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My dog is a nightmare with visitors

How many people avoid having visitors into their home because of their dogs’ behaviour?

There’s probably a surprisingly high number of people who avoid it altogether or dread the thought of visitors coming into their homes. Maybe some people don’t really mind avoiding it, but for some people, it can make them feel isolated.

It shouldn’t have to be like that though, we all love our dogs but there are times when we can also resent them, those moments when they make our lives complicated or they stop us from living how we’d like to. When you’re not able to welcome people into your home because of your dogs’ behaviour, it can be an incredibly frustrating and upsetting situation. Maybe you have a dog who barks at visitors and he’s scared off a few people so now you’re too embarrassed to risk having anyone round. Or maybe your dog gets so excited, you find it impossible to control his behaviour and it’s easier to just avoid those situations completely.

Almost all dogs react in some way to guests entering the house, some dogs will find it scary and threatening, while others will find it exciting. There may be some who’s behaviour remains very manageable or you have found effective strategies to maintain the peace. However, if your dog is beginning to become more difficult then it’s better to take action sooner rather than later.

The Scaredy Dog

Many dogs find the idea of people entering the house a little unsettling, particularly unfamiliar people, it can feel quite threatening to have them entering the dogs ‘safe space’. This means, even if they’re people friendly at other times, they may still experience some level of fear when it comes to their home environment. Dogs who already have some fear around people will find the whole experience even more worrying.

If you have a dog who is fearful or uncertain of visitors, you need to support them and help them out. This may mean removing them from the whole entering phase, because this tends to be the most scary, emotive part of the process, we as humans will potentially be excited or nervous, we may behave differently when letting people into the house, and there is generally a fair bit of activity in this moment. Your dog will pick up on all of this and it can add to his existing feelings, making him feel more vulnerable or confused by the situation.

If your dog is fearful or uncertain, there are a few simple steps you can follow to help him feel safer and more supported:

  1. Put him in a safe space before guests arrive. Ideally furthest away from the front door so he’s less exposed to the noise around the door. If he’s happy in a crate then use this and cover it with a light blanket, otherwise you could use a safe, enclosed room

  2. Give him an activity in his safe space, for example, a long-lasting chew, a Kong or enrichment activities which will keep him busy for at least a few minutes

  3. Settle your guests in and give them a quick debrief about your dog. With fearful or unsure dogs, it’s best to ask guests to completely ignore the dog initially (no eye contact, no talking, no touching). Make sure your guests are happy for you to bring your dog out – there is no point mixing a nervous dog with guests who are terrified or unwilling to participate in some training!

  4. Bring your dog out on a lead, have lots of treats on you and begin rewarding your dog as soon as they sense the guests. Dropping the treat onto the floor is a good way to reward in this situation, there is no such thing as too many treats at this stage so reward, reward, reward

  5. Gradually move closer to your guest and continue to reward, if your dog reacts or stops taking food, go back out the room and gradually move closer again. Ideally drop the treats away from the guest so your dog is constantly reminded to move away and keep distance

  6. This is all about CHOICE, if your dog wants to move away then reward him for making that choice, don’t tempt him towards the guest and definitely DON’T LET YOUR GUEST FEED HIM (more on that later)

  7. If all is remaining relaxed, allow your dog to briefly sniff your guest, just a couple of seconds is ideal, and then call him away and reward him. You could repeat this a few times. If your dog is at risk of biting, don’t attempt any interaction, keeping everyone safe is far more important. Work on calmness at a safe distance instead.

  8. Your next step will depend on your dog, he may now want some affection from your guest (be very mindful of body language and move him away if there’s any sign of tension or stress), or he may be happier lying on his bed away from the guest. If he wants to leave the room and settle elsewhere then you can allow that too!

It’s really important to take things slowly with a dog who is unsure of visitors, if you rush it or encourage an interaction too quickly, you risk worrying your dog more or putting your visitors in danger. You do need to practice with the right people … anyone who will force themselves on your dog and ignore your instructions is not an ideal candidate so for these people, you’re better keeping your dog separated (or not inviting them round yet!).

Setting it up in this controlled manner will show your dog you’re there to support them and it will help increase their confidence with repeated practice. Not all dogs will learn to accept visitors and it’s important to keep management in place if your dog is a risk of biting or scaring a visitor, so keep the lead on, keep them in a different room, or use a muzzle if your dog is trained to wear one.

