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Sometimes having a dog that barks when a stranger approach our home is exactly what we want. But what if we actually don’t need a guard dog? Or our dog won’t stop barking at people we invited inside?
When we invite people to visit our home, we them to feel welcome. It can be off putting for them and embarrassing for us if we have a dog that won’t quit barking when we have guests!
In today’s Ask a Behavior Consultant, we have a dog that doesn’t take kindly to strangers in or near his home.
“My dog will bark at every guest that comes. He will always watch the door or lay at a spot where he can see someone enters. When we take him to the backyard and he sees someone, he’ll go crazy. I need help with him to not be so reactive.” – Hostile Host
If you have a dog that won’t stop barking, check out these other training articles from Journey Dog Training:
- My Dog Won’t Stop Barking at the Door
- My Dogs Bark and Go Crazy Whenever Someone Comes Inside
- Why Does My Dog Bark at Me When I Enter the Room?
- Help! My Dog Barks at Every Little Sound!
We are always available to help you with 1-on-1 training over video chat or phone anywhere in the world. We have a team of several trainers and behavior consultants ready to help.
Why is My Dog Barking At My Guests?
Imagine you are afraid of spiders and there’s one crawling on the floor ten feet from you. You’d want to keep an eye on that spider to make sure it didn’t get too close, right? You might feel tense and nervous. The spider is crawling closer and closer to you. You get tenser and tenser the closer it gets.
And at certain proximity, you react! You might yell, jump up, and stomp on the spider. You could interpret that behavior as aggression towards the spider, but the emotion underlying it is fear.
I’m not saying your house guests are creepy spiders… But many dogs bark at guests because they’re nervous about the guest.
Your pup might be fearful of strangers, protective of his home, or he may just have general anxiety that comes out as reactivity when something weird happens.
Understanding the underlying emotion can help us change the behavior (barking) that happens as a result!
Let’s look at some body language to help you decipher if your dog is scared, protective, or just plain loud.
- Scared dogs: they will bark with their head low, tail low, and their weight shifted backwards. These dogs may have their hackles up and will often make darting movements. My dog Niffler does this with some strange men. He might approach them, but his eyes are wide, ears are back, and his weight is in his rear legs. He’s ready to RUN AWAY if need be.
- Confident, protective dogs: these dogs aren’t super common, but your dog could fall in this category if he’s a breed that was traditionally bred for protection. These breeds include many shepherds, Dobermans, livestock guardian dogs, and bully breeds. These dogs will stand tall with their chests up and out. Their eyes will be bright, ears are forward, and they’re ready for action. While these dogs aren’t scared, they still need significant guidance from you to prevent them from “protecting” your house from your guests.
- Plain old barky dogs: this is the second-most common category after the scared dogs. These dogs might have neutral or even friendly body language. They’re simply announcing the presence of a stranger or a change in their environment. My dog Barley is like this; he’ll bark at guests but his tail is wagging hard and he’s quick to grab a toy for them to throw.
It’s hard to tell from a photo, but below are some examples of dogs barking that are feeling different emotions. I’ll do my best to describe why I’m putting each dog in each category
Addressing Different Emotions in Barky Dogs
Now that you’ve seen some examples of the body language dogs may exhibit while barking, it’s time to put that to use. In this section, I’ll cover barky dogs and protective dogs. The next few sections will focus on scared dogs.
Remember that even though this sounds simple, it’s not easy. My clients often understand the steps and execute them well, but struggle anyway. Why? Because we’re trying to fight genetics AND a learning history. Your dog’s ancestors were useful because they barked, and your dog probably has been barking at strangers for a while.
In other words, this won’t go away overnight.
With my clients who simply have barky dogs, I usually teach them a simple protocol:
- When your dog barks, say “thank you, that’ll do” and throw some treats on the ground. Your dog will quickly learn to bark once or twice, then come to you for treats. This allows your dog to alert you to changes in the environment, which many of us appreciate, but eliminates the barking storm.
- If you’d like your dog to stop barking entirely, start trying to catch the moment before he barks. This is most easily done if you have a “helper” to be a “guest,” because if you’re engrossed in work when the Amazon guy shows up, you’re not likely to notice until your dog barks.
- Have your “helper” walk towards your door while you watch your dog. At the moment your dog inhales, puckers his lips, or pricks his ears, say “quiet,” and toss some treats. Repeat. A LOT. Your dog will learn that seeing or hearing a stranger means food, so he’ll start coming to you for treats rather than yelling at the delivery guy.
