Adrienne is a certified dog trainer and former veterinarian assistant who partners with some of the best veterinarians worldwide.
Among the many behavioral cases I work on, a high percentage involve excessive territoriality and reactivity towards guests. Why are so many dogs reactive towards guests and other people coming to your home? What causes this? Are certain breeds more prone to this? How can you reduce this behavior? And why should you reduce this behavior? Today, we will take a look at the dynamics behind territoriality and reactivity and how to reduce this problem behavior.
First and foremost, what causes Scruffy to react in such a way? Why is such a dramatic display needed? What makes certain dogs more reactive than others? There are many explanations, but since we may never get entirely into our dog's heads, we can only make assumptions. Let's take a bit of tour inside a dog's mind and look for some possible explanations.
Reacting From Fear
Many dogs are fearful and aloof of new people entering their home. Often, this is seen in those small dogs, often referred as "yappers." These creatures can make keen watch dogs because they are very quick to sound the alarm and are very opinionated. Yorkies are particularly keen at making observant watchdogs, although their shrill barks can get annoying after some time.
Many dogs take their guardina/watch dogs role so seriously they will bark at the slightest noise, even the birds chirping or the cows mooing even though they have heard that noise several times. When a person enters their home, they will put up a dramatic display or barking, lunging and acting as if they are ready to take a chunk of your arm off.
Yet, if the person coming into their property challenges them or frightens them, they will quickly back away while barking or hide. So this is mainly a big "bluff" and perhaps part of the Napoleon complex seen in so many small dogs.
These dogs will raise the hair on their shoulders so they look much bigger, will bark as if they are about to kill you and will even show their pearly whites. While most decide to run away when challenged, some may be bold enough to bite the moment you turn away to leave (so watch your back!) or when they are cornered with no way out.
Reacting From Territoriality
Is your dog OK with people on walks, at the park and at vet's office and then when people come close to the home or the car they turn into Cujo? If so, you may be dealing with territoriality.
Some breeds are more prone to this form of "aggression". These are breeds that have a history of being selectively bred to be guardians, therefore, protective of their property and belongings. Rottweilers, Doberman pinshers, and Mastiffs are a few examples of dogs that have it in their blood to be protective and this is an instinct. These dogs will often bark the alarm.
However, some like the Rottweiler have more of a "wait and see" approach, meaning that they will think before reacting instead of sounding off the alarm right away.
*Note: it is important to distinguish a "watch dog" from a "guard dog", these terms are often wrongly used interchangeably. Watch dogs are simply dogs that bark at the sight or sound of something unusual.
Guard dogs are dogs that take things a step higher and are (hopefully!) professionally trained by personal protection dog trainers for the purpose of protecting property.
Never, try to train a guard dog on your own; true guard dog candidates are dogs with a stable, well-rounded temperament and need to be able to tell friend from foe; they do not operate on fear. They are a far cry from the reactive, weak-nerved territorial dogs you see barking at the smallest triggers. Personal protection dogs are highly confident dogs that will not react unless there is a REAL threat.
Reacting as a Learned Behavior
Reactivity towards guests may also have a learned component. In other words, dogs learn through the rehearsal of behavior what is most effective to keep people away from property.
It may all start with a warning bark. If the person getting near the property leaves, the barking will be reinforced, in doggie words: "it worked, I am a tough guy and sent that person away! This is awesome so I will continue doing that!" But, if say another person refrains from leaving, the dog will find the need to increase the display. So next time, he will bark louder and perhaps even lunge, moving forward in a threatening display.
Since, this may work to send the UPS or pizza guy running, the dog will continue using this strategy and soon the behavior establishes and puts roots.
So why is your dog reactive towards guests? It could be he is either fearful or he is territorial to a certain extent. Of maybe both. Or he could have learned how to effectively keep people away. Better, it may be a combination of all three.
Since we may never know what the exact cause is and can only make assumptions, we can at least find out what triggers the aggressive display and work directly on the problem.
What Triggers Your Dog?
So what triggers your dog's reactivity towards guests? Does the knocking on the door drive your dog nuts or is it the doorbell? Most dogs learn quickly that these noises lead to guests.
Dogs learn through associative learning, so they quickly are able to pair the door bell and the door knocking with guests. For other dogs, they may simply dislike when people enter the property or get up to leave.
Some dogs are reactive but settle and become your guest's best friend once the guest is over and welcomed to the house. Regardless, you know you have an issue and you need to work on it, or your guests will stop coming over!
Step 1: Desensitizing to the Door Bell and Door Knocking
So your dog goes into a barking frenzy when he hears the door bell or knocking? Then you may want to start working on this issue right away. Put a leash on your dog so he does not rush to the door and rehearse the unwanted behavior. First, you need to make the noise less threatening though a process known as desensitization, and then, through a behavior change process, known as counterconditioning, you need to change your dog's emotional response towards it.
