Sunday, November 13, 2011

Every Time the Doorbell Rings

The autumn leaves that paint the Canadian Maritimes into magical colors are gone, and the beaches are void of people and bugs. Sure signs that winter is approaching; a time of year that heralds in festivities that bring friends and family together. Aside from the traditional gatherings to celebrate Thanksgiving and Christmas, when it gets colder outside, many people’s homes become warmer, and not just because the furnace is on. It is the sharing of food and rituals that brings about a cozy and peaceful feel – only disturbed by: Your dog’s crazed barking every time the doorbell rings. Right? I know because my dogs are like your dogs. Or rather were like your dogs, because we worked on it, and now they do something other than announce that somebody is at the door.
Dogs react to the doorbell because it has become their cue that something is about to happen at the entrance point of the house. In other words, there is a relevant consequence the dog has learned that follows that specific sound: someone entering. Depending on the dog, the anticipation of the predictable event the bell, or a knock, announces triggers either anxiety or excitement. Either way, the pooch erupts in annoying barks because both emotions increase arousal and decrease impulse control. The dog, at that point, is out of his mind; he has you tuned out, which means that you won’t be able to shut him with a “no”, “come” or “sit”.
What most frustrated owners do next is catch up with the canine and body block him away from the door, which seems rather clever in theory, but in reality the human ends up playing goalie in the entrance space, and the dog is becoming more and more skilled in dodging his person. If that sounds like it would irritate the human and arouse the dog even more, you are correct. It does, and what typically happens next is the owner grabbing the collar, which also doesn’t work because it adds restraint frustration, and the dog then totally flips out.
That is often the point when the dog trainer is called in, and depending on what philosophy she follows, might diagnose dominance and advise to exile the pooch into another room or outside, or sharply correct him into shutting up.
I deal with the issue differently. I teach my dog an alternate behavior.
The cue will always be the cue, meaning that the bell will ring when someone requests entrance into your home. That is impractical, or impossible, to change. What we can alter, however, is what meaning it has for the dog.
Some people have a hunch that changing the pooch’s mind might be the solution and hang a treat basket by the door, for guests to give the dog a cookie as soon as they enter. But that is another idea that sounds good on paper, but is ineffective in real life and can increase arousal because the dog is, in addition to being excited about the person, now also excited about the expected treat. Or, if he feels queasy about the visitor, the cookie creates conflict because he still doesn’t like the stranger at the door, but wants what she holds in her hand.
My goal is the opposite. I want the whole entrance space to be dog free when I open the door to let someone in. The sound of the doorbell ringing still has relevance, and my dog can still get excited about it – and probably will cause calm-submission doesn’t magically happen just because I wish it so, but it announces that good stuff will materialize elsewhere: in the kitchen or living room, and that it comes from me, not the person at the door.
Once your dog habitually moves to another room, you can deal with the visitor in a casually calm and relaxed fashion, which brings the pulse rate down in dog and person.
Sounds like exactly what you want, doesn’t it?
The first step to achieve that is to find something that really floats your dog’s boat. For many it is a human-food stuffed Kong, and there could be a couple readymade in the freezer at all times. When the bell rings and the barking begins, walk to the door and shout out that you’ll open in a second, then happily clip a leash on your dog’s flat collar or harness – no choke or prong collar cause it is not about correcting the badness out of the dog - lead him to the freezer and hand over the Kong. With the yummy treasure between his teeth take him to his favorite mat, and perhaps loop the leash around a bannister or heavy piece of furniture to keep him put while he munches away, and then you open the door. (Separately, using yummy treats, practice down stays on the mat a lot, so that it becomes a desired spot to be not just when company arrives.) Repeat, repeat, repeat. Only doing it conditions a new behavior. Maybe you can recruit neighborhood kids to legally push the bell and run away.
Provided you have found something your dog can’t resist, and provided that you consistently follow the same routine, in no time, perhaps even before the Christmas crowd arrives, the sound of the bell will be your dog’s cue to run to the freezer and then, with his loot in his mouth, to the mat. No leash no more required.
The Kong works with most dogs, but some are more obsessed about toys. That was the case with our Aussie Davie, who loved all her humans without reserve, but was equally passionate about biting strangers. I assume that was the reason she was surrendered at the tender age of 16 weeks. For Davie it was an Airdog football that did the trick. Within weeks after she landed in our home, instead of charging the door she ran to the doggie-drawer in the kitchen where we kept her beloved toy. It came out each time the bell rang, and disappeared as soon as the visitor left. Dogs can’t bark if they have their mouths full with Kong or ball. No, let me correct that, Davie still managed to, but it was muffled and not annoyingly high-pitched, and she was happy and not aggressive, because company coming meant a quick play session with us.
Self-evident, I hope, is that the guest should ignore the dog until he is calm. Greeting should only happen if both dog and person want to, and only after the owner gives a specific release command. I like “say hello”.
And just to be clear, don’t deprive your pooch of toys and treats, but what he values most, the very special prize, only appears as the consequence of the doorbell ringing, and is always retrieved from the same place so that it, not the entrance point of your house, is where he’ll run to.
So, that is how I deal with the maddeningly barking pooch charging the door. There is another way, equally clever and dog friendly, and effective provided you have the time and opportunity to build the desired mat behavior incrementally before the dog is confronted with the big deal event: a stranger entering the house. You would first teach and practice going to the mat. I like free shaping it, which means you start reinforcing your dog’s interest in the mat, and then gradually raise the bar until he lays on the mat, and after that you gradually increase duration and distance he stays in position on the mat. I’ll put up a post up in the near future how I teach a position down stay.
Once your dog can be prompted to go to the mat – I like the word “mat”, or you could use the German word “platz” if you have a German shepherd, combine the verbal cue with the doorbell ringing. The last step is to omit the verbal cue, and the dog will go on his mat whenever the bell rings. The sound has become his conditioned cue to lay on the mat, and stay there.


  1. Very cool. yes I can still here Davie trying to bark with the football in her mouth. But boy did it work. an excellent Blog once again.

    Your Most Loyal Fan.

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