Now… for our protective, confident dogs. This can be a bit trickier, because here the dogs can have a lot of strong genetic motivations to be alert and protective. Fighting genetics is never easy as a trainer. Things get extra-complicated if your dog is both protective and fearful. In that case, I recommend meeting up with a professional trainer for help to both make your dog feel comfortable AND give him clear instructions.
Generally, though, our protective dogs need some instruction. Simply feeding them treats won’t necessarily help, because they WANT to bark.
Instead, we need to tap into their working dog instincts by telling them that we’ve got a different job for them and that we’ve got the situation under control.
For most of my protective dog clients, I help the dogs learn that a knock at the door or a friendly intruder is a cue to go grab a toy or go to a specific spot. This can be tricky!
If your dog loves toys, simply start knocking on the door and then throwing their favorite toy. Repeat 5-10x. Then place the toy on the ground. When you knock next, tell the dog to get his toy. When he does, throw it. Repeat 10-15x. Next add in other elements of a guest such as the door unlocking, you calling to the door, and a stranger entering the home; use a helper as needed.
If your dog is aggressive towards guests, get professional help before enlisting a helper.
For dogs that aren’t toy-lovers, work on teaching your dog to “kennel up” or similar. Then use the same cue transfer described above.
For many of my clients, we meld all of these tactics together to help the dog learn to bark once (or not at all), then either grab a toy or go to his spot.
Learn to Read Your Dog
Teaching a dog not to bark at guests is a multi-step behavior. By the time your dog starts barking at people, he has probably shown other signs that he’s feeling upset.
If you can learn to recognize the precursors to a reactive outburst, this will help you work on managing and changing the behavior!
Here are some subtle signs to look out for:
- Stiff body posture, leaning forward or on toes
- High-set tail
- Stiff tail wag or tail not moving
- Tightly closed mouth
If your dog does any of these when he sees a person, curbing the barking might be as simple as moving him away or distracting him with a treat.
Anxious Dogs can be Barky Dogs
Sometimes, anxiety-related problems can be diminished or even solved by a few simple changes to your dog’s lifestyle.
Look out for other signs of stress and anxiety and make sure your dog is calm and content in most other scenarios.
If you notice that your dog is often restless or stressed, even when not around guests, here are a few things to try:
- Make sure his exercise needs are being met.
- Take your dog on long walks in nature where he is allowed to sniff and explore.
- Make mealtimes enriching.
- Give him a place to get away.
- Make sure he has space in your home, a bed, crate, or room, to relax and be alone if he needs to.
Teach Your Dog that Strangers Are Not Scary
Desensitization is the process of slowly introducing your dog to a trigger in order to change how he feels about it. This combined with counterconditioning can help your dog learn that guests are great!
What is the most triggering part of having a guest enter your home? Is it the doorbell or a knock? You opening the door and greeting the person? Or the actual person entering the room? Or even when the person “says hi” or attempts to touch your dog?
Break down each of the pieces involved and work on them separately. The most common problem people run into here is that they try to move too fast or add too many steps at once.
Incremental progress will end up being faster in the long run, I promise.
- If your dog barks when there is a knock on the door, start out by knocking softly on a table or the wall and giving your dog a treat. Progress to louder knocks, then to having a person knock from outside (but not enter).
- If he barks when you open the door, practice opening and closing your door (and even greeting an imaginary person). Treat him dog each time the door opens.
- Enlist a helpful friend or neighbor to stand at your door so you can reward your dog for being calm when a person is right outside. Gradually progress to the person taking a step inside and leaving immediately.
- Some dogs are less stressed when greeting guests outdoors. Consider walking your dog around the block with a guest before heading indoors together.
- If your dog continues to startle and bark at guests once they’re inside your house, have your guests stay seated and avoid eye contact. They can toss treats intermittently but do not allow them to feed your dogs by hand. If your guests need to get up and move around, guide your dog away with tasty treats to give them extra space, and feed them while your guest moves around.
- Don’t be afraid to put your dog away with a chew toy behind a baby gate, exercise pen, or even in another room. This break is often necessary!
Eventually, you can combine all these variables, but start with small pieces at first.
