It feels quite unusual to meet dogs who never bark at the door, but why is it such a provoking situation for so many dogs and what can we do to change it?
The challenge is that reactions to the doorbell can be reinforcing in themselves, even if a dog isn’t hugely bothered by the person at the door, barking and active behaviours (e.g. running, pacing) create a rush of arousal and become associated with the doorbell sound.
It becomes a very self-rewarding reaction, especially if there are also exciting or stressful events linked to it, like someone coming into the house, or you getting up and answering the door or trying to make your dog stop barking.
Thinking about how your dog feels about visitors is an important step. Check out our blog about issues surrounding visitors: https://www.adolescentdogs.com/post/dogs-and-visitors
Alongside this, you need to change their association with the doorbell. We always start with management, because without management it’s impossible to teach new behaviours and build new associations. Each time your dog practices the unwanted behaviour, it will be reinforced again, and that will make it harder for the new associations to take over …
1. Make sure you are able to work through the training with your dog, if you’re not at home to work through it then turn your doorbell off or put your dog somewhere where he won’t react if the doorbell goes off
2. Change your doorbell to something which you can set to alert your phone (e.g. a Ring doorbell), this would mean at times when you can’t supervise your dog, you can set it to only alert your phone and not ring through the house
3. Change your doorbell sound and have a function to turn the doorbell off when needed. Sometimes a new sound is easier to create new associations with
4. Put a note on your door asking visitors not to knock or ring the doorbell
The Training Bit
The key is to teach a new response and show your dog that the doorbell doesn’t signal any event, stress or excitement.
Making it as meaningless as possible will really help reduce the reaction and help your dog stay calm in these moments!
Start with a recording of your doorbell so you can play it all around the house and vary the volume.
1. Play the doorbell recording at a low volume, reward each time your dog hears it
2. Increase the volume and keep rewarding each time
3. Start cueing him to go to his bed (or crate/safe place) when he hears the sound and reward once he’s on his bed
4. Start playing the sound, send him to his bed and wait for a while before rewarding him, or just praise him with ‘good boy’
5. Play the sound more randomly, both when he’s settled calmly or when he’s doing other things at home, calmly say ‘good boy’ when he doesn’t react and carry on with what you’re doing. Occasionally reward with a treat but mostly stick to verbal praise (we want the doorbell to be boring and no expectation of exciting things happening)
6. Play the sound randomly, sometimes getting up to go to the door, sometimes carry on with what you’re doing, sometimes stand up suddenly and walk elsewhere in the house or run down the stairs etc (basically add in any reaction you may use when there’s actually someone at the door!)
Mix up these steps, even when you reach step 6, always practice the other steps frequently so it’s never linked to the same thing happening. It’s especially important to maintain step 5 in the process, playing the sound and continuing with what you’re doing, showing no reaction and calmly praising your dog for not reacting to the noise.
If your dog does bark at any point, it’s important to respond calmly to this and not show frustration or react too much because this could add to the reaction when they hear the noise in future. Take a reaction as a sign you may have gone too fast with the steps, so aim to go back to an easier step or play the sound and reward with treats a few times before progressing again.
Real Life Situations
Alongside working through all the steps and putting management in place, it’s important to have a few strategies in place for when the doorbell does go off outside of your planned sessions. While the key is to minimise this happening in the early stages of training, it can’t always be controlled!
1. Use a doorbell like a Ring doorbell, this way you can see who’s at the door and you don’t always need to answer it … if you don’t always answer the door, this will reduce the excitement and reduce the association of an event happening
2. When the doorbell rings and you do need to answer, pause for 10 seconds, then casually get up to answer the door so that there is less association with the doorbell, and less excitement of seeing you suddenly jump up and rush to the door
3. Have treats ready, and scatter a handful of treats on the floor anytime the doorbell goes. This will pair the doorbell with a low arousal activity. Or have a few lickimats prepared in the freezer so you can quickly drop one down for your dog
Don’t Forget Why
Thinking about WHY your dog barks at the door is a crucial step in the training process, you can train all you like but if you don’t tackle the underlying causes, you will always hit a roadblock in your progress.
For some dogs, the doorbell is simply associated with something happening, they may not really care about whether or not someone is at the door or coming into the house, but the activity of you answering the door or the noticeable sound of the doorbell is the overriding factor. In this case, working on the above protocols is likely to overcome the issue.
For the majority of dogs, there will be an element of excitement or fear around people entering the house, or there will be conflict of these emotions. Determining what emotions your dog is feeling when people enter the house will give you a starting point on how to help them feel calmer or safer in these situations. Without doing this, you will probably never improve their reaction to the doorbell, so it’s essential to work on doorbell desensitisation while also tackling the contributing factors around visitors.
Written by Naomi White
The Calm Canine Challenge within the Online Academy is a great way to build new behaviours around visitors and the doorbell. You'll even find step by step videos on how to build calmer greetings, how to teach a 'send to bed' on the cue of the doorbell ringing and how to grow calmness when you have visitors over.