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How to Help Your Nervous Dog Meet House Guests

How to Help Your Nervous Dog Meet House Guests

Most dogs bark when the doorbell rings. Ideally, once the guest walks in and says hi, all the excitement stops. However, this isn’t always the case. Some dogs remain fearful and nervous when strangers, or even familiar people, come over. These dogs might continuously bark, growl, snap, or even lunge at guests.

Yelling at the dog won’t work. Instead, we need to create a less stressful experience to help your dog become familiar with your guest and start to feel more comfortable.

I developed the following protocol to help me enter clients’ homes and work with their dogs. This method has allowed me not only to enter the home and gain the dog’s trust but also to set a foundation for future greetings. I once had a client who was amazed that I could sit in their living room for 10 minutes after their dog had chased out the previous trainer!

The idea behind this protocol is to build predictability and positive associations. It may take multiple introductions with the same person before your dog can generalize the protocol to other people. Start with someone your dog is already comfortable with. When practicing with new people, ensure they will follow your instructions and won’t take offense to your dog growling. We all know that one person who will make matters worse by taunting the dog or pushing themselves onto your dog. This is not a time for politeness! Quickly stop that interaction because your dog’s behavior depends on it.

Keep in mind that this is a general protocol and may need to be modified for your specific dog and situation. These are just beginning steps. More work will be needed to phase out the walk and wean off the leash indoors.

Generally, I visit a dog THREE times before phasing the walk out. The first visit builds trust; the second validates that trust; the third cashes in on the trust by making contact and petting.

The Greeting Protocol

  1. Prepare High-Value Treats:
    • Leave high-value foods/snacks on the front porch or at a designated meeting spot for your guest.
    • Ask your guest to call or text you upon arrival instead of ringing the doorbell or knocking. They should grab the treats and have a handful ready to toss.
  2. Meet Outside:
    • Meet your guest outside with your pup on a leash. Instruct your guest to toss treats AT your dog or right in front of your dog, avoiding direct hand-feeding.
  3. Go for a Short Walk:
    • Walk together and watch for signs your dog is relaxing, such as stopping to “eyeball” your guest, engaging with the guest, or sniffing the environment. Your guest should continue tossing treats at or in front of your dog, allowing the dog to eat from the ground.
    • If your dog tries to get treats straight from the person, the guest should hold treats at their side for your dog to grab. This is NOT an invitation for your guest to pet the dog.
  4. Enter the House:
    • When your dog seems more comfortable, attempt to walk into the house together and take a seat in your usual visiting area.
    • Keep the leash on your dog but try to keep it loose. Instruct your guest to continue tossing treats either at or away from your dog. The goal isn’t to use treats as a tool for coercion. Instead, if your dog grabs a treat tossed away and then voluntarily returns to your guest, it shows progress!
  5. Evaluate Body Language:
    • If your dog sniffs your guest, assess their body language. If the neck is stretched out and the dog keeps their feet as far away as possible, the guest should stay still and relaxed. If your dog gets in people’s faces and barks, call them back to you and use the leash to help.
  6. Positive Interactions:
    • If your dog walks up to the person and looks relaxed, the guest can offer a treat with an open hand (without bending over or reaching out). If your dog takes the treat and runs, more time is needed. If they take the treat and eat it next to your guest, the guest may try to pet under the chin, not over the head.
    • You can consider taking the leash off if your dog seems comfortable. Usually, the same person needs to visit 2-3 times before reaching this step.
  7. Managing Movements and Noises:
    • Be aware of your guest’s movements and loud noises. Pair these situations with food. Instruct your guest to toss a treat away when they stand or move, so your dog can focus on the treat.
    • Have your guest drop treats behind them or toss at your dog as they move around the house.
  8. Take Breaks:
    • Don’t be afraid to give your dog a break in a different room with a chew or toy to de-stress, especially if your guest plans to stay a while. Staying in an uncomfortable situation can be frustrating and might lead to your dog hitting a threshold.

Session Duration:

  • 20-30 minutes is a good length of time for each session. It’s better to end the session too soon on a good note than too late after your dog has a negative reaction. This allows you to relax and enjoy your guest’s company.

Track Progress:

  • Take notes on how your dog acts in each stage and note what worked and didn’t work. Consider doing this protocol once or twice with someone your dog has already met and is comfortable with, so your dog doesn’t become suspicious when meeting a stranger.

Good Luck and Happy Training!