Holiday Tricks and Treats

The holidays are here.  There are some dogs who welcome the arrival of any visitor, no matter how strangely attired, but they are the exception.   From many dogs’ point of view, your home is being assaulted by a stream of monsters!  Consider making a safe and quiet place for your dog to escape from the excitement of the evening.  Keep children safe by supervising them, and do keep candy and holiday food out of the dog’s reach.

Want to change the usual response of your dog to the appearance of visitors at the door?

How to Train Polite Greetings by Laura VanArendonk Baugh CPDT KPA CTP is a great place to start.  Laura defines the problem of dogs who get over-excited when the doorbell rings, and then outlines the next steps:

  • Decide what you do want your dog to do when the doorbell rings
  • Break the chain of desired behavior down into small steps
  • Work at your dog’s pace to train the chain of behavior

I want to look at two parts of this process – deciding what you do want your dog to do, and what to do now, before you have trained a new chain of behavior that occurs in response to the doorbell.

What do you want your dog to do when the doorbell rings?  Here are some possibilities:

  1. Bark loudly and repeatedly, jumping up on guests
  2. Ignore the event completely
  3. Go to a dog bed and settle down
  4. Go into a dog crate, you close the door of the crate
  5. Bark a few times, then go settle down  on a dog bed
  6. Bark a few times, then go into crate, you close door of crate.

Your dog may have already learned #1, because his over-excited behavior was both stimulated and rewarded by close proximity to the arriving guests.  You were probably preoccupied with greeting the guests or may have dragged the dog to another part of the house after he was already over-excited.  So, your dog reacted and his reaction was reinforced by the event immediately after it – getting closer to the guests in the case of a dog who wants to greet the guests, or the guests getting closer to him, in the case of a dog who is reacting in fear to the arrival of the guests at his home.

If you want your dog to do something other than #1, you will need to train a new response to the arrival of guests at the door.  #2, ignoring the arrival event completely, is probably not realistic or even desirable for most dog owners.  Most people do want their dog to react mildly to the arrival of strangers at the door, they just do not want the over-the-top excitement, repetitive barking, and jumping up.

Deciding on a well-defined chain of behavior that you can reward your dog for performing is a key step.  The more clearly defined, positively reinforced, and consistently practiced, the more likely the new chain of behavior will be performed by the dog when people arrive.  Deciding on the behavior you want will involve your level of commitment to training, your household environment, your dog’s current behavior, and the type and frequency of visitors you have.  Laura’s article (link above) describes how to train a chain of behavior once you have decided upon it.

What to do now, to manage your dog’s over-excited behavior when the doorbell rings?

  1. Give you dog a toy or ball to hold in his mouth
  2. Put your dog on leash
  3. Put your dog in a crate or another room, or behind a barrier, then answer the door

What you decide to do now, will depend, again, on your household environment, your dog’s current behavior, and the type and frequency of guests you experience.  For many people, just deciding on a management strategy and implementing it will be sufficient, and no further training will be required.

Management strategy #1, giving the dog a toy or ball to hold, can be great for excited greeters who like to retrieve stuff.  I have found that it inhibits the dog from jumping up on the guest (dog will still approach the guest closely) and also from barking – holding the toy or ball seems to incompatible with barking and jumping.

Strategy #2, putting dog on leash, may work if your dog already has excellent leash manners that you have trained.

Strategy #3, putting dog away elsewhere, may be the best idea for many situations.  If you do this, your dog should already be happy with waiting calmly in a crate or other room while you are elsewhere.

The bottom line is:  you need to change something if you want your dog’s behavior to change.

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