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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!
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 more and more tense the closer it gets.
And at a 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.
Hopefully your house guests aren’t spiders! But reactive dogs, including a dog that barks at guests in the home or outside, are feeling anxious. He 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!
Learn to Read Your Dog
Reactivity is a multi-step behavior. By the time your dog starts barking at people, he has probably shown other signs that he’s feeling nervous.
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.
Is My Dog Always Anxious?
Sometimes, anxiety-related problems can be diminished or even solved by a few simple changes to your dogs 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?
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.
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!
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 so he can run towards the trigger.
- 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!
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!