by Judith Bell, Certified Professional Dog Trainer and BAT Trainer
I read your article last week about how to teach a proper door greeting with visitors. But what can I do about how my dog acts when I come home from work? When I open the door he lunges at me and barks, begging for attention. How do I manage this behavior?
I think one reason people have dogs is because they are always glad to see us, no matter how long we’ve been gone. We walk in the door and are greeted with pure elation. I’m sure if we could interpret what they are saying it would sound something like, “My God, I thought you’d never come back! Where have you been? What did you eat? Have you been seeing another dog? You look thin: here, let me make you a sandwich. And then please make me one.”
My questions to you are: How do you act when you come home from work, and what is your greeting to your dog like? Most of us feel appropriately guilty for leaving our dogs home all day while we work to buy more dog food. So, when we get home we tend to indulge our dogs with enthusiastic greetings of, “Daddy’s home! How’s my poor puppy? I’m so sorry I left you for so long!”
One of the best ways to help a dog develop separation anxiety is to make your departures and your homecomings emotional dramas. We depart with expressions of love and sorrow at having to walk out the door, leaving them to spend the day worrying about our return, especially if they don’t have anything else to occupy their time. I can see them pacing back and forth, wringing their paws, worrying about where we are.”
The first step to fixing the problem is to make your departures and homecomings as low key as possible. A quiet “See ya” or “Watch the house” as you leave is sufficient. When you get home, you’ve got to stop reinforcing the uber-enthusiastic greetings by not paying attention to them. That means you walk in the door with your briefcase in front of you and go right past your dog with no eye contact, no verbal greeting. It will be difficult at first because your dog will wonder why his behavior is not working, and he might try a little harder. You must be strong. Believe it or not, there will come a moment when he keeps all four feet on the ground and you can quickly and quietly—and I stress quietly—greet him. If he begins jumping and barking again, you turn around and walk away. Once he figures out he doesn’t get attention for his unruly behavior, it will begin to extinguish. But there is more work for you to do.
Wouldn’t it be great if your dog sat patiently when you opened the door and walked in the house? Trying to teach him to sit in the middle of an enthusiastic greeting is next to impossible. So start practicing sit-stays with him at the front door. Once he’s doing a good job with no distractions, start opening the front door and closing it while he maintains his sit-stay. His reward for doing this half a dozen times is his favorite high-value treat or a game of ball or tug with you.
Over the next several days start walking out the door and coming right back in as your dog sits and stays. Don’t even close the door; just walk out and then come right back in. Give lots of rewards and quiet praise as you’re working on this. You want to get to the point where you can walk out the door, close it, and come back in while your dog is still sitting. Also practice walking out when your dog isn’t sitting and then coming back in and asking him to sit. You want him to get to the point that whenever anyone comes in the front door he automatically sits. This may take a while. It’s difficult to squelch enthusiastic greetings, especially if they’ve been reinforced before. So make sure you are reinforcing the behaviors you like, using high-value treats in the beginning. And any kind of jumping or barking makes the treats and you, the dog’s biggest reward, go away.
Now is also the time to develop the “homecoming ritual” for you and your dog. When you are trying to extinguish a behavior, it helps to teach your dog an alternate behavior that prevents him from doing the one you find offensive. What is it that your dog loves more than you? I know, it’s hard to imagine there could be anything. Is it a bully stick, a stuffed Kong, a tennis ball thrown down the hallway, a game of tug? Or maybe it’s just a handful of dog food thrown behind him that he’s got to go “find”? You want your dog to learn that when you come home he has to sit and not jump, because if he does something wonderful happens, like Dad pulls a giant bully stick or antler out of his pocket. If your dog is running down the hall with his latest gift from Dad, he can’t be jumping on you.
Bella, the beautiful Saluki who lives with me, is an enthusiastic greeter. When we first got her she would leap full force and put her front paws on my shoulders to greet me. I’m tall, and Bella and I were nose to nose. Although I found it an endearing gesture, I didn’t want her greeting everyone who came to the front door that way. So I put the behavior on cue. I taught Bella that “give me a hug” meant she could put her front paws on my shoulders. Now when I come home with my arms full of groceries, I don’t ask for a hug until I’ve set things down on the counter. And then I indulge in Saluki love.
Send your questions with photos to firstname.lastname@example.org.
“The great pleasure of a dog is that you may make a fool of yourself with him and not only will he not scold you, but he will make a fool of himself too.” —Samuel Butler
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Photos courtesy of carterse, Nicholas Wang, and Williami5.