DEAR DIDI: My dog is very well behaved at all times, except when the doorbell rings or someone knocks on the door. He acts insane when that happens. He is a Shih Tzu/Poodle cross and 3 years old. What would you suggest to help? –Mickey’s Mom
DEAR MICKEY’S MOM: Our canine buddies are masters at noticing when something different has happened in their environment. Most people do not ring their doorbells repeatedly throughout the day, so it doesn’t take long before a puppy figures out that the doorbell means something is happening outside of his usual routine. Your dog may perceive a stranger on the other side of the front door as intimidating and something to warn you about. If he is a more open and social beast, he may have discovered that the doorbell means people have come to see him and rub his ears! Our guests tend to fawn over our dogs with excited voices which reward the dog’s lack of manners at the door, thereby insuring future repeats of the unwanted behavior. Acting out at the front door is, typically, a symptom of other issues. He may be very well behaved when things are calm and there is nothing better to do, but the true test of a dog’s obedience is when things are exciting. Is he able to demonstrate self-control and be mannerly when fun stuff is happening?
There are a few options to help with front door manners. The main issue is to demonstrate to your dog that you can, in fact, do something to stop the behavior. So, put him on a leash. Even if you don’t hold the leash, you can at least step on it when you need to stop him from running around like a chicken with its head cut off. If he does “alligator death rolls” on leash when the doorbell rings then distract him with a high value treat, toy, or ignore him altogether during his tantrum. Enlist the aid of a friend to come over and stand on the other side of the front door and ring the bell. Don’t open the door or even reach for it until your dog calms down. Then reach for the door handle. If he jumps up and acts out, you should instantly take your hand away from the doorknob. Ultimately, he wants you to open that door. We want to teach him that he will not get his way by acting out. Only when he is calm and controlled will that door open. With patience, dogs usually figure out that the fastest way to get you to open the door is to be polite. It will be much easier for you to have the patience needed when the person on the other side of the door knows they will be waiting a while and are there to help you.
Repeat this whole training scenario as much as possible, and then ring that doorbell a hundred times or more, over the next few days. This helps desensitize your dog to the sound of the doorbell by teaching him that the sound happens a lot and doesn’t always mean someone is here.
Another great option, that I teach all of my Intermediate level obedience students, is the “spot” command. In a nutshell the dog learns that the cue “spot” (or any word you prefer) means go find your rug, lay down on it, and stay there until further notice. The rug is basically an inexpensive bathroom rug that is machine washable and rubber backed. There is a process for teaching the behavior and I haven’t met a dog yet that didn’t love it. I have had students use the sound of the doorbell as the cue rather than a verbal command. It needs to be practiced before you can expect it to work when friends come over for dinner. Your guests will be impressed with your adorable pooch when he runs over to lie down on his rug at the sound of the doorbell!
Dierdra McElroy is a graduate of Texas A&M University and is an Animal Behaviorist specializing in canines. If you have questions or concerns about the pets in your house, you can get them answered through a future column of Dear Didi. Email your questions or inquire about dog behavior presentations at firstname.lastname@example.org.