In our house when the front door opens Charlie erupts into a bouncing, barking buck-a-roo doing his best dolphin jump leap impression. The same happens when someone rings the doorbell.
In Charlie’s mind the front door opening means either mom or, even more exciting, dad has arrived home! When we get in, especially if we have been out for a while, we cuddle him and fuss him and tell him how much we love him and how much we have missed him… all of which as you can imagine he laps up! Equally the front door opening could be one of our friends or family who equally fuss him and tell him how fantastic he is.
The doorbell ding-donging also could be the take away man…. I know I shouldn’t admit it but we like take away… and Charlie likes the rawhide chew he gets to munch on while we snack on some tasty Thai food!
Finally, like most dogs, somebody at the front door could be the postman and Charlie believes it is his doggy duty to see him on his way!
So what have I done to fix it?
Truthfully absolutely nothing!
When we first adopted Charlie he had pretty bad separation and would howl and bark when we left the house and took out his anxiety on the furniture and Rob’s belongings (thankfully mine managed to escape his teeth!).
He would be so wound up when we got home that he would jump up, scratching our bellies with his feet and nipping the backs of our arms if we turned away.
Thankfully, with time and patience he has gotten to the point where he is a very settled, very content happy dog that can be home alone for several hours a day without a peep.
Partly this was achieved through working on his behaviour around people coming and going from the house as it was such a stress trigger for him. We followed a very affective training program that helped capture calm behaviour and show Charlie there was nothing to be anxious about, no matter what happened, we always came home.
We focused on getting him to go to a mat and remain in a relaxed position and we would reward him with a tasty treat. In no time at all he was a pro and would run to the spot and look for a treat any time the front door opened. We had cracked it, he had wonderful front door manners!
So what happened?
Well… we did!
Over time we became complacent and stopped filling up the treat pot and asking for the behaviour we wanted. Instead we began fussing him and telling him how good he was for simply not jumping up or nipping. We were also pretty inconsistent with this and the days we would come in tired from work or carrying groceries we would walk straight past him or some days we would come in all geed up ourselves and laugh if he jumped up and down but didn’t make contact with us… bit by bit we undid his training.
Thankfully due to all of the elements in his separation program coming together Charlie is no longer anxious about being left but when it comes to people coming in, his excitement levels are still pretty OTT.
So what now?
So now it is back to basics for me and Charlie and hopefully this method will help you guys out there who are struggling to manage your dog around the front door, as if your stick with it, I promise it does work!
Ok so, let’s get training
First things first, you need to identify is your dog behaviour based on excitement around the front door or anxiety?
If your dog is worried by people coming into your home it is still worthwhile doing the front door program to build some much needed confidence but you will need to continue to ensure everyone is safe that comes into contact with your dog. For dogs who are worried around visitors I would strongly recommend seeking the help of a professional, force free trainer to guide you through your training.
While carrying out any training we need to first think can we set up the environment to help the dog get it right and remove or at least reduce the possibility of them getting it wrong. In the case of a dog who is waiting to assault you with love at the front door, perhaps look at erecting a baby gate further back along the hall so that there is a physical barrier between you and them, allowing them to come back down off cloud nine before you or your guest says hello.
If your dog becomes super excited when they hear the doorbell, consider temporarily disconnecting it and sticking up a cute sign to ask people to call ahead if visiting.
Teaching your dog to offer relaxed behaviour when people enter your home
Step 1. Introduce your dog to their new training mat;
We do this by luring our dog onto a mat using a piece of tasty food. Once they step onto the mat immediately reward with the treat.
Step 2. Introducing a cue;
Once they are reliably going to the mat using this method you can begin to introduce the cue – “on to your mat” “go to your mat” or simply “mat”. You should then be able to phase out the lure and instead simply use the cue and reward them for stepping on their mat. Dogs often find visual cues such as a finger point easier to pick up initially then a cue word so you may wish to use one at this stage in the training.
Step 3. Building duration on the mat using known cues;
Once your dog is happily going to their mat on cue you can start to introduce various behaviours while they are on their mat – such as sit, down, paw etc. Basically any of the stationary cues you have previously taught them. Remember to reward every step of the way as we are trying to show them the mat is a super place to be.
Step 4. Work on a stay on their mat while you move around;
If you can encourage your dog to stay in a relaxed position on the mat start to move your own body gradually building up to be able to walk away and back to them while they remain in the one spot on their mat.
