For many people, it’s a familiar scene: You’re sitting on the couch, unwinding after a long day, when someone knocks on the door. Suddenly, your home is echoing with alarmed barking, a streak of dog racing toward the now threatening entrance to your home, determined to let your guests know this house is protected.
This scenario is one of the most common complaints dog trainers hear: my dog barks at the door when people come over. So why do dogs bark at the door and what can you do to teach your dog a better response?
Dogs bark for a lot of reasons: fear, to alert you, to demand something, for attention, out of boredom, because they just enjoy it, to make themselves seem big and scary, to communicate with another dog… I could probably fill a page with potential reasons your dog is barking. So while it’s nice to know the reason (and in some cases it is fairly obvious or can be guessed), most of the time you can train your dog to stop whether or not you know why it’s happening.
For almost all unwanted behaviors, the most effective way to train your dog to stop is to replace the unwanted behavior with a behavior you do like. My favorite alternative to barking at the door is a “place” cue. Place teaches your dog to go to a particular spot (generally somewhere comfortable like a bed or mat works best) and stay there until you tell them it is okay to leave that spot.
To teach your dog to go to a place instead of barking at the door, your eventual goal will be that the cue to do "place" is someone knocking or ringing your doorbell. So the finished behavior will go something like this: someone knocks, your dog goes and lays on their place, you let in the visitor and then tell your dog a release word (I like “free”) that means you can now come off the bed and greet the visitor.
Note: If your dog is fearful of visitors, this scenario may play out a little differently. In that situation, you are probably better off having them go somewhere out of sight when guests arrive (such as their crate or a separate room) and then bringing them out once everyone is settled on leash to work on some counter-conditioning (see my earlier post on fear for a few details about that).
But if your dog is comfortable enough around strangers that they can greet them nicely once they have calmed down, the place cue can be a great option.
If you have never trained or seen a "place" cue before, this video by Kikopup demonstrates one way to train it. (And if you are not following Kikopup on YouTube, I highly recommend her channel for great dog training videos!)
Generally, I start a place by standing near the dog’s bed and breaking down the behavior into baby steps – the dog moves toward the bed, or puts one foot on, I mark the behavior as good (with a click or a “yes”) and reward. I always reward on the bed when beginning this cue so they start to associate the bed with good things. Once they understand going on the bed, I add in the cue (I use “place” – some people, like in the Kikopup video, use a cue such as “go to your bed”). Then I start to build a “stay” while they are on the bed and add in the release cue, “free,” so they learn that is when they are allowed to leave the bed.
For working this with the door, I will eventually enlist the help of another person to beginning adding in a door knock or doorbell ring. The first time, I will have them knock softly or ring the doorbell once. As soon as that sound happens, I’ll cue “place” and heavily reward the dog for doing the place cue instead of running to the door barking. You want going to their place to be more exciting than the door, so you need to use a lot of high-value reinforcement in the beginning. The first few times, they may still want to go to the door, and it is okay to talk in an excited voice, move around in a fun way or use a few extra treats as you are first teaching this to get them really into doing the place instead. If this is still too hard, start with just one soft knock, even if it is you knocking on the wall where they can see it.
Like any behavior, if you have trouble teaching this on your own, or it is not working for your dog, it’s a good idea to enlist the help of a qualified trainer. But if you train this behavior correctly, it can be a fantastic tool that gives you a much calmer dog when guests come over and less stress for you when someone is at the door.
Sarah is a trainer in the Austin/Dripping Springs area specializing in reactive dogs and service dogs. She lives with a bundle of doggie mischief named Percy.