How to Stop my Dog from Barking at the Front Door

Picture of a Labrador Retriever puppy

Here’s a scenario.  You are quietly watching television, with Fido sleeping at your feet beside the sofa.  Suddenly he jumps up, gives a howl, and charges across the room to the front door, where he dances back and forth and continues the mournful howl, with loud sharp barks interjected.  Then the doorbell rings.

First of all, how did he know that someone was there?  Secondly, why must he always howl and bark and pace and bark, despite your “Quiet!” or “Stop!”, or “Shut up!” commands?

Well, to answer these questions, let’s pretend that we can put this situation into a freeze-frame, and analyse all the bits and pieces.  What he is doing is what is called “the effect”.  What you need to discover is the “cause” so that you can modify and regulate his behavior to achieve the desired effect.

At first glance, it may seem a non sequitur, but let’s take a look at Fido’s anatomy.  There are two primary senses that are in play here, and both of these have been honed and developed over eons of time, so that today, in this world of 2018, you have a friend and companion who appears to be almost telepathic.

The ear, whether it is long or short, soft or pricked, is an organ that is quite unique.  Fido has two ears, attuned to much higher frequencies of sound than our own, and each designed to funnel any and all sounds into an L-shaped ear canal.  From there the sound waves move to the eardrum and internal structures to activate the vestibulocochlear cranial nerve for delivery of the sound information to the brain.  Contrary to our ears, Fido’s ears works independently of each other, each equipped with 18 different muscles capable of moving the frame of the ear to raise, lower, tilt or rotate1.  So, while Fido appears to be sleeping at your feet, his ears are still receiving information about his environment, and more particularly, to different or unusual additions to that environment.

Put that together with Fido’s sense of smell.  Did you know that a search and rescue dog’s nose is 100 million times more sensitive2 than your nose?  Did you know that there are two types of scent dogs – those who can smell the air and those who smell the ground to track their quarry3?  With the air-scent dogs, there can be issues with the air conditions under which he is called to work but on a “good day” that dog is capable of detecting a scent from more than a ¼ mile away4.  For your information, the record for the longest air-scent is held by a search and rescue dog – he could detect scent over a two mile distance in the Alaska tundra5.   The “search and rescue” dog and Fido share the same general equipment (the nose). Therefore, Fido is more than capable of finding that wiener that you dropped in the backyard at the Saturday barbecue, or your dirty sock that was missed in the wash.  At the time of the scenario “outburst” Fido has already identified that there is someone approaching because he heard the footfall on the porch step, and he smelled the aroma of lunch on your visitor’s shirt, long before you heard the doorbell.

Okay, anatomy lesson out of the way.  There are several reasons why Fido, or any dog, may feel the need to bark continuously, despite your best efforts to quell the noise, or may display the behavior repeatedly, much to your annoyance.  Don’t be annoyed.  Fido is trying to tell you something.  Quick, what is that “something”?  The barking is noisy.  It hurts your ears.

First reason why he barks – he may be joyful at the prospect of having company.  You enjoy company, don’t you?  He is excited that he will be welcoming a friend into your home and wants to announce it.  You can’t tell me that you don’t raise your voice with excitement when you are with friends.

Second reason why he barks – dogs have been living with humans for thousands of years, helping to hunt, to protect, and to keep a watchful eye.  Fido regards both of you as members of the same pack.  Like the musketeers, the pack motto is “one for all, and all for one”.  The “visitor” (whether friend or foe) now stands inside the boundaries of Fido’s home territory.  Now is the time for him to sound the alert (hence the howl) and then act to intimidate and possibly drive the “visitor” away (hence the barking).  This warning bark will have its own tone, pitch, and cadence.  If you are not already attuned to his bark vocabulary, and cannot discern the differences, it behoves you to listen closely and watch his body language.  (On the subject of “body language”, check out Stanley Coren, Ph.D, and his books on animal communication.  He has excellent material and several books (with illustrations) on how to “read” Fido’s different postures).

There are several “barks” from which to choose –

  1. there is the warning, protective bark when Fido senses intrusion or danger;
  2. there is the nervous uncertain low growl when he is uncertain of how to react, or if he wonders if you will take charge of a situation;
  3. there is the excited, playful bark when chasing the ball in the backyard;
  4. there is the “I am happy” bark when he celebrates just being Fido;
  5. there is the painful, mournful bark when injured;
  6. there is the whiny, squealy bark, interspersed with short, sharp yips when he is standing at the back door and announcing that he has to go outside to go potty;  and,

Third reason why he barks – Fido regards you as part of his pack, but he understands that your respective statuses within that pack should be/must be different.  You are the Alpha dog, he is a member of the pack.  Part of the problem with incessant barking is that Fido may not regard you as the Alpha.  Every group needs a leader, and if he doesn’t think that you are fulfilling that role (ie. you stay on the sofa and yell at him to stop barking rather than getting up and going to the door), then he will step up to the “leader position” and take charge of the situation – he is the one at the door, not you.  In his mind, you have relinquished the Alpha position and in order to protect the pack, he must act.