So how do you make the noise less threatening? You need to find a way to knock without your dog going into a frenzy. Perhaps try knocking on a table, first very lightly and then gradually louder. As your dog does not react, make sure you give a treat right after the knock, so it would be like this "knock, treat, knock, treat, knock treat".
If your dog reacts, you are going too quick in the process and your dog is over the threshold, so make sure you take a few steps back and knock lighter. As your dog gets good at this and after some repetition, something wonderful will happen: at every knock instead of reacting, your dog will look at you for the treat!
The same exercise can be done with the doorbell. Try making the doorbell noise less intimidating, have a helper ring it from a distance while you keep your dog in another room far from it so it's not too loud. Or perhaps, use a recording of a doorbell noise and play at a low volume as the one presented below.
Your goal is "doorbell treat, doorbell, treat, doorbell treat". Do this until your dog starts associating the doorbell noise with the treat. Repeat, several times, and then start working closer to the doorbell or if you are using a recording, play it at a higher volume. Don't be surprised if Pavlov's law starts taking effect; your dog drools at the sound of the doorbell!
Step 2: Desensitizing to the Door Opening
Most likely, your reactive Rover is not only reactive towards the doorbell and knocking but also the noise of somebody opening the door. Enroll a helper and have him repeatedly open and close the dog while your dog is at a distance where he is less reactive.
Have the helper open the door, while you give the dog treats. When the helper closes the door and leaves, stop giving the treats. This training method is known as
As your dog starts associating the opening door action with treats, you can then upgrade to having the helper take a step inside and then leave. At this point, you will give the treats only when the person takes a step inside and stop giving treats when he is leaving. As always, if your dog gets reactive, you are working too fast for his taste, so take a few steps back in the process.
Step 3: Desensitizing to Having People Come Inside
As your dog learns that opening the door makes great things happen, your next step is to have your guest come inside your home. This needs to be done in baby steps. Your guest may need to take just a few steps inside and then leave. Make sure you treat promptly when the guest enters and continue to treat until he leaves. This means you may have to give several treats in a row. If your dog is doing well, then you can progress and have the guest come inside some more.
At a certain point, your guest may be close enough that he could toss your dog a few treats. Have him toss several treats away from him so your dog will not get too close and then get startled. Then when your dog is about to finish the last treat, have him leave. Repeat, repeat, repeat. This will further confirm to your dog that it is the guest that brings great things and that when he leaves all good things end.
At this point, you will have the guest sit down, and your dog can get more treats tossed in the same manner and when he is down to the last treats, your guest can leave.
Once your dog has mastered listening to the doorbell without reacting, hearing the door open without reacting, having a guest takes a few steps inside without reacting and sitting down on the couch without reacting, your next step entails chaining all these behaviors together.
Basically, your guest will ring the bell, open the door, step inside and sit on the couch and toss some treats and then leave when the dog is finishing the last crumbles. Once your dog has graduated to this without reacting, give yourself a pat on the back! But don't sing victory yet; it takes some time to make behavior change reliably, so read on to prevent fallout!
Tips and Warnings to Make Your Program Work
- Use very high value treats. Skip the kibble or dog biscuits. You want soft, bite sized treats that are easy to eat. Hot dogs, freeze-dried liver, tripe or small chunks of chicken work great. The smaller the better, so your dog can eat them quickly and make great associations.
- Use those high-value treats only for these training sessions. This way your dog looks forward to them and the session.
- Keep your dog leashed so to prevent him from rehearsing the barking and lunging behavior. The less your dog gets to rehearse this unwanted behavior, the better.
- Learn how to read subtle signs of stress in your dog.
- If your dog is reactive towards guests walking towards your property or pulling their car into the driveway and car noises, make desensitizing to them part of the program.
- If your dog is reactive towards stimuli at the window, discourage looking out, place a barrier or keep the blinds down or work on counterconditioning him to them.
- If you are into clicker training, play the 'click the trigger" game. Every time your dog sees the door opening or the guest, click and treat. Or try Leslie McDevitt's Look at That game.
- Always work your dog under the threshold.
- Make sure all your guests call you before they come see you so you are ready with the leash and treats and can work at a distance from the door.
- If you feel like you have little control over what the guests do, are caught unprepared or just feel like your dog has a bad day, put your dog in another room and try at another time.
- Work on using less stimulating guests at first. If Scruffy is less reactive towards Aunt Sally use her first, then upgrade to the plumber and finally to the USPS/Fedex guy your dog hates.
- Always end the sessions on a positive note. For instance, if your dog is not reacting to the person stepping in, give a jackpot (several treats raining from the sky) and stop the session. Next time, your dog will look forward to another session.
- Prevent reactivity towards guests by keeping a jar of treats right by the entrance and having your guests deliver them upon coming in. Have the mailman deliver cookies just for your dog.
- Don't rush through the process; slowly and systematically is the right way to go. Behavior takes time to change and will not happen overnight!
- Setbacks are a normal part of the process. You will have days where your dog is more reactive, but if you are consistent and give it time, they should become more and more rare.
