Knock, Knock, Who’s There?

Knock, Knock, Who’s There? by Pamela Dennison © 2004
May not be reprinted without written approval.

Pam, my dog goes crazy when strangers come to my house. He barks and carries on like someone else’s dog until I get them in the door and get him settled. It is very embarrassing, how do I stop this?

I get asked this type of question a great deal and the common thread is that the owner wants the dog to “cease and desist” doing a particular behavior. As most of us know, it is nearly impossible to get a dog to stop doing “anything.” However, it is incredibly simple to teach a dog to do “something else.”

Your dog knows how to sit and down – you give your verbal or hand signal, the dog does the sit or down and you give the dog a treat, praise, throw the ball or allow them to herd sheep. You take the leash out and your dog runs to the door and you take your dog for a walk. See, you knew some science already and didn’t even know it! This is called operant conditioning. There are three components for teaching any behavior. Just remember your ABC’s. A is for Antecedent or what comes before a behavior (more commonly known as a “cue”), B is for Behavior or what the dog does due to the cue and C is for Consequence or what the dog experiences after the behavior.

Let’s break the unwanted behavior sequence down. Right now, the cue is the doorbell, the behavior is acting like a banshee and the consequence is that he finally, after 30 minutes of hyper, jumping and wild behavior, gets the attention he wanted. Because his behavior has been positively rewarded, he will continue to do it.

Okay, so now you want to change his behavior. The cue is still the same – the doorbell. What we need to change now is the behavior and consequence as it relates to the cue. Rather than have him think the doorbell is a cue to act like a maniac, why not teach him that the doorbell is a cue to go to his crate (or bed) and wait there? Then once the guests are in and all sitting down, you can call the dog, heavily reinforce him for coming to you, calm behaviors around guests and voila! Problem solved!

I hear you saying, “Yeah, sure, easy for you to say.” It is not as hard as you think to train it.

Step one: Arm yourself with tons of treats and a willing friend. Have your friend ring the doorbell. Call your dog to you and run with him to the crate, saying your “kennel up” cue word. Give him wads of treats for getting in the crate. Release him from the crate and do it again – the doorbell rings, you and your dog race to see who can get to the crate faster (he will, he’s the Border Collie), tons of treats in the crate, start a new rep. Repeat this about 10 times. Usually by this time, your dog is starting to figure out that the cue is the doorbell, the behavior is “get in my crate” and the consequence is that he gets wads of treats.

Step Two: In a different session, repeat step one once to review, and then on the second rep, just stand there once the doorbell rings and wait. Let’s see if the dog can figure this out by himself, without you running to the crate with him. Wait for at least 15 seconds. If he doesn’t run to the crate, then help him a little by whispering “go kennel.” Then once he is in the crate, give him wads of treats. Repeat again and help him as little as possible. Do about five or six more reps, continuing to have a party each time he gets in his crate. Most dogs will “get it” by this time, but if yours doesn’t, don’t worry – just keep trying.

Step Three: Now you want to increase the time he is in his crate before you give him treats since you really don’t want to have to run to the crate (depending on where the crate is in your house in relation to the door) each time the doorbell rings. Your bell ringer rings the bell, the dog goes to his crate and you walk slowly to the crate while he waits patiently for the party. Keep doing this, gradually increasing the time he stays in his crate before feeding him.

Step Four: It is time to add real live people into the mix. Start this with one person, not 50. Friend rings the bell, the dog goes to his crate, you let the person in the house and have them sit quietly and you race to the crate and have a party with your dog. Then bring him out of the crate (on leash if needed at first) and heavily reinforce your dog for paying attention to you. Repeat a bazillion times.

Step Five: Once he is completely calm with step four, then you may allow him to greet your guest. If he is wild and frenzied, say nothing, do nothing (other than hang on tight to his leash – don’t yank back) and wait for him to chill out. Reinforce for the calm behavior and try again in a few minutes – do not let him greet your guest at this point. Repeat the process again until he can remain calm at all times – from the ringing of the doorbell, to his racing to his crate, to you allowing your guest in the house, to you having a party in the crate, to putting the leash on, to bringing him in the room where your friend is.

Once he remains calm with each of these steps, you can gradually add one new person at a time. If at anytime he becomes frenzied again, just ask him to “go kennel” and start over. It is important to use friends that will not pet or talk to him if he is being silly. It is also important that you don’t pet or talk to him either; just coolly and dispassionately take him back to his crate and try again later.

This above steps may seem like it would take forever; in reality, most dogs figure it out in a day or two of diligent practice.