Dog: Controlling Excitement at Visitors and Passers By

woman training dogMany dogs will react to the sight or sound of passers by but for some owners this behaviour can get out of hand and it can be very embarrassing to have a dog that goes wild whenever someone comes to the door or even walks past the house. There are many owners who feel that they have to resign themselves to this behaviour since they see it as an inevitable part of having a dog but this is not the case and in order to find ways to resolve these behaviours it is important to understand why your dog is reacting in that way.

Why do dogs bark and get aroused when someone comes to the door?

There are many possible reasons for this, including:

  • For some dogs, the sight and sound of passers by or visitors is one of the few sources of stimulation that they receive during the day, and they therefore become over-responsive.
  • Some dogs are naturally more territorial and so more responsive to others at the edge of their territory. Territorial behaviour is often linked to lack of self confidence and the presence of anxiety, since such individuals are more likely to anticipate threat from the arrival of strangers in their territory. This may come as a surprise since the territorial behaviour often appears to be a confident response and people often assume that dogs that behave in this way are taking control. Perhaps it is helpful to remember that individuals who have more to worry about are often the ones who feel a need to be in control!
  • Some dogs have never been taught what they should do in the presence of other people outside or inside their home and are simply responding in an uncontrolled manner through lack of appropriate education.
  • Many dogs have learned that someone at the door or coming towards the house is a signal for the owner to attempt to punish them. The response of the owner is often fuelled by the dog’s high arousal and their perception that the dog is badly behaved. However, the dog associates their owner’s unpleasant behaviour with the arrival of the visitor or passer by and therefore barks more intently in order to prevent the intruder from coming any closer.
  • The behaviour may be self reinforcing as a result of the behaviour of regular delivery people, such as postmen or milkmen. In these situations the dog that issues a little bark at the postman usually finds that the postman leaves. The fact that the postman was going to do this anyway is irrelevant to the training of the behaviour and over time the dog can develop a confidence in the behaviour as a means of getting delivery people to move on. The biggest problem with this learning experience is that the act of leaving is only temporary and each day the postman or milkman returns, as if they have not listened to the dog’s very clear message the day before that they are not welcome. This apparent failure to understand the dog’s message can lead to frustration on the part of the dog and can intensify the territorial reaction. As the frustration increases some owners may notice that the dog also becomes aggressive to delivery people that it encounters out on walks.
  • Rarely some dogs have learned that people approaching their home is a negative event as a result of exposure to a frightening experience such as a burglary. In these cases the dog has been given confirmation that the arrival of unknown people in the vicinity of the house is a sign of impending danger and they are reacting accordingly.

Territorial behaviours generally become worse over time and attempts by owners to punish the dog are likely to backfire as they serve to increase the dog’s state of arousal and negative anticipation and make it more determined to keep strangers at bay.

What can I do, to control my dog’s reaction to the passers by or someone coming to the door?

In many cases the best way to deal with this problem is to reduce your dog’s visual access to the front of the property so that it does not go through a learning cycle on a daily basis of barking at passers by who then retreat, only to return the next day. It can also help to anticipate the arrival of visitors and to put your dog out at the back of the property when they arrive and only bring it into the presence of the visitor in a controlled and supervised introduction.

In order to significantly alter your dog’s behaviour it will be essential to determine the underlying motivation for the responses that you see and to implement specific behavioural therapy to modify underlying emotions such as anxiety and frustration. In addition to this it can be helpful to teach your dog an appropriate way to respond in the presence of passers by or visitors but it is important to remember that such training is unlikely to be successful in the long term if it is not supported by the treatment of the underlying emotional state.

  • Start by teaching your dog to sit and stay for a food reward in the hall, or another suitable place, when there is no distraction from someone knocking at the door. Some dogs find it easier if they have a visually demarcated place to wait, such as a mat or a dog bed.
  • Select a word that you can ultimately use as a command for your dog to go and wait at the designated spot. Begin by saying this word whenever your dog sits in the right place and gradually work to move that word earlier and earlier until it is acting as a command which your dog understands.
  • Gradually phase out food treats when the behaviour is learned and can be reliably repeated. 
  • Next you will need to practise dealing with your dog’s response to the knock at the door or the sight or sound of passers by, by asking family members and friends to come to the house at pre-arranged times. Every time someone knocks command your dog to wait in his designated spot and reward him for sitting and waiting there. If he gets aroused, practise this procedure with him wearing a houseline so that you can easily guide him to the place and can then reward him for doing the right thing. Any time that he makes a mistake, ask the person helping you (the “visitor”) to come no further and remain still so your dog is not reinforced by being able to greet the visitor, or further aroused by their approach. Every time he manages to sit calmly and wait, reward him without increasing his level of arousal and ask your helper to greet him calmly but passively. Your visitor can also passively throw a food treat to your dog on his waiting mat in order to reward him.
  • Finally, when your dog has mastered the task with people he knows, you should practise with visitors, keeping your dog on a houseline and asking him to sit and stay while the visitor knocks at the door and eventually comes in. A houseline can be a useful way to control your dog during this process and if necessary guide him into an appropriate behaviour that can be rewarded.

If door charging behaviour is coupled with aggression, or your dog does not seem to be responding to behavioural treatment, you should seek professional assistance as the problem may be more complicated. Your veterinary surgeon will be able to arrange referral to a suitably qualified behaviourist

How can I prevent my dog from jumping up on others and me?

