Why do dogs bark at the front door?

Your dog may be excited to greet visitors or alerting you that someone is arriving.  They may have an urge to guard their home or they may be startled and afraid of an unexpected sound.  Some dogs have just copied another dog in the family!   This was the case with my youngest dog Lawrence who only just managed to hone this particular behaviour before my oldest dog, the barker in the family, sadly passed away.  And we are just about managing the legacy behaviour but it’s taken a bit of strategy and patience!

Most dogs who bark at the door have learned that a knock or a door bell means something is going to happen for them e.g. greeting.  If, every time the doorbell went absolutely nothing happened for them they would likely gradually habituate to this noise like most dogs habituate to everyday household noises like a toilet flush or a washing machine on spin.  The problem is often that when they are puppies and we are anxious for them to meet lots of visitors, we end up teaching them that a doorbell means visitors or excitement or some sort of other stimulus for them.

What can you do about it?

The first thing is to double check what exactly is going on.  Does your dog run towards the door in an excited, happy, frenzy or do they run away from it?  Do they ‘trigger’ to the sound of a door bell, a door knock and keys in the door in the same way?  What about if you play the sound of different doorbells on your phone?  Do they carry on barking at visitors as they arrive?  Is it all visitors?  It’s thoroughly worthwhile to get a bit of professional help at this stage … sometimes its hard to really ‘see’ what is going on when it is your ‘everyday’.

First things first, don’t yell or raise your voice.  If you raise your voice you are setting the wrong example to you are dog: you are “joining in”!  Your dog will think that they are on the right track with barking because their owner is also clearly anxious and getting loud.

Next, keep dog below their threshold of anxiety and reaction for 3 – 5 days before any training.  This sounds hard but here are some ideas to manage the practicalities:

  1. Try a note on your front door to redirect visitors!
  2. Change to a different door bell sound, or remove/cover the door bell and ask visitors to knock on a window.
  3. If you have a newer wireless doorbell then move the ringers away from where the dog sleeps, or …
  4. Move where the dog sleeps so they are away from the front door.

This last point is important.  If your dog has access to the front door during the day at the moment, then it would be worth considering moving them toward the back of the house so they are less aware of post coming through the letter box and can’t see visitors arriving.    Make sure your dog has their own ‘safe space’ to retreat to …. This is their space where they have their food and treats and toys.  If you don’t have this at the moment feel free to message me, and see the video at the bottom of this blog.

Finally, you are going to need to stop inadvertently rewarding your dog for barking at the front door.  In fact, for a while, it would be better if the front door, visitors and doorbells were simply something that did not involve them.   All the training in the world won’t work if every so often they bark like crazy at the front door and then they are rewarded by the stimulus, sights, sounds, of visitors.

There are two very different aspects to the training we need to do here:

Training an alternative behaviour

I’d recommend training a down stay on their mat or bed.  You’ll need a training plan and I’d thoroughly recommend getting a bit of support with this bit.  You’ll need to spread the training out into very short fun sessions over a few weeks.  For a down stay to help us with this issue you’re going to need to make sure that it’s ‘proofed’ against distractions and that it works at a distance and for some duration.  These are all things you can practice at home.  It’s better to add these aspects in separately first and keep your training super positive with lots of treats on their mat or bed when they hold their stay.

Here are some ideas to practice:

Distractions – try turning in a circle, bending down to tie your show or doing a star jumps near to them.  Start moving slowly and give lots of rewards.  See if you can walk around them.  Try playing some interesting sound effects on your phone or dropping a toy near them while they are in a stay.  Move on to rolling a toy passed them while they are in a stay.    You might even add in the distraction of a doorbell noise on your phone or the sound of the door of the fridge being opened or moving their food bowls.

Distance – try moving away from them a short distance and return and give them a treat.  Very gradually increase the distance that you move away until you are out of sight for a moment.    You keep yo-yoing back in to give them a treat so its all fairly quick and fun.   Work towards being out of sight for a minute or two.

Duration – gradually increase the duration of the stay while they are next to you on their bed.  If you are watching the TV or working you can put the bed by you and keep rewarding them with a treat between their paws on the bed every few seconds or minutes as they improve.  Work towards a 5 minute calm stay.

Desensitisation training

This is often a tricky one to work with.  For desensitisation to work we need to be able to control the amount of the stimulus of the door knock/bell so that we can start in a really small way.   You need the sound of the doorbell or knock to be so quiet that although the dog may notice he or she doesn’t react.  You may need to get creative.  I’m directly working on this with my youngest dog and here are my tips:

  1. If you have a wireless door bell with a volume control then turn it to its lowest setting or move the ringer into an upstairs room with the door closed.
  2. Take your dog to the back of the garden and have a helper knock quietly on the door.  Mobile phones are great for coordinating this sort of training ?
  3. Start again (we did) – we’ve always had a knocker and now we have a bell just ask your visitors not to do both or you’ll end up transferring the knocker behaviour to the door bell.
  4. Google sound effects of doorbells and visitors.  Start with door bells which sound a bit like yours but not exactly like yours.

It’s critical you start in such a small way that your dog is able to notice AND to stay relaxed.  Repeat the stimulus 5 or 6 times and if they are able to do this you can give them a treat or a play with their toy.  At your next session you can increase the level of the stimulus slightly.

Once you and your dog have a consistently good down stay on their mat or bed you can start to combine the desensitisation and the down stays by having pretend and then actual practice visitor sessions.  You should be able to leave your dog in a down stay on the mat and go and ring the door bell yourself and come back and reward them before you move on to real visitors.

​Remember that there is help available and this is just a phase that you and your dog are going through.