The Excited Dog

Dogs who love visitors can be just as hard to manage as those who are scared. It can put us off having people round if the dog is jumping all over them or pestering them constantly. The management and introduction methods aren’t dissimilar to those you would use with a nervous dog, the aim is still to calm the situation and encourage your dog to interact in a controlled manner.

With an excited dog, it’s beneficial to remove the dog from the situation when guests enter the house, the event will only serve to hype them up more, making introductions harder to control later on. Exactly as you would with a nervous dog, bring your excitable dog out once guests are settled and you’ve asked them to ignore your dog, bring him out on a lead and reward him for keeping his distance and remaining focused on you.

By controlling his entrance, he’s more likely to interact calmly with your guests and you can avoid him practicing any unwanted behaviours. When you allow him to interact, keep the interaction short and aim to call him away before any inappropriate behaviour starts! You could follow short interactions with a controlled behaviour, like settle on a bed, or offer a chew to keep him busy and calm.

The Conflict of Emotions

There will be some dogs who experience both fear and excitement when visitors enter the house, it can create a huge conflict for dogs because they may generally enjoy interacting with people, but when those people enter their safe space, they feel unsure too. This conflict can create a bigger reaction in the dog and it can lead to mixed signals and a lot of stress.

Applying the same methods as above will help reduce the excitement and fear your dog is feeling, the more you can take control and give your dog clear guidance and support, the more they can relax and rely on you to help them out. Leaving them to work it out themselves will only lead to increasingly difficult behaviours, so absolutely give them the choice of whether or not to interact and always give the choice to leave the situation, but don’t allow them to run wild or be put in situations which cause stress.

It's not unusual for some dogs to display their uncertainty with a response known as ‘fool around’ behaviours. This can look like an excited, happy dog, bouncing around and being playful, but actually the dog is worried and using silly behaviours to try and diffuse the situation. If your dog turns silly when faced with new people in the house, look for signs of fear within their silliness:

  • They dart towards the person and then jump back

  • Play bow and rush around but never getting really close to the person

  • Jump up at you or the new person in a tense, stiff way … it will probably look different to a relaxed, excited jump

  • Go off and do zoomies or frantically sniff around nearby

These behaviours can easily be mistaken for a dog behaving inappropriately due to excitement but they develop from a fear response and can be a sign that the dog isn’t coping in the situation. The best thing to do is approach as though your dog is fearful and work through calmer, controlled introductions. Encourage the dog to keep their distance and not feel pressured to interact with new people, if they do interact then keep it short and encourage them to move away after.

Rewards come from YOU

Whether your dog is fearful or excited, you should never ask your visitors to give your dog treats or ‘tempt’ them to approach. In a fearful dog, this will put them in a conflicting situation whereby they want to approach to take the treat, but they also don’t want to get too close to the new person. You also risk teaching them to approach in the expectation of food, and when they approach and find no food, they will realise how scarily close they are and may react suddenly.

You need to show your dog that it’s good to keep distance and gradually feel more confident and relaxed with the new person. Rushing this or putting pressure on your dog by asking them to take treats off a new person, will only serve to knock their confidence or create more conflict for them. IF and when they are calm and happy around a new person, you could allow them to reward your dog, but always watch to make sure your dog is feeling relaxed, if they show signs of being uncertain then stop the interaction.

For an excited dog, asking guests to reward your dog is likely to add further excitement and increase the value of new people even more. With these dogs, you want to reduce the value of new people and reinforce much calmer, controlled interactions. Your visitors could engage your dog in some training, for example, offering sit or down before an interaction, but you can still be the one to reward your dog. The more you can show that rewards come from you, the less excitement they should gain from your visitor!

Repeat Reward Repeat

Repetition is important with this training, too few visitors will make it hard to practice often enough, and too many visitors can mean your dog is overwhelmed and stressed by it, so you need to find a happy balance to ensure you’re able to work on it effectively. Choose your visitors carefully too, they need to be on-board with your training and willing to listen. If they won’t listen or support your training, then keep your dog out the way in their safe space with a good activity to keep them busy.

There is no reason why you should avoid having visitors into your home because of your dogs’ behaviour, it does take time and commitment to improve but it can change everything when you adapt slightly and give your dog more choice or guidance. Remember there are many contributing factors too so you may need to spend time desensitising your dog to the doorbell, teaching them to settle on a bed, and working on polite greetings or confidence around people outside of the house. As with any challenging behaviour, it’s rarely a standalone issue and you need to work through the whole picture to make any improvements.

By Naomi White

If you need support with your dog's behaviour around visitors, we can help via our residential training programmes, one to one lessons or our Online Academy

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