Every dog has a threshold at which they will start to react. Figure out where your dog’s threshold is (watch out for the precursor behaviors listed above!) and start by introducing him to things that don’t make him bark. Slowly build up the challenge as your dog learns that strangers are not scary.
Give Your Dog a Place to Relax
Have a dedicated spot in your home, such as his bed, that your dog can go and relax when guests come by.
Teach him that it’s a happy place for him to go when others are present, and make sure your guests know not to interact with your dog when he is on his bed. Karen Overall’s Relaxation Protocol is a wonderful step-by-step process for teaching a dog to relax on their bed.
Ask him to go to his bed when guests are arriving and make sure to reward heavily while he’s there.
If I’m just receiving a package from a delivery person, I usually just close my office door with the dogs inside. Then I walk to the front door, accept the box, and reward the dogs. This is much simpler for all of us!
Should I Stop My Dog From Looking at People?
If your dog barks at strangers or guests, you might think the solution is to teach him to focus on you or correct him anytime he looks at a person.
But preventing your dog from looking at his triggers can make him more fearful.
Let’s think about our spider again. What if there was a spider crawling nearby and you weren’t allowed to look at it?
Would that help you feel more relaxed and less afraid of spiders, or would that make you even more anxious than you were before?
Instead, you can teach your dog the Look at That game pioneered by Leslie McDevvitt in her Control Unleashed series.
Play the Look at That Game
The Look at That Game might seem counterintuitive at first. You are going to reward your dog for looking at people.
Seems crazy, right?
If you reward your dog when he looks at a person before he starts barking, you teach him that people=treats for him!
Teaching your dog that strangers aren’t so scary will help him learn to bark at them less.
This is a great game to play to work on your dog barking out in your yard. Start with your dog on leash in your yard.
- As soon as your dog notices a person, say “yes!” or use your clicker and give your dog a treat.
- If necessary, you can use simultaneously use the treat to lure your dog further from the trigger.
- Once he’s done eating the treat, he will likely look for the person again.
- Mark (with “yes” or a click) every time he looks towards the person.
- After a few repetitions, bring him inside to prevent a reactive outburst.
- When your dog gets really good at this game, try waiting a few seconds after he notices the person before rewarding. Your dog should turn away from the person to look at you because he his expecting a treat.
- Now we’ve created a dog that automatically looks at you when he sees a person instead of barking! Remember to reward heavily if your dog makes that decision.
Troubleshooting: If your dog reacts before you are able to reward, lead your dog away on the leash until they are far enough that he calms down and try again. Your dog can’t learn anything if he’s already over his threshold and reacting to the person!
Should I Use a Bark Collar?
In short… no. We don’t recommend bark collars. We are a Least Intrusive, Minimally Aversive based training group which means that we don’t jump for tools that cause pain, fear, discomfort, or a startle response unless we’ve exhausted ALL other options.
Bark collars work by detecting when your dog barks, then delivering a tingle, vibration, shock, ultrasonic blast, or citronella spray. The goal is to make barking “not worth it” so your dog stops.
However, they often backfire by making your dog more upset or scared. These tools can also mis-detect a bark, shocking your dog just for drinking water if they bump the collar wrong.
I have also personally seen bark collars go VERY wrong. For example, I once saw a young border collie wearing a bark collar in his crate at a dog event. When another dog started barking, the border collie barked back. He was shocked by the collar. He yelped in pain, causing the collar to shock him again. This repeated 4-5 times before his handler was able to come and remove the collar to save the dog from repeated, painful shocks.
Remember, barking is instinctive and natural for dogs. Trying to punish them out of barking isn’t likely to work well.
Barking at guests can be a frustrating habit to break, but have patience and remember to keep your dog’s emotional state in mind. If you can help change the feelings, you can easily change the behavior. Happy training!
Kayla founded Journey Dog Training in 2013 to provide high-quality and affordable dog behavior advice. She is a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant who’s worked with hundreds of private clients, thousands of shelter dogs, and dozens of working detection dogs. Kayla’s dog and cat behavior advice has been featured in NPR, the Chicago Tribune, and Pet MD. She’s an avid adventurer who is currently doing #vanlife on the Pan-American Highway with her two border collies and a cat. Aside from running Journey Dog Training, Kayla also runs the nonprofit K9 Conservationists, where she and the dogs work as conservation detection dog teams. You can get 1:1 advice with a Journey Dog Training team member here.