For many dogs, jumping up on people is part of their greeting routine. In order to decrease jumping up behaviour during greeting it is important to look at the ways in which you interact with your dog when you are greeting him. If your dog has always been able to gain your attention by jumping up to greet you, how can you expect him to understand that such behaviour is not acceptable when visitors arrive? By always insisting that your dog sits before he gets petted at home it is possible to set a learning pattern which favours remaining on the floor during the process of greeting people. It is very important that everyone consistently insists on the “sit for petting” behaviour as intermittent rewarding of jumping up will run the risk of encouraging the behaviour to persist.

Owners are often advised to try to discourage jumping up behaviour by using methods such as squeezing the front feet, stepping on the dog’s toes, or kneeing the dog in the chest. In most cases such methods don’t work and the behaviour continues but more importantly these owner actions can put the dog at risk of injury and may cause a fear of people which could have serious repercussions such as aggression. For all of these reasons these techniques are not to be recommended.

"Owners are often advised to try to discourage jumping up behaviour by using methods such as squeezing the front feet, stepping on the dog’s toes, or kneeing the dog in the chest."

If your dog persists in jumping on people, then something is reinforcing and thus maintaining the behaviour and it is very important to get an understanding of the underlying motivation.

In many cases the simple motivation for the jumping up behaviour is to greet people, since dogs like to greet "face to face", in the same way as they do with their canine counterparts. One of the biggest problems for dogs is the range of human reactions to this greeting interaction. Many people find the action of a dog jumping up and trying to lick at their faces objectionable whilst others actively encourage the behaviour, seeing the licking as a sign of affection. What is certain is that dogs need to be taught an appropriate greeting posture, rather than be punished for a response that from a canine perspective is driven by a desire to facilitate an amicable interaction. However it is also important to understand why dogs lick at faces during greeting as a better understanding of the behaviour often helps people to respond to it appropriately. The motivation to greet people by jumping up and licking at faces can be increased in situations where the dog has mixed emotional responses in the presence of people. In these situations the drive to greet face to face is based on a desire to obtain scent information from the person’s face in the same way that dogs obtain scent information from other dogs by licking around the ears and the mouth to stimulate pheromone secretion. Active rejection of a dog acting in this way, through punitive responses from the owner, is likely increase the animal’s sense of insecurity and make the behaviour more difficult to remove from its repertoire.

Instead it is important to address any underlying self confidence issues that your dog may have and remove any ambiguity and inconsistency from the interactions that you have with your dog. It is then important to determine what you consider to be the most acceptable greeting posture, for example a sit/stay, and then work to reward that response with food and attention (see separate handouts for teaching a sit/stay).

  • Once your dog has perfected the sit/stay form of greeting when interacting with you it is then important to practice this form of greeting with family members and familiar visitors.
  • Only when all jumping up at family members and familiar people has stopped is it worth applying the behaviour to greeting less familiar visitors.
  • When you know a visitor is expected, put your dog on a houseline so that you can control his movement and he cannot practise the incorrect behaviour.
  • Ask him to sit and stay while people come in and hand the visitor a treat and ask them to greet your dog calmly. Provided that your dog remains seated on the floor you can ask your visitor to passively drop the treat to the floor. This ensures that your dog receives more reward for staying on the floor than it does for attempting to actively greet the person.
  • If your dog gets up, then ask him to sit and try again. It may be necessary, initially, to have the visitor leave the room if your dog is too aroused to sit in their presence.
  • Often placing a “treat jar” by the front door will help as there is always a treat to hand when you need to reinforce correct greeting behaviour. Remember that the treat should arrive on the floor since that is where you want your dog to be!
  • Another way to train this behaviour is to set up visitors to come to your home at previously agreed times. As the first person comes to the door you should instruct your dog to sit and stay. Then, and only then, the visitors are let in. Your dog should be kept in a sit while the visitor enters and the person should drop a treat to your dog on the floor as they pass and go to sit down. After 5 minutes, the visitor should leave by the back door, come to the front door and repeat the process. The second entry should be easier as your dog will have just seen the person and the element of arousal as a result of novelty will be reduced. If you can repeat this 4-6 times for each visitor, your dog will have plenty of opportunity to learn the new task.

Once you understand and have dealt with any underlying motivation, and you have successfully trained a new greeting response, you need to be sure you have identified all the reinforcement for the behaviour. If your dog succeeds in getting any attention for the jumping behaviour, then he will continue to jump. In order to change any learned behaviour it is important to remove ALL reinforcement, however unintentional that may be. This means that people need to resist the temptation to look at, speak to, touch or interact with your dog IN ANY WAY when he jumps up but they must equally be quick to reward your dog when his feet make contact with the ground!

dog in the grassMy dog is now well trained, but has occasional lapses, what should I do?

If your dog makes a mistake, you need to ensure that it is not reinforced and the best way to do this is to ignore the behaviour but ensure that as soon as your dog offers a suitable alternative he is immediately rewarded. In other words when your dog jumps up you should stay still and be entirely unresponsive. As he returns to the floor be quick to drop a food treat to the floor in order to encourage him to remain with all four feet on the floor and as he is engaged in consuming the treat you can speak to him in his new and acceptable position.

But I’d still like my dog to jump up and greet me!

You may want to allow your dog to jump up on you at certain times and this is perfectly acceptable so long as the dog understands the difference between times when the behaviour is acceptable and times when it is not. Ideally you should teach your dog to jump up in response to a clearly identifiable command such as "up". In this way, you have the behaviour under verbal control and you can decide when your dog will be allowed to jump up. At the same time it is advisable to teach an “off” cue so that you can also ask him to stop jumping in an appropriate manner.

Don’t let your dog take the initiative on jumping up at people, as in the wrong circumstance it can have disastrous consequences, even if your dog is simply greeting the person. It would be tragic if your dog was to get in serious trouble for a behaviour that is simply a result of miscommunication.

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