The doorbell rings. Immediately, your dog unleashes a torrent of barking and jumping. Maybe, if you’re lucky, your dog also slams her body against the door or paws at the glass. Inviting friends for dinner is incredibly stressful. Signing for a delivery from the post? Forget it. And don’t even think about opening the door for Girl Scout cookies.
Sound familiar? You’re not alone. One constant I see with a majority of my training clients is the “front door monster,” the dog that cannot control herself in the situations mentioned above. From a dog’s perspective, it makes sense why the front door becomes such a charged, anxiety-producing event. After all, it produces strangers, family members, and noises on a daily basis.
The following is a guide to help you change your front door monster into a professional front door charmer. The keys to success are repetition, patience and consistency. Note: If your dog has fear or aggression issues, or if at any time you notice your dog becoming upset during the training process, consult with a professional trainer.
Make a plan
What do you want your dog to do when someone comes to the front door? Be specific and write it down. If you don’t know what you want your dog to do, and under what conditions, you and your dog will be mired in confusion.
Most of my clients want their dogs to go to a mat placed away from the door area and wait quietly for a treat. This bides them time to answer the door and let people in the house, and gives the dog something to do in the meantime.
Break it down
If you were to ask your dog to go to a mat, sit, stay, and refrain from barking when the post arrives today, chances are you’re not going to be very successful. It’s too much too quickly, and doesn’t give your dog enough opportunity to learn what she is supposed to do and when she is supposed to do it. The above training plan requires several different behaviors that must be trained and rehearsed separately before putting the chain together and using it in real life.
– Desensitization to the doorbell: The doorbell is a highly charged tip-off for your dog. Whenever it rings, front door activity commences. Chances are, your dog has been rehearsing her behavior to the sound of the doorbell for quite some time, so it’s going to take consistent, steady practice to change it. Practice ringing the doorbell at random times throughout the day, and follow up immediately with treats on a bed placed in an area slightly away from the door. It’s ok if your dog barks at first; keep at it. By doing this, you are communicating to your dog that the doorbell leads to treats on her mat. Always follow up the doorbell with treats on the mat – make it a 1:1 ratio. Eventually, your dog will do the behavior immediately after hearing the bell, needing less and less prompting from you. Change up your location in the house when the doorbell rings, so that your dog has practice going to her mat from the kitchen, the bedroom, etc.
– Go to mat: Even though you are building a “go to mat” command by feeding your dog treats on a mat after the doorbell rings, you’ll want to strengthen this behavior before rehearsing front door entrances. To do so, use the following steps, pushing to the next difficult step when your dog gets five out of five trials correct. Remember to reward heavily with treats each time she gets the behavior correct.
1) Lure your dog into a “down” position on the mat with a treat.
2) Prompt your dog into a “down” position on the mat using a broad hand gesture. If you get stuck here, you can always bury the treat further into your hand before advancing to a hand gesture.
3) Prompt your dog into a “down” position on the mat using a small hand gesture.
4) Put the behavior on cue. Choose something like “mat,” and use the same cue every time. When introducing the verbal cue, always present the verbal cue first, then the hand gesture – this ensures your dog begins to discriminate the meaning of the word.
– Stay: Now that your dog is going to her mat on cue, practice having her stay as you walk toward the door. Once you’re able to get to the door without her breaking her stay, add in more difficult distractions, such as jiggling the door knob, opening the front door, etc. If she breaks her stay, say “too bad!” and don’t give her a treat. Provide ample treats and praise each time she gets it right. Make sure to take your time and get a solid stay installed before moving on to more difficult distractions. You need a strong foundation before training more advanced behaviors.
At this point, your dog has learned to anticipate treats on her mat whenever the doorbell rings, learned to go to her mat and lie down, and learned to stay on her mat as you walk toward the door. Now, it’s time to rehearse and put it all together, starting out easy and gradually building up difficulty. I cannot stress enough the importance of repetition and patience at this phase of the training. Just as you wouldn’t be able to perform Rachmaninoff after your first or second piano lesson, your dog won’t be able to go to her mat and stay the first time the post arrives at the door. The point of rehearsal is to strengthen the behavior and build up the level of difficulty gradually so that your dog is successful at each stage of the process.
Here are five easy stages of rehearsals you can do with your dog before trying her new behavior in a real-life scenario. Don’t move to the next stage until she has mastered the previous one, and if at any point she has difficulty, don’t hesitate to drop back down to an easier stage; ebbs and flows are part of the learning process. Remember to do rehearsals at random times, and give your dog practice doing the behavior without any warm-ups. In real life, your dog has to do the behavior cold, so it’s important to get her used to this during the training process.
1) Ring the doorbell, prompt the mat command, and open the door. At this stage, nobody is outside.
2) Do a meet and greet with a familiar friend or family member. Let your dog reach the point of boredom with this person. Then, have this same person go outside and ring the doorbell. Prompt the mat command and open the door.
3) Proceed the same as step 2, except this time, skip the meet and greet. It’s little more difficult for your dog.
4) Repeat steps 2 and 3 with five different family members or friends.
5) Repeat steps 2 and 3, this time with five different strangers.
Protect your training
Don’t ask your dog to do her newly trained behavior in real life until you are confident she can do it successfully. If someone comes to the door and you ask her to go to her mat and stay before she is ready, you will weaken the training. Because front door activity will happen regardless of your training progress, develop a management plan to prevent your dog from rehearsing unwanted behavior. A common plan I give to my clients is the following:
– Store a treat bag and leash near the front door for easy access.
– Whenever the doorbell rings, toss treats away from the door, leash up your dog, and guide her to another room in the house.
– Avoid giving your dog commands or repeatedly saying “No.” Happy talk, dish out the treats and focus on getting her away from the front door.
– If possible, leave a note outside asking people to refrain from ringing the doorbell.
When friends or family visit, instruct them to call you beforehand so you can let them in with minimal fanfare and noise.
By Maureen Backman, MS
– Maureen Backman, MS is the owner of Mutt About Town dog training in San Francisco. She is also the founder of The Muzzle Up! Project. To get in touch, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.