Step 5. Introduce opening the door (to nobody);
For some dogs this is going to be a super exciting step and will be really tricky for them to remain on the mat especially if they are far from the door. If this is the case simply move their mat closer to the door so you can open the door in tiny increments while heavily rewarding with tasty treats for them remaining on their mat. You may also need to do this training initially with a second person working your dog while you practice opening and closing the door.
If at any point in the training your dog moves off their mat, calmly close the door, ask them to return to their mat and once again open the door and reward them if they stay in position. If they cannot maintain staying on the mat ask yourself is the criteria too high i.e. have I moved too fast through the steps, are they too wound up and excited.
Note: if there is any risk of your dog getting out the front door make sure they are wearing a harness and lead.
Step 5. Introducing the knock or doorbell sound (as a recorded sound on your phone)
Once your dog is able to maintain a stay on the mat with you opening the door you can start to introduce a doorbell or knocking sound just before you open the door. By teaming this noise to the behaviour of staying on the mat you are setting your dog up for real life situations.
Step 6. Introduce someone outside the door without the doorbell or knock
Ask a friend or family member to wait at the front door while you get your dog into position on their mat. Open the door and reward heavily for your dog staying on the mat. If you have a third person available to treat your dog it would be helpful to move the mat a little bit back from the door so that you guest is not stepping in on top of them.
Step 7. Ask the person outside to ring the bell or knock on the door before letting them in;
This is the true test but by now you should have worked through the steps and your dog should be able to maintain a stay on their mat.
If your dog stays on their mat, pat yourself and them on the back – well done you guys! If they come off the mat as Charlie does in the video above, don’t panic, simply ask them to return to their mat and reward them for making the right choice.
Once they have mastered this step you can start generalising the mat to other areas further away from the door or phase out the mat and simply reward from the same place every time.
Teaching your dog to offer relaxed behaviour when you come home
Ok so your dog now has perfect manners when visitors come to your home but what about when you get in after a hectic day at the office and they head-butt you in the face!?
This training is much the same as the steps outline above as you effectively want you dog to offer a different, incompatible behaviour. Again I would strongly suggest investing in a baby gate that your dog can wait behind for a few seconds to allow them to relax enough to engage their brain and start offering the behaviours you have trained them to do.
Start your training when your dog is nice and relaxed and you have been home for a couple of hours.
Introduce your dog to a training mat following Steps 1-4 as outline above.
Now at this point if they are able to maintain a stay on their mat while you move around the room, fantastic.
Step 5. Practice calling them off their mat at this point and sending them back to it.
Move around the room asking them to come with you and then return to their mat. Lots of fuss and praise when they get it right.
Step 6. Now you are ready to leave the room;
Note your dog does not need to be on the mat at this point in time so call them off before you leave. This is an important step as unlike opening the door to a visitor you don’t want your dog remaining stuck in the one spot while home alone.
As soon as you leave the room, immediately come back in and ask your dog to “go to your mat”. Repeat this several times. You should see that when you return you dog starts to anticipate the cue and move towards their mat before being asked.
Keep practicing this with various durations of time out of the room. Remember to build this up really slowly as you want your dog to see it as a positive training exercise and not something that causes them to become distressed.
Step 7. Training outside of the “training session”
Once your dog is happily moving to the mat in the context of their training sessions you can start to generalise it to other times throughout the day. For example pop out to the shops etc for 10-15 minutes and when you come back see if your dog can respond to you coming in the door by going to their mat. If they can, super. If not, you perhaps were gone a little too long and you need to pare it back to a shorter time away from the house and build up gradually.
Charlie is a complete creature of habit and will guide you to the press where his food lives at 7pm every evening to remind you it is dinner time. I was able to use this naturally occurring behaviour and shape it into something I wanted by always treating him for his nice behaviour around the front door from the same place every time i.e. a pot of treats on the mantelpiece. In the clip below I have been out of the house for several hours and Charlie initially slips back into his old behaviours but once given a second to think he chooses (unprompted) to go to the mantelpiece and offers a sit.
Remember if at any point you or your dog finds yourselves stuck, don’t become frustrated or disheartened, simply go back a step and focus on getting that 110% before moving on. Charlie has spent the past three years greeting people at the door by bouncing up and down so he still has a way to go before the training is rock solid. Remember to positively reinforce yourself as well and celebrate the triumphs and don’t expect perfection after a week of training.
Charlie’s training is a work in progress and its success is entirely dependant on our consistency… so wish me and Rob luck!
As always, any questions pop them in the comments sections below.
In the mean time, happy training everyone