So … back to the “visitor” on the front porch.  Fido is not injured, sick, hungry, or in need of a bathroom break.  He is not happy, he is on guard.  He is not being playful, he is performing his job of protecting, and so we have the warning bark.  How do we modify his behavior to a more acceptable action?  We modify him by modifying you.

If you had the good fortune to have raised Fido from a puppy, the barking/protection activity modification was probably part of your basic commands and training.   It would have involved teaching puppy Fido to pay attention to you and your commands.  You would have taught him to be a good soldier to your General.  If you have adopted Fido from an animal shelter or a rescue group, you probably won’t/don’t know what background or history he has had with training commands.  Don’t despair.  You should embrace this new opportunity to re-visit those initial training techniques.

I am making the assumption here that the visitor is “friend”, not “foe”.  If “foe”, then you should not object when Fido raises his howl or barks.  If ultimately you need help, then his alert will notify the neighbours, who will come to your rescue or contact additional personnel.

There is nothing better than a polite dog at the door.  There is nothing better than an owner who values Fido for doing his “job”, that he wants to protect his family and is therefore raising the alarm.

Owner, the first thing to do is to appreciate his action and praise him – “Good boy”, “Well done”, and then display your Alpha position by touching him lightly on the head and telling him “Thank you, I will take care of this now”.  This requires you to get up and off the sofa and come to the door.  Fido will realize that the onus of responsibility has now passed from him to you, and you are willing and capable of acting further.

Ask him to sit by giving a clear, firm but gentle command “Sit!”  When he sits, praise him again with “Good boy, Fido.  Good sit”, and reward his compliance.  The nature of the “reward” will vary with Fido, but generally it takes the form of a food reward (a treat), a gentle pat on the shoulder or an ear rub, or giving him his favorite toy.  As an aside, note two things – 1.  the change of position from standing to sitting  puts Fido into a more submissive position to you and the situation.  Dogs typically do not bark when seated, they do bark when standing;  and, 2.  with his mouth full of treat or toy, he can’t verbalize as much.  The “results” that we were aiming for – Fido being recognized because he raised an alert, and was thanked for it; and, him not only receiving verbal recognition, but a reward as well, a reward that is suited to him, makes him feels very special.

Now, you have him sitting, and he has been rewarded.  The “visitor” is still at the door.  Next step – you want to ensure that once he has swallowed the food treat, or has tired of holding his favourite toy, he does not start the stand-and-bark routine again.  You give him another command.  That command is “Wait!”  This command means that he remains in the seated position, with his eyes and attention focused on you.  With some training (and this may take a few sessions so don’t get discouraged) he will hold that position until you release him.  The idea here is that when he hears the command “Wait!”, he will do just that – wait – until you tell him what his next task will be.  Remember, you are the General, he is the soldier.  In the meantime, you can go to answer and open the door, greet the “visitor”, and invite him/her into your home.  When Fido sees (from his seated position) that the visitor is “friend”, and especially if the visitor is invited to acknowledge Fido’s presence and address him with a “Good wait, Fido”, then Fido will understand that his circle of the “pack” has been expanded for another person.  Fido is watching you all the time.  When you greet your visitor with warmth, then Fido will take his cue from you – okay, master has a visitor, visitor is being welcomed by master, visitor must be okay, now I can go back to my nap while they are talking – and on your release word, Fido will likely retire to a quieter spot to continue his nap routine.

I think that I can anticipate your next question – how long is all of this going to take?  I can’t leave “visitor” on the porch forever!   Well, in actuality, this whole performance, from the time that Fido dances at the door to you getting off the sofa and giving the acknowledgements and the rewards, to when the visitor comes through the door and acknowledges Fido as well, it may take upwards of 20-30 seconds.  Not a long time, but it has a huge impact on the general sanity of your household.  Oh, and a quick tip – always have a “Fido jar” by the front door, to be able to quickly have the necessary “treat” on hand for just such an occasion.  When Fido knows that it is there, he will work to justify the reward that is inside.

Always remember, dogs will display characteristics of their ancient wolf ancestors.  Protecting his pack is a high priority.  Take the time and the interest, and spend a little cash if necessary, to learn the proper protocols for some basic commands, instructions that will enhance Fido’s behaviors and will magnify the bond between you and him.  He will always have your welfare at heart, make sure that you help him to be the best that he can be.





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