Your dog barks at the door: is it a problem?

The first thing to think about is the extent of the problem, and whether it’s a problem at all. The way to measure this is:

  • Why is my dog barking? Is he scared, anxious, excited, or simply alerting me to someones presence (or a combination of these emotions).
  • How does my dog react to the person at the door? Evaluate in similar ways to the previous point, and also consider things like jumping up on the person or knocking over a kid.
  • Does my dog dash out the door, or stay.
  • Most importantly, does your dog listen to anything you say in this location.

Also factor in the positive, that the barking itself is actually a good thing too. Studies, and interviews with the unscrupulous, have proven that barking dogs deter people from breaking into homes. It makes sense: why would a thief break into your house if they can go to another one without a potential danger and noisemaker. I feel much safer with my barking dog in the house, and a trainer friend of mine had to actually train her dog to start barking at the door. I don’t want my dogs to stop barking, and was actually quite pleased when a UPS man laughed at little 27 pound Mort and said the most wonderful words that were music to my ears “Your dog is THAT? He sounds bigger than my 80 pound pit bull behind that door!”

However, I also don’t want Mort to freak out people who want to deliver something there, either.

The door is a lot more than just a door

Sometimes great things are delivered to the door!

Sometimes great things are delivered to the door!

Remember: the door is a loaded location. It carries a lot of meaning in the mind your dog that may include one or more of the following:

  • it leads to the exciting outdoors
  • it means a potential intruder is coming into the house
  • it means an exciting friend appears
  • it means you throw food at them
  • it means a box that sometimes had food is given to us
  • it lets smells come in
  • once a cat walked by, maybe it’s there again (!)
  • hey, a person is there – you should know! (thousands of years of dog-ism prompts your dog to tell you this – and this trait is typically very useful)

So trying to accomplish training, or a behavior adjustment, at the door can be difficult. As such, you may need to start away from this location and work up to training at the door. Lets go over things you can try to adjust your dog’s behavior around, and attitude to, the door.

Your dog barks at the door: things you can do to help

The box is important, but how about you chill for awhile and learn to relax.

The box is important, but how about you chill for awhile and learn to relax.

If you haven’t already, work with your dog when no one is at the doorway at all. Start with things he knows well, and progress to training things like waiting when the door is open until you say he can pass through, backing up through the doorway (walking backwards), or whatever else you can think of that involves body and impulse control. “Down” and “wait” are important and useful commands to work on in this location for safety and control.

Progress to “people” at the door (partner with someone else from the household where you go through the door!), even simulate the knocking sound and train with that with no one at the door.

Working at the door when someone arrives
Keep in mind I’ve only had one dog to work with on with this. My other dogs don’t bark or even go near the door when it opens. But these are some things that worked for us (and we’re working on again after a setback, detailed below). Also keep in note that Mort is a fearful dog. His issue with the doorway started when a very tall friend of ours, who has a very theatrical voice, spooked him at a young age (around 8 months old). An unfortunate combination of lighting and poor planning when we arrived home. He is also instinctually territorial (aren’t they all? He has a strong dose of this though!), a fire dog, dramatic drama queen, and easily frightened. Anyway, since then he has felt the need to fear people at the doorway and keep them out, and it has been my job to teach him that he doesn’t need to – I take charge of the situation.

  • Tone of voice: I use a very calm, yet firm, tone of voice. I keep in mind the meme “Calm the f*** down. I got this” and use that tone and demeanor. It’s not mean, not punishing, it’s simply calm and matter-of-fact: “Thanks bud. I have this. You go right here, and I am opening the door.” Doesn’t matter what you actually say, but make sure your tone is calming and ensures that the excitement dissapates, whatever the cause is. And that you mean business, it’s your door, and you have been sufficiently alerted to the presence of the person.
  • Body language: I make sure to push the shoulders back and check my posture to match the message above.
  • Location: I make sure to tell Mort to go behind me. This, I think, solidifies the message that it’s my door and I’m in control of the situation. Because he’s fearful, I believe this also helps calm him down further. I can also use my leg to block him if he starts thinking about moving through the door towards the person.
  • Lots of eye contact: I always keep him in my peripheral vision at the very least or listen for movement. If he moves even a bit, I remind him “I got this.” It’s a loaded location, so many reminders are needed in our situation.

Depending on the extent of your problem, you may want to remove your dog from that location entirely. And for these tips to work above, you do need to have a pretty strong bond/relationship to make it work – your dog has to be able to read your emotions, body language, and respond to it. If you choose to move your dog to a new location and not have him at the doorway (this is a good choice), have a large bone, chew toy, or bully stick available. Train your dog to take that item to a different location when the doorbell rings (mat, crate, ex-pen, another room, tie-down – anything away from the door).

But I’m worried about (insert worry here)

Dogs can be intense. Others are laid back. Work with the characteristics of your dog… they’re all different.

If you are worried about door dashing, your dog nipping at or biting someone, or anything to do with your or your dog’s anxiety levels: use management. In other words, use tools like a crate, leash, or other room to keep everyone safe. Only when that worry is gone would I attempt training right at the door when a person is there. Work with no-one present, have your dog relocate elsewhere when the doorbell rings, and then take baby-steps using some of the ideas above before you reach training at the door when someone arrives.

And setbacks happen. I recently had a big setback after months of slow counter-conditioning with my firey dog, Mort. We do not have many visitors, ever, so our only practice is with delivery people. Fortunately, our most common delivery person is a very kind and patient USPS carrier and after a lot of work Mort would stop barking and somewhat patiently stand behind me as I accepted a package. One day, our USPS delivery person was a different carrier filling in… and she glared at Mort (who was patiently standing behind me but emitting a few woofs because the person was a stranger) and then she said “you DONT HAVE TO BARK you know!” in a stern voice… and we were back to square one. Which is OK, because life happens.

Your dog barks at the door too – Have your own training tips? What worked for you?

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About Author

Jen deHaan is graphic designer, small business owner, and dog person living in Bay Area, California. Jen enjoys learning about dog training and behavior, and has taken several courses and seminars since 2010. She also contributes articles to leading websites, such as Victoria Stilwell's Positively . It all started with a great dog called Mikey (aka "dude"), loved and lost but remembered forever. Jen also runs a freelance business focusing on graphic, web, and UI design at FoundPixel, and a small business creating hand crafted dog products at Stylish Canine.