The Halloween tradition of trick-or-treating can be great fun for all involved, with everyone dressing up in an attempt to scare their neighbours for a light-hearted giggle. However, those knocks at the door can set off a chorus of unwanted barking in our pet dogs.
We’re all familiar with dogs barking at the postman: barking at the door is an incredibly common behaviour in pet dogs, and can happen for a handful of reasons. For example, your dog may simply be alerting you, or they may be worried by someone they don’t know. Whatever the reason, the way to get them to quiet down is the same.
Before you start the training, it’s important to remember that management is key. This means that you want to prevent your dog from barking in the first place, whilst you start to change their behaviour longer-term. This is even more important on Halloween, as lots of knocks through the evening can make the reaction worse and worse, in an event known as trigger-stacking. The best way to do this is to mask the sound of the door knock by playing the radio or the TV at a relatively loud volume. If possible, put more distance between the door and your dog, by closing internal doors or using baby gates, to keep your dog at the other side of the house. If you have a doorbell, it may be wise to change the tone for the evening as your dog shouldn’t have learned what that new tone means yet. Likewise, if your dog is able to see people approaching your house through the window, try closing your curtains or installing some frosted window stickers to limit the visibility.
If you have chance to do some training before the big night, you can follow the steps below to help your dog stay calm when the doorbell rings.
Step 1) The doorbell, or the knock, should predict good things.
This is mainly to help those dogs that are worried about someone being at the door, as it makes the doorbell more of a good thing. However, it’s also very effective for frustrated dogs, as it teaches them to look to you when the doorbell sounds. First, record your doorbell, or the sound of someone knocking at your door, so you can play it easily. Then, play it at a medium volume. As soon as the sound plays, regardless of what Fido is doing, throw something super tasty (such as cubes of JR pate) in front of him so he can see it and eat it. If he’s seen it and is ignoring it, it’s likely that the sound was too loud and he’s become over-excited – wait a few minutes, turn down the volume and try again.
Over a couple of sessions, you should be able to gradually turn up the volume until the sound is playing at a real-life level. Remember, keep your sessions to no longer than 5 minutes, and end with a game (such as tug-of-war) to maximise your dog’s learning. You can repeat this several times throughout the day.
Once you’ve done a couple of sessions at full volume, see if it’s worked! Just play the sound but, this time, hesitate before throwing a treat down. If your dog is ready, he will look to you as if to say, “where’s my treat?”. If he does, throw a treat down once he looks to you. If he doesn’t, keep practising for a few more sessions until he does.
Step 2) Turn the doorbell into a cue
Once your dog is willingly giving you their attention when the doorbell sounds, you have a valuable opportunity to ask them for a behaviour you’d like instead of the barking. My favourite is to ask the dog to ‘go to bed’, which means that the dog trots off to their bed and lies down. If your dog doesn’t know this yet, opt for something that they do know and can do easily. For some dogs, this may be a ‘down’, others may need something easier like a ‘sit’ or a ‘watch me’.
At this point, your sequence should look like:
- Play the sound
- Dog looks to you
- Ask dog to do something else
- Dog does what you asked him to
- Throw a treat to your dog
This next step will vary depending on how much time (and patience) you have. If you don’t have much time, go to Step 3a. If you have more time and want to get fancy with it, head to Step 3b.
Step 3a) Confine your dog away from the door
Just like with humans, giving your dog space from the object causing them distress (whether it be frustration or anxiety) helps them to keep calm more easily. Now your dog is able to focus on you when the doorbell sounds, you should be able to direct them into a specific room, away from the door, before asking for whatever behaviour you’re asking for. On nights like Halloween, when you expect loads of visitors, it may be best to keep your dog in this room for the evening.
Your new sequence will be:
- Play the sound
- Dog looks to you
- Call dog into a room of your choosing
- Ask dog for the behaviour you picked earlier
- Reward your dog
- Close the door to your dog whilst you answer the front door
- Return to your dog as soon as possible
If you know you’re expecting a lot of knocks in a set time period, such as 7-8pm, it’s a good idea to give your dog a stuffed KONG or a chew in this room to keep them busy. This way, you won’t need to keep going back to them every single time the doorbell rings.
Step 3b) Teach your dog to wait whilst you answer the door
This is much harder than a standard ‘wait’ cue, because you’re asking your dog to use every inch of impulse control they possess to stop them leaping up to bark at the door. The closer you get to the door, the more tempting this will be for them!
You want to start this part of the training right next to your door. Play the sound, wait for your dog to look to you, and ask for the ‘down’ or other behaviour you chose earlier. Pause for a second, and the reward. Next, do the exact same thing: only, this time, get your dog into the ‘down’, and then reach your hand to the doorknob. If your dog stays still, reward them. Next time, move your hand a little further, so you’re grasping the doorknob as if you were about to open it. Reward your dog if they stay still. The next step is to open the door – just a crack. Again, reward your dog if they stay still. Next up, open the door a little further, then reward. Keep going in these small increments until your dog is capable of staying still whilst you fully open the door, chat to the empty space on the other side (we’re all mad, here), and close it again. If at any point your dog breaks their position and gets up, you’ve gone a little too far – simply go back a couple of steps and practise until they can do it.
Once you’ve mastered this, you want to make it more realistic by adding some distance. Start with your dog a metre or so away from the door, and repeat the above. You may need to start the process by simply moving a step away from your dog and towards the door, then rewarding, to help your dog get it right.
Depending on the dog, this can take a little while to master. But, when you get there, all of your visitors will be so impressed with how well-behaved your pup is! Just remember to keep rewarding your dog for staying still.
Have a go, and let us know how you get on down below! We’d love to see photos of your good doggos this Halloween.