama. Punishment is recommended by some “experts”. Accessorized with a prong collar, or for the nuclear option, a shock collar, you can stand ready to make the bust and mete out the penalty.
Heavy-handed corrections may seem like an effective tactic because they can work fast but there are nearly always unintended consequences. Dog who react to visitors because they are afraid can learn to fear their own person. Repeated punishment becomes a welfare issue. A dog who has lost all of his choices can develop “learned helplessness”. These pets withdraw and lose trust in their leaders. They are no longer anybody’s best friend.
Dogs who raise a ruckus with visitors have an inner drive to do whatever it takes to eliminate foreign invaders. There is no way to simply train them to abandon their unhealthy motivations. Instead they need to redirect their energies to a different, more appropriate response. You can teach your dog to work for you and even the strangers she might otherwise resent.
Make it easy right from the get-go. Block your dog’s ability to see people so she can abandon her old reactions. Delay her meal prior to the arrival of your visitors and put her in another room before they arrive. Hand her a food-dispensing toy or puzzle stuffed with really tasty morsels so she can focus her brain, mouth, and paws on scavenging while you yuk it up with your buds in the other room. With a few hundred repetitions she’ll start to associate a positive emotional state with hearing folks elsewhere in the house.
When she’s become less wiggy about guests you can teach her to automatically run to a mat on the floor, positioned in front of a Treat and Train ® device. A knock at the door, the sound of the doorbell, or hearing the verbal command, “Place!” will send the trained dog into the down position in front of this gizmo ready for it to spit out a treat. Using the simple remote control button you will release the occasional snack to keep your dog focused on earning more by remaining in the same place.
Long term you can teach your canine student to accept a Gentle Leader head halter. Much more than a fashion statement this asset will be all about your dog focusing on canine job number one: checking with his leader for a behavioral cue when anything unusual is detected. The Gentle Leader allows you to shift your dog’s attention away from an arousal trigger (visitor) and redirect his gaze to your face where it belongs. Reliable obedience skills will help.
You and your dog can reach the Promised Land: When she hears an approaching person she’ll look to you, her trusted CEO, for the cue. Being the reliable head banana you will cheerfully engage your willing subordinate in the ritual of earning resources instead of freaking-out your friends.
Getting there is time-consuming. If all you want is peace you can just stow your dog in another room with a food toy before admitting your guests. Simple avoidance will make life better for everyone concerned, not the least of whom is you.
This sounds idyllic but be real. No matter how much your dog improves she should never be fully trusted, especially around unfamiliar children. Never let a dog with territorial aggression loose on the unsuspecting public without a responsible adult in firm control.
I hope you’ve found this information helpful. You’re welcome to share this blog with any of your dog-loving friends. Each week I share a short video, a Facebook Live, or a blog to help bring out the best in pets and their people. You can sign up at no charge on my website www.drjeffnichol.com. And when you do, I’ll send you my free at-home pet first aid and CPR guide. I’m Dr. Jeff Nichol.