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Patches and Bojangles sitting - politely - at the door

When Someone Comes to The Door

One of the most common complaints that I receive from my clients is that they cannot teach their dog to settle down when someone comes to the door. There is a very good reason for this problem. First, you must understand that when your dog gets excited, your dog is not being disobedient. Second, your failure at teaching your dog how to behave when someone comes to the door is not your failure as a trainer. Let's explore the two situations that take place.


Case One:

Often a person will buy a dog because they want the dog to protect the family. In the back of their mind they feel that if someone breaks into the house they want the dog to attack the intruder. Consequently they usually pick a type of dog known for its protective qualities, i.e., a German Shepherd Dog, Rottweiler, Doberman, etc., or a mix. As the puppy grows up it's natural bonding takes' place. Then its natural protectiveness develops and the dog barks at visitors when they come to the door. The family members grab the dog by the collar, tell him what a good dog he is and that it is OK. As the dog gets bigger, the family becomes more anxious that the dog will bite the visiting friend. As their stress level rises, the dog detects this and becomes more protective. This vicious circle continues until the dog becomes a raging protector ready to fulfill the owner's fears. No amount of reassurance will calm the dog.


Case Two:

In this case the dog is a very people-loving pooch who upon hearing the doorbell ring, rushes to the door to greet the new playmate. As the dog does this, the owner pulls the dog back, holding onto the collar while letting the visitor enter. The visitor often makes a fuss over the dog, pats the dog and gives it attention. This usually happens while the dog is a puppy. No amount of scolding will deter the dog from dashing to the door each time the bell rings or someone knocks.


Analysis:

In each case the dog was rewarded for its behavior. In the first case the dog will never understand that he is the cause of the stress and tension. Each time a family member shows anxiety or fear when someone comes to the door, the dog thinks that the visitor is the cause. By reassuring the dog that it is OK, the dog interprets this as praise for its behavior. The same is true for the second case. Both of the dogs have been rewarded for their behavior with guests.


In each case it is important to understand that when a dog is in a high state of excitement, anxiety, or stress, the dog cannot learn. In some cases, the dog may not even hear you! This is because the dog's brain has two separate systems, the Limbic system and the Cerebral cortex. When one works, the other is inhibited. What this means is that when the dog is in a thinking stage, learning etc., his cerebral cortex is activated and his ability to be emotional is inhibited. So while a dog is learning, he is less able to be emotional. On the other hand, if he is very emotional, such as when someone comes to the door, he is less able to think and learn. This is something that the dog cannot control, and thus he is not being bad.


Solution:

In the first case, retraining the dog to like people is necessary. Do not attempt to do this by yourself. You must work with a behaviorist or an ethologist. Of course the ideal situation would be to prevent this scenario from happening in the first place. Once the dog is safe with people the door problem is treated the same way for both cases.

Arrange to have a dog training party. Invite six people to your party. You will set up the party this way. Place a no-skid rug near the door. This should be a spot that will be the dog's spot. Even if you have carpet by the door, you need to make it easy for the dog to identify where he needs to be. Then you will place a huge bag of very special treats outside by the door. These treats should be no bigger than 1/8 inch. They are a tease, not a meal. They should be treats that the dog will drool over.

Next you will provide snacks and drinks for your guests and perhaps some family type videos. Your dog should be on a head harness and leash for this exercise. At this point the dog should be used to the head harness. This is not the time to introduce the head harness to the dog.

Now you will have your guests come to your door. You will do what you always do when you let guests enter your house. You guest will enter with a treat in hand and just stand calmly while you hold your dog and tell your dog gently to sit-stay on the dog's rug. When the dog settles down and sits on the rug, your guest will give the dog the treat, pat the dog on the head, tell the dog that he is good and walk into the "party" room. Then the next person will do the same thing. Once all six people have been through the door, you can wait about five minutes and start the process all over. Your dog should encounter people coming through the door a total of 60 - 80 times in the training session. So, if you have six people, they will cycle through the door ten times.

What will happen is that the dog will calm down about half way through the sessions, then the learning will start to take place. Initially the dog cannot learn what you want. However, as the routine becomes boring and predictable, the dog will calm down enough to learn what to do when someone comes to the door. A second party in a week or so will solidify the lesson for your dog and give your dog practice.

Understand that your dog cannot learn when the occasional visitor comes to your door. His level of stress is too high and his brain will not take in what you are trying to teach your dog. It is not a case of being bad, stubborn or spiteful, but a genuine inability to learn in that state of mind.


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Copyright 2001 Susan Bulanda. All Rights Reserved.