Getting into a good routine right away pays dividends down the road. You and your dog will both know what to do, and your guests won’t get jumped on, spooked, or worse – bitten! Let’s train our dogs to run to a specific spot when there is a knock on the door (or the doorbell rings). This will also prevent a door-darting situation!
How to prepare:
- Place a sign on your door or near the doorbell that says “Dog in training. Please be patient.” – this will buy you a little time to do the training in real-life situations without feeling stressed about the visitor who is waiting.
- Arm yourself with small, high-value treats that your dog loves. Keep these in a treat pouch around your waist, or in a secure container near the front door where your dog cannot access them. Choose a mat/towel that you can easily move. You will not need to use this one forever, however, you will need the same one for every step of the training.
- Choose where you would like your dog to go when there is a knock at the door. The mat should end up in a place where your dog can be confined temporarily when there is a knock on the door. That means space should be a crate (if your dog is happily crate-trained), a room with a functioning door, or a room with a doorway where a baby gate can be securely installed.
- Have a few stuffed frozen Kongs in the freezer, ready to rock!
- First, practice without guests.
Place the mat right beside the front door.
- Knock on the door (you will be indoors with your dog and yes, your dog will see you knock).
- Immediately happy-talk, grab 3-4 small pieces of high value, place the food on the mat.
- Your dog may or may not react to the knocking but hopefully will see and eat the treats.
TIP: Do not react to any barking – simply follow the steps. Do not ask for any behaviour, like “sit” – just place the food on the mat after you have knocked. There are no contingencies here – we want to pair knocking with food on the mat. Everything else is “static”. It’s common for us humans to knock and hesitate so that we can see what the dog does and if they “deserve” the food reward. Spoiler alert: your dog will likely bark. No need to knock and hesitate to see what happens. Just knock and follow it with food on the mat. 🙂
Once you have done this 5x in a row, move the mat one mat-length away from the door in the direction of the area where you want it to be in the end. Moving it any further than this will set your dog up for failure, so keep them successful by keeping steps easy!
Repeat this process by doing five repetitions and then moving the mat one mat-length away from the door and in the direction where you want the dog to go (bedroom or crate) until the mat is in the place where you want your dog to go. Eventually, you can even have a secure container of tasty treats in a safe place near the mat in the terminal location and the food happens when you get there.
You should be seeing that by the fifth repetition, your dog isn’t barking more than two or three “woofs” and perhaps they’re even looking to you in anticipation of food on the mat. In the end, you might even find that your dog runs to the mat when they hear the knock at the door! Don’t expect this just yet, but certainly celebrate like it’s 1999 if it happens!!
Next, have a family member, friend, or neighbour stand outside your door and knock while you follow the same steps outlined above. You might need to bring the mat closer to the door and start from level one again because the change in criteria is huge for your dog…they won’t see YOU knocking – it will be more of a cold trial, which is more difficult.
Another option is to have them tethered with a leash (attached to you or a secure piece of furniture or door) near the mat as you work through this level.
TIP: I like to set up a phone call between the trainer and the “visitor” and use a headset/earbuds to communicate. Have the “visitor” ask you if you’re ready for another knock and you say “no” if you need more setup-time and say nothing if you are ready. That way, you are not predicting the knocking on the door by saying “yes”. Very clever! Another way is to put both phones on silent and send texts.
Now we have to look at tight management. With a human-reactive dog, you must have two levels of "protected contact". You can choose two of the following:
- non-retractable leash (held by a person or tethered to something solid
- a basket muzzle
- a secure crate
- a secure baby gate
- a secure door
We do this so that if one level of protected contact fails, you have a backup. We do not want a failure!
Your mat should end up in this space in the end and this is where your dog hangs out while you go answer the door and bring the visitor indoors.
Be prepared with stuffed frozen Kongs, white noise, and classical music to keep them comfortable and relaxed while they're confined away from you.
Lastly, invite a familiar friend or family member over and practice your visitor routine. This has to be a person with whom your dog is already comfortable, otherwise you will be setting your dog up for failure.
If your dog is human-reactive, new to you, has a bite history, or you are feeling unsure, do not go any further without consulting a professional.
Be consistent. Every. Single. Time. Otherwise, your dog will practice the unwanted behaviour intermittently and lose the consistent pattern of running to that designated spot!