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Pandemic Pups Learn About Visitors

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Now that vaccination rates are rising, you may be starting to think about having visitors come to your home again. This may be a big surprise for your recently acquired dog.

“It’s the classic pandemic puppy story,” says Beth Harpaz. “My husband and I wanted a dog to bring some joy into our boring pandemic lives.” Lola, a husky mix who was transported from Texas, seemed to adjust well to her very different new life in Brooklyn, playing in the dog park and being around all kinds of people. “Until recently, though, nobody came inside our apartment. But now that we’re vaccinated, neighbors are dropping by and our grown sons are coming over. When anybody’s at the door or in the house, Lola goes nuts barking and jumping,” she says. “We got a warning of this behavior early on when a workman came in the apartment and she went a little crazy, but we thought she’d calm down as more people dropped by. That hasn’t happened. We’d like to have friends over for dinner, but she’s too uncontrollable right now.”

What to do? Fear Free Certified trainer Allison Lamminen says, “I would first want to figure out, ‘Is this dog upset, or just this dog just being a normal dog?’”

We’ve selected dogs for centuries to alert to strange noises and people, so it’s not surprising if they become aroused at the doorbell when they learn what happens next. If that’s all that’s going on, this may be a relatively straightforward problem to solve. However, the behavior could actually be a sign that your dog is less comfortable with people than you realize.

This discomfort may only reveal itself when people come in the house because it’s a restricted space and the dog has less freedom to stay at a distance. It could also be that, as hard as it is for us to grasp, to the dog, people outdoors just aren’t the same as people indoors. “Dogs are really, really good at discriminating and not very good at generalizing,” says Lamminen. “So that’s something we have to help them with.”

In either case, the first step is to figure out how to manage the situation. “If the dog is rushing the door, jumping and lunging at people, we need to manage the situation to prevent that,” says Fear Free Certified trainer Kate LaSala. “Practice makes perfect! If we continue to give the dog opportunities to rehearse unwanted behavior, they’re just going to get better at it.” What’s more, if the dog is upset, overaroused, and doesn’t feel safe, that’s when a bite can happen.

You can use a baby gate or a leash to keep the dog at a distance from the door, or if he’s okay with being confined, it might work to put him in a crate or a closed room, then go get him.  Lamminen says for some dogs it works to go outside and meet the person before they come in. “Come up with a management plan that’s going to work for the individual household and individual dog,” she says.

The approach differs depending on whether the dog really is comfortable with people he encounters elsewhere, and this means something different than owners often think. “People may think the dog is fine because they’re not barking or lunging when that’s not really the case. The dog may be holding it together, and not tipped over so far that they feel like they need to bark or lunge, but that doesn’t mean they’re actually comfortable,” says LaSala. “There’s a big difference between tolerating something and actively enjoying it.”

How to tell the difference? LaSala says that a dog that’s totally comfortable with strangers will actively solicits attention from them. “Is the dog initiating contact? Dogs are social creatures. If they want to have an interaction with us, we’ll know it,” she says. “That’s very different from, someone comes up and asks can I pet your dog, and touches them and walks away and doesn’t get bit. The dog tolerated that person touching them.”

If your dog isn’t initiating that sort of social contact with strangers outdoors, then you’ll need to start by working on how he feels about people outside and work up to the challenge of the home. Starting at a distance is important both for the dog and for human safety. “People think, I’ll have strangers feed the dog when they come in,” says LaSala. “But to hand feed a dog, they have to be really close to the dog. The dog may be conflicted – they really want that chicken but they don’t want to be that close to the stranger – so sometimes what happens is the dog may approach, take the food, and bite the hand.”

It’s best to do this kind of training under the supervision of an experienced professional, but the basic method is to start a people-watching exercise outdoors, starting at distance where the dog is relaxed. Every time the dog notices a person, they get a treat.  The dog starts to learn that seeing a stranger means that they get steak or chicken – something really yummy that they don’t get any other time – and that starts to change how they feel about them.

Gradually, when the dog is comfortable, you get closer. “Then we move to the point where we’re recruiting people as helpers – we may ask a friend, can you stand 20 feet away and toss food to the dog every time she looks at you,” says LaSala. She calls the method “treat and retreat”: “We feed up close, then we toss food back behind the dog, so they retreat to collect that food and it sort of resets the dog, so they’re not just glued to the stranger because they have food.”

Once the dog is perfectly comfortable with that outside, now you can move inside the house – with your baby gate or other management strategy to keep the dog from rushing the door – and repeat the process.

“The baby gate serves two purposes. It prevents the dog from rushing up to the person, but also the person will be less likely to invade the dog’s personal space.”

The exercise will need to be repeated with a number of people – LaSala says at least five to start, then 15 to 20 to really generalize broadly, and they will need to be a variety who don’t all look the same. It will likely take the longest for the dog to calm down with the first person, so choose that helper judiciously; if you can’t persuade that many friends to participate, LaSala suggests hiring dog walkers to help.

What if your dog really does act like she loves everyone she meets outside, but reacts to a knock at the door like it’s a national catastrophe? Don’t blame her; she’s never had to deal with this before. Give her a different way to react.

“So then we work on door manners,” says Lamminen. “Assuming the dog is not upset, just a social dog who wants to say hi, we change the behavior to something that’s incompatible with the behavior of barking and charging the door.” Rather than try to turn an overly excited greeting into a calm one, she suggests teaching them to run to a particular spot or go and wait in their crate when they hear someone come to the door. You don’t even need to teach a cue, she says: “My goal is to teach them that the door bell or the door knocking is a cue in itself.”  

This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.

Linda Lombardi writes about the animals that share our planet and our homes for magazines including The Bark, websites including National Geographic and Mongabay.com, and for the Associated Press. Her most recent book, co-authored with Deirdre Franklin, is The Pit Bull Life: A Dog Lover’s Companion.

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