- Your dog may not completely settle down once your guest is in the home and may become reactive again should the guest move suddenly, talk louder or get up to leave. If you notice these triggers, work on repeating them and desensitizing and counterconditioning your dog to them.
- To keep up the training practice without making the training session tedious, make short upbeat sessions lasting no more than 10 minutes at a time.
- To be successful, your dog should have more good responses than bad. In other words, your goal should be to have out of 10 knocks on the door, no more than 2 bad reactions.
- If your dog has an "oops moment" and starts barking at the guest, don't have the guest suddenly leave or your dog's barking will be reinforced. Rather, have him stand there and toss a treat only when your dog is quiet and then leave or take a few steps away and continue the process once your dog is calmer.
- To play it safe and have a higher rate of success, enroll a dog trainer well-versed in dog behavior or a reputable dog behavior consultant.
- Make safety your top priority. If your dog is aggressive or has a bite history, consult with the pros and use a muzzle.
Disclaimer: if your dog is aggressive towards guests or has a bite history, don't try this exercise alone and enroll guests putting them and yourself at stake! Rather, please make safety your top priority and consult with a veterinary behaviorist or a certified applied animal behaviorist. By reading this article you automatically accept this disclaimer.
An example of doorbell desensitization
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2012 Adrienne Farricelli
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on June 06, 2016:
Yes, it takes quite some time to work on, the more, the better as it's a strongly ingrained habit. Kudos to you!
Amjane on June 04, 2016:
I have a very territorial 11 month old gsd. She has been going to obedience classes since a small puppy and does really well. She has also been really well socialised outside the home with people, places and other dogs. She is however very territorial at home whenever anyone rings the doorbell and definitely if they come into the house. I have now done 7 sessions of doorbell/treat doorbell/treat starting with a quiet recording and am now using the actual doorbell at regular volume and it's going great so far. I'm preparing myself to be working on this for quite some time though as the most triggering part is yet to come! Thanks so much for your article!
Nancy Yager from Hamburg, New York on November 14, 2012:
I really enjoyed your article and found it very informative.
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on October 16, 2012:
You're welcome! They now make clickers that can be carried around your wrist. I use only these as it requires coordination to have leash in one hand treats in another and a clicker.
Linda Crist from Central Virginia on October 15, 2012:
I appreciate the tip on the kibble and hotdogs. That's one I've never heard so I'll give that a try. I do have a clicker and when Luna was a pup I made a half-hearted attempt at clicker training. I couldn't seem to keep the clicker in one place and could never find it when I wanted to. So, we didn't get very far. I'm afraid I've ruined this little dog. She was my first small dog ever and although she is adorable, it's pretty clear that I forfeited control to her from the beginning. I'll keep you posted on the new efforts. Thanks much!
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on October 15, 2012:
Thanks for stopping by. The treats I use for counter conditioning are so tiny that it would take really a lot to make a dog sick. Alternatively, I tell owners to keep some regular kibble used to feed the dog overnight in the fridge with some hot dogs. The kibble takes the flavor of the hot dogs and the kibble can be used for training rather than feeding the dog for free. If you try desensitizing alone the purpose is to take away the meaning of the knocking, meaning that the majority of all knocks do not lead to guests so they become meaningless and irrelevant. However, I like to power up desensitization with counter conditioning using a clicker so to mark all the calm behaviors. Best wishes and let me know how it goes!
Linda Crist from Central Virginia on October 15, 2012:
lol...will you come train my IG? At 10 years of age, she is probably ruined for life. She adores people and a knock on the door means "oh yeah, someone is here to see me" and the barking will drive you over the edge. I hired to trainers to help me curb this and both gave up. She would behave perfectly for the treats but ate so many that she got sick. lol I may have a hopeless case. But, I am going to try the desensitizing. That's one I haven't tried. Bottom line is, I thought this hub was awesome!
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on October 14, 2012:
Lol! My Rotties used to do that, now after desensitizing them they just whine rather than bark. Many say I have two wasted guard dogs, but I love it cause people see the lack of barking as a sign they are friendly and see them from a different perspective which helps fight breed stereotyping.
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on October 14, 2012:
This means she is way "over threshold" so you need to work with guests at a distance, maybe having them talk in another room and gradually desensitizing to them. You may perhaps need to use a calming aid if the fear is too intense.
wetnosedogs from Alabama on October 14, 2012:
It can be so quiet in the house, then someone approaches the porch and knocks on the door and my dogs are in great song that there is an intruder(to them) outside. They really give me a scare for a minute cause it was so quiet and they don't give me any warning that they will start their own chorus. I have to peek out the window to see if someone actually came on the porch cause I don't hear the knocking.
I would rather they bark and give me warning, but I sure wish I could hear the approach when they do so I don't get that scare out of my wits. Still gotta love 'em
GiblinGirl from New Jersey on October 14, 2012:
My problem is that my dog won't even take a treat when people come over - even extra special stuff doesn't entice her. She just cowers in a corner.