Tips for good dog behavior at the front door
The majority of clients that I see struggle with front-door behavior at some point with their dogs. Many folks have dogs that, to some degree, seemingly unravel and are beside themselves when guests arrive to their home. Whether they are overly excited and overbearing with their desire to greet, or intense and edgy in their concern over the perceived threat that just showed up, dogs can show a spectrum of reactions when visitors arrive at the home. Some dogs begin to react once there is sound at the front door, and some dogs become disruptive as soon as they hear a car pull into the driveway.
Make It Easy to Practice
To begin wrapping our heads around how to tackle this challenging behavior, we must first understand how to compartmentalize the situation at hand. It is a good idea to ensure our dogs experience success more than failure in this scenario. This is why I typically ask families to hold off on practicing with a real visitor in the beginning. This means that when we practice, we should separate the event we are rehearsing into smaller, easier steps that our dogs can handle without having a breakdown. We want to pull apart the triggering event into separate, less intense, individual pieces. What does this mean?
Cut Down on Miscommunication
This means teaching our dogs in practical, modest steps at a slower pace. Having guests arrive to our homes can be a whole lot for dogs to handle. Some dogs have intense emotional reactions that make it impossible for them to even fathom responding to a command you give them in the moment. So how do we begin? We begin by first establishing a reliable means of communicating with our dogs. Outside of our front-door event, we teach our dogs to positively associate a word like “yes” or a clicker with the anticipation of food. We say “yes” and then deliver food or we click a clicker and then deliver food. With enough repetitions, dogs learn to anticipate food when they hear either of those marker sounds. Why is this helpful? This prerequisite step is helpful because the positive marker word or click creates the anticipation of a reward.
Why Use a Positive Marker?
Studies have shown that the anticipation of reward creates a much higher surge of dopamine in the dog’s body, more so than the reward by itself. When we can affect our dogs emotional state by causing a physiological change in their bodies, such as creating more “feel good” hormones through anticipation, we put ourselves in an extremely advantageous position. It would take many more repetitions of reward without a marker to yield the same effect. So, we gain more efficiency in our training with a marker that communicates a coming reward. Additionally, using markers in training allows us to be very precise in our communication. What behavior we are rewarding can become much clearer to a dog with the use of a previously conditioned positive marker word. This allows for faster learning.
Where Do I Start?
Once you’ve installed your positive marker for efficient communication, I recommend focusing first on increasing the quality of your dogs’ foundational obedience skills. Strong basics make it easier for your dogs to navigate challenging situations with your guidance. When they are already proficient at learning in general, they will become more responsive when you begin to tackle your harder projects. One of my preferred skills to use in relation to front door behavior is the “place” command using an elevated dog training cot. If your dogs have a quality “place” command, it is much easier to address front-door behavior. We can use a skill they are already good at, going to place on a cot, and we can pair that with the more challenging skill of keeping it together when guests arrive at your home.
When [dogs] are already proficient at learning in general, they will become more responsive when you begin to tackle your harder projects.
After we teach “place,” we can begin to slowly integrate that exercise with front-door activity. Remembering to work in progressive approximations, we have our dog go to “place” on the cot, and then we start to add in front-door activity a little at a time until practice looks like the real event. While our dog is in “place,” we might move toward the front door. If our dog remains in position, we would say “yes” and then return to feed. This teaches our dog to hold position while you motion toward the front door. We then increase criteria over many repetitions. Our dog might “place,” then we move away and touch the door before returning to the cot and rewarding.
The next rep we might move toward the door and gently knock before returning to reward. Then we do another few reps of jiggling the door knob, cracking the door open, maybe saying hello to no one there, perhaps adding in the doorbell. In each rep, our dog must hold position on the cot, waiting to hear the marker word and for us to return to deliver the reward. It is in these small increases in difficulty that we can get a dramatic change in our rate of improvement. Dogs learn in tiny chunks how to practice self-control when things happen at the front door.
How to Progress to Real People?
You can practice with a real person on the other side of the front door once you can send your dog to “place” and do things like knock vigorously, open and close the door, set off the doorbell, or have a fake conversation with no one there, all while your dog remains calmly in position waiting for reward. When it’s time to practice the most difficult part—a real person showing up—the only thing new and challenging to your dog is the sight of the person. They will not also be struggling with the added challenge of the doorbell triggering them, the knocking triggering them, the door swinging open triggering them, and so on. It becomes much easier for them to concentrate on being calm at the sight of a person when they are well rehearsed in the rest of the routine.
Make practice look as close as possible to the real thing, and the real thing becomes much easier to work through. I highly encourage all of you to check out my video of a step-by-step example of this entire protocol on my YouTube channel. This long-format tutorial video covers each small progression from introducing “place” with the cot, to a real trial of someone arriving at the door, and every step in between. Visit @k9parenttraining on YouTube and check out Mondays With Manny, Episode 12, “8 Steps to Improving Front Door Behavior.” View the video here: https://www.Youtube.com/watch?v=B-54JVW-R3n0&t=1s. Please reach out if you’d like in-person coaching on this topic. Happy training!
Manny Guerra, ABCDT, is the owner of K9 Parent Training.