By Lisa Benshoff, CPDT-KA, Talbot TTouch, Easton
Does the arrival of visitors tend to trigger an explosion of barking as you groan and follow your dog to the door? Are you holding on tightly by the collar as you open the door, struggling to keep her from jumping on your guests? Maybe you’re also commanding her to “Sit! .. . Sit! . . . Sit!!” Even if she does, she pops right back up. Not a great way to begin a social occasion.
Whether your dog is really happy about visitors, very worried, or conflicted, please understand that you cannot improve emotional/reactive behavior in Real Life. You can only manage it. “Corrections” do not affect the over-arousal that causes unwanted behavior—and may even make it worse through negative associations: Every time the doorbell rings and someone comes through this door, my person gets upset with me. Tightening the collar and pulling your dog off balance certainly adds to the tension your dog feels.
If you want to actually train a better behavior, the most effective way is by both (1) changing the dog’s emotional response to the sound of the knock or doorbell and (2) setting up situations that approximate real life, in baby steps.
1. Don’t let your dog go to the door. Step One in changing an unwanted behavior is always management: that is, preventing repetition of the unwanted behavior. Because there’s too much energy and excitement at that location, just don’t let your dog go there. Before you answer the door, put her in her crate, behind a baby gate, or shut in another room. Since you usually know when someone is coming, do this before they get there.
One alternative: If your dog is very keen on certain toys, you might keep a couple in a basket by the door, so that your guest can toss a ball or squeaky toy as he walks in, changing the dog’s focus and directing her away from the door. Try it out first with household members in that role, to see whether it works with your dog.
2. Let her out only when she has stopped barking and/or pawing and panting. Calmness is what earns release, not frantic or demanding behavior. If you still anticipate a dash and leap, put your dog on leash to prevent that from happening.
3. Have your visitor take a seat. When someone lowers their body and is stationary, it can help your dog calm down and it allows her to go greet when she is ready to, instead of being approached. And tell your guest not to reach out to her right away. Unfortunately, many people will walk straight up to your dog, with direct eye contact, and bend over at the waist to pat her on the head. All of these normal human behaviors are perceived by most dogs as rude or threatening —and normal dog responses could include barking, growling, jumping up, or submissive urination.
For people with infrequent visitors or who don’t have the time and patience to train, management can be enough.
Training: To actually improve your dog’s normal greeting (or any other behavior), you may need the help of a professional positive trainer to set up and practice similar scenarios, starting where it’s easy for your dog to be successful. Unlike Real Life, set-ups allow you to control every variable so that your dog remains calm enough to think and learn. This is the truly the best way to teach your dog a new good habit.
First, decide what you want your dog to do instead. That could be to go to her crate or her mat for a special treat that will keep her busy and happy for awhile, like a real bone. Another option could be to train your dog to Go Say Hi (targeting your guest’s hand) and return to you.
When you communicate clearly, start at a low level and advance with baby steps, and offer rewards that motivate your dog, any alternative behavior should be much more fun than running at and jumping on guests. And when that shift happens, you and your guests will be much more relaxed too!
Lisa is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer and a Certified Practitioner of Tellington TTouch®. For more information or help with training, see www.talbotsbestdogs.com.
Lisa serves on our Board and is instrumental in helping keep our animals happy!