Thanks to Sharon Alton for this advice page.
Lately, there has been an increase of issues reported on social media about dogs that are running out of the front door to chase the postman, a passing dog or just taking a general wander and sadly in some cases not finding their way back home.
The problem dogs have with postman, delivery drivers and refuse collectors is that their barking is rewarded. Not by you, but by the nature of their jobs. Someone comes into your front garden, your dog barks, the person leaves. They do not understand that person is being paid to come and go. In a dog’s mind, the barking made them leave and thus it is self-rewarding. To them, barking works so they will do it more. Royal Mail has an awareness campaign with some worrying statistics: https://www.royalmail.com/personal/dog-awareness.
For those that like to wander…. let’s face it the front garden is like walking through the wardrobe to Narnia, so many different sights and sounds are on the other side.
The boring bit… the Law
Did you know in 2014 the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 was amended to include incidents on private property – inside your home and others’ homes, including front and back gardens! It doesn’t just apply when you are in a park, but everywhere! A dog doesn’t need to cause damage; they just need to cause worry of injury. At the least, if your postman is worried about injury they can refuse to deliver to your property. You can find out more about this here: https://www.royalmail.com/personal/dog-awareness. At its worst, you may find the police come knocking.
Whilst I would always encourage full health cover for your dogs, Public Liability is a must – the Dogs Trust offer 3rd party Public Liability Insurance for about £20 per year for all the dogs in the home – https://www.dogstrust.org.uk/get-involved/membership/.
OK, your dog may be more of an issue than you thought… now what?
Ideally, I restrict my dogs’ access to the front door, it’s already an exciting place where they go out for walks; we come home from work; visitors come in. I keep it as calm as possible but it is still an area where a lot happens.
A general rule of thumb is to always have at least one barrier between the front door and the dog, whether that be a door or a stairgate. It means that if your guard is down, then accidents can’t happen.
However, it is also useful to teach our dogs that if the door is open, they are not allowed to go through it unless they are told they can: create an additional invisible barrier so to speak. If you are consistent, the dogs will start waiting for that release.
A technique I like is “on your mat,” cheap carpet squares are great for this. Anything that is easy to move around but obvious to the dog. I use this for door control, but if I go away with my dogs. It’s a visible marker which helps the dogs in difficult situations.
Essentially you are teaching impulse control, using stays and a visual aid to help the dog succeed.
If your dog already does a stay, you can introduce the mat and ask them to sit or lie down on it. If they don’t already know a stay, start with that.
- Break it into small steps. Firstly, make sure you have a solid stay position. Ask for a sit or down, and only start adding distance once you can “floss” or something else just as silly next to them before you add in more distance. Constantly returning to them, praising calmly in position and releasing from there.
- Once they have a solid stay, you can introduce the mat, teach them, if I go here good things happen. If your dogs are clicker trained you can ‘freeshape’ this behaviour. If they go to the mat and put one paw on – reward it, if they immediately settle on it, lots of CALM praise, several treats, whatever works for your dog.
- The next step would be asking them to go to their mat and various times during the day in various locations. The mat becomes a fixed point for them where they learn to wait. On the mat means stay on the mat until I come back to release you, which is why I am not using their bed, as they should be able to come and go from their bed.
- After this behaviour is consistent, start putting the lead on (a long line is great for this as you can put in distance and retain control) and ask them to go to the mat and you go to the front door (without opening it), and then return to them rewarding them. Essentially you are teaching them a stay, but here we are using the mat as a fixed go to point. With the mat, you will always go to them on the mat and release them from there.
- Once they are steady with you going to and from the front door, you might wiggle the handle, or turn the lock – this is often a cue to a dog that something or someone might be there. Once you’ve done that return to them and reward the stay position. You might then open the door and close it gradually building up the time.
- Once you have this you can start adding distractions, and eventually the sound of the doorbell.
- Give them a bonus if the go there automatically.
In every step, and every situation it is important to always set them up to succeed. Which means not going through the steps too quickly and whilst your dog is still learning you do not expose them to the issue (i.e. the excitement at the front door.)
Whilst you are teaching the above technique, I would ask my dogs to wait at the door before we go out of it. They are only allowed to pass the threshold when I say my walking word. This is every single time you go out of the door with them. This will help with their excitability levels on walks, if you look back to my blog on leadwork a lot of the issues start here.
I would ring the doorbell at random times and not react to it, ignore the dog’s reaction. A lot of the excitement around the bell occurs because we rush to catch the delivery driver. If 99.9% of the time nothing happens, the dog’s reactions will lessen. Also, look at the tone of the bell. If it is rather abrupt, change it to something softer. Remember that amazon advert – how many of us got up to check the door? How many dogs reacted to that very annoying ding dong?
What about visitors?
If you have a friendly dog, I would still expect manners and some control when they enter a room. It’s quite intimidating if dogs of any size charge into a room barking, regardless of whether it’s excitement or fear. Remember the law above? If they are friendly, ask for a calm behaviour, and reward them with being allowed to say hello.
If you have a nervous dog, I would not ask visitors to give my dogs treats. This puts the dogs in a difficult situation. If they are scared of people and a visitor comes towards them they may bite, regardless of the treat. It also relies on the visitor doing the right thing and understanding your dog’s body language. It puts too much control with the visitor. They are YOUR dogs and therefore it is YOUR responsibility to manage the situation.
As always, train for the situation, teach them what you expect whilst it is easy, when no one else is there. Practice with the lead on. Then ask friends to come over who are happy for you to train your dog whilst they are there. Teach them to settle on their bed next to you. Give them a safe chew or kong to settle with whilst people are there. Your dog will then look to you for support and guidance, not the visitors. Don’t forget to train for the visitors moving around and leaving. We all know our lovely breed often like to see people off. You can use their mat training for coming and going too.
It is more important to ask visitors to completely ignore the dogs and if they cannot, remove the dog from the situation. If your dog is particularly fearful, unless you have an opportunity to train the issue do not put them in the situation.
If you have a dog which you think may charge or bite, do not put them in that situation. The more they practice it, the better they get at it. (Goes both ways I’m afraid). I’d strongly recommend getting an experienced professional to come to your to help you work through this. Please ensure you seek out someone who has experience with the breed and canine behaviour qualifications to support their experience.
Obviously through lockdown we have not had visitors, which means our dogs haven’t been able to practice their behaviour, good or bad. Before submerging them with lots of visitors again, slowly reintroduce them to the world. Whether this is on walks or in our homes. Don’t rush it! It’s a scary world and like us, the dogs need to slowly adapt to the changes.
As always, if you are struggling please seek out a professional who is qualified, experienced and recommended. You may also have cover under your insurance for a veterinary referral to a clinical behaviourist.