Alert Barking!
with Tressa Fessenden-McKenzie of PathandPaw, Training Advocate

Someone is at the door! For a brand new puppy, a doorbell or knock at the door means nothing. But over time she learns that this noise precedes a VERY EXCITING EVENT. A person entering the home! Depending on the dog, this may be a happy moment or a concerning moment, but both can produce barking. 


If the behavior is coming from excitement, think about what is reinforcing this behavior - often it is attention. Person knocks on the door, dog barks, door is opened and person enters and pets dog. Will barking happen again next time? You betcha! 


You can work to replace this barking with an alternative behavior. Initially you’ll teach this behavior using the reinforcer you usually use during training (ie treats), but eventually you can fade the use of food and let the greeting (what was initially reinforcing the barking) reinforce the new, preferred behavior.  To do this, you first need to teach the new behavior (for example going to a mat) separate from the trigger (person at door). Then you can begin to add in the knock or bell sound as a new cue for that behavior. New cue, old cue. So with the help of a friend or family member, have someone knock, immediately give the cue for the alternative behavior, and reinforce. Repeat this and slowly fade out the cue for the behavior until the knock or bell sound elicits the alternative. 


You’ll need to practice quite a bit before you can use it “in real life” as opposed to during a training set up. If your dog slips up and goes back to barking, no need to correct or punish the behavior, just make sure it’s not reinforced. Wait until she is quiet and calm before letting your guest in, and especially before letting your guest give her attention or pets! 


 

If the behavior is coming from fear or concern, then you’ll need to work on counter-conditioning. Again, using a helper to create a scenario that you have control over (vs. waiting for the opportunity to occur naturally, when you may not be prepared) pair the sound of the knock or bell with delicious food. For some dogs, you may need to start with more subtle sounds - like the sound of footsteps outside - before  moving to an actual knock. You can also use a recording of a knock or doorbell with the volume turned down initially. 


When you’re working on counter-conditioning, you’re looking for a conditioned emotional response. Usually this means that the once scary stimulus (knock on the door) elicits a response of “hey, where’s my food” (which often looks like the dog making eye contact with their human) instead of the fear response. This can take quite a bit of time! In order to make it most effective, it’s best to reduce the occurrences of the dog experiencing the trigger in an uncontrolled way. So one idea would be to write a note on your door for people to please not knock, but rather to text you when they arrive.


If you have successfully counter-conditioned, you can then also teach an alternative if you’d like!