Dog Behavior Problems: Barking and Jumping at the Door

Why does my dog bark and run to the door or window when someone arrives?

Dogs as a species are genetically predisposed to territorial behavior. Barking at the door reflects this tendency. Territorial behavior keeps potentially harmful intruders from getting too close to a dog’s valuable safe space.

The behavior is self-rewarding in many ways. When a shy or cautious dog barks at a passing person and that person moves away, the dog is spared from a close and potentially uncomfortable interaction.

Another common reason that dogs bark at the door, especially very friendly dogs, is because they know that people standing near the door may soon be entering the house. They may even believe that their barking made the door open faster. After all, most people do indeed hurry to the door and open it for their visitor, even while their dog is barking beside them. In this case, barking is self-rewarding because it allows the dog to interact with a friend.

Unfortunately, there are some risks involved with this excited barking at the door. A dog that is overly excited may not calm down quickly enough after the visitor enters and, in their excitement, may enthusiastically jump up and frighten or injure the visitor.

The behavior is self-rewarding in many ways.

Another concern is that arousal can escalate to frustration, such as when the door does not open fast enough. Frustrated dogs may exhibit an aggressive response, either toward a family member who is attempting to restrain them or toward the stranger that enters the home.  

Very shy or fearful dogs may exhibit aggression as well. Fearful dogs learn that their territorial barking will keep strangers away. Their barking may intensify if a person does not move on but instead continues to approach the door. Once the door opens, the fearful dog may become very frightened and could snap or bite, particularly if the visitor reaches toward the dog.

If your dog exhibits a high level of fear or frustration, or if you are concerned that your dog could injure you or a visitor due to his high level of excitement, it is best to consult with a behavior professional who is skilled at using reward-based training techniques.

Can I prevent my dog from becoming overly excited when someone is at the door?

To avoid over-excitement, whether due to frustration or fear, it is important to teach your dog a calm, appropriate behavior in response to the arrival of a visitor. Even though undesirable behaviors such as barking can be modified with training, it is always easier to prevent a behavior from starting in the first place. The key is to consider what you would like your dog to do when he sees a person at the door. You can easily train your dog to exhibit this desired response. This training must occur when your dog is calm (i.e., when no one is at the door).

What if my dog is already jumping and barking at the door?

If your dog has already begun to bark and jump at the door, you can use the same strategy: focus on creating the desirable behavior rather than stopping the undesirable one. You will use a behavior modification technique called response substitution - replacing one behavior with another. Training should occur when your dog is calm. Until training has been completed, it is best to take your dog out of the area when you need to open the door.

What is an example of an alternative behavior to barking and rushing toward the door?

An ideal substitute behavior should be incompatible with the undesired behavior. For example, it is impossible for a dog to lie down on a mat and run to the door at the same time. Indeed, lying on a mat is an ideal substitute behavior.

To begin, when all is calm, train your dog to go to his mat or “place”. When working on door behaviors, the mat should be within view of the door, but several feet away from the door, and slightly out of the path of guests that enter.

The first step in training is to reward your dog for going to his mat and sitting or lying down. Hold a treat in your hand and walk with him to the mat. Don’t introduce a verbal cue just yet, just lure him to the mat, ask him to sit or lay down, and treat. Repeat from different angles. Sometimes walk with him from the entry door to the mat.

An ideal substitute behavior should be incompatible with the undesired behavior.

Once he understands that you deliver the treat when he gets to the mat, he will run ahead to get there as quickly as possible. Now that you can predict his behavior, you can introduce the cue “place”.

Stand with him, a few feet from the mat, treat in hand. Step toward the mat and as he prepares to trot ahead of you, say “place”. Again, practice from different angles. Vary how quickly you give the treat so he understands he must remain in the “place” for 1 to 60 seconds. You may verbally praise him, “good boy, stay”, while he waits for you to deliver the treat.

Finally, send him to his place every time a family member enters the house. Initially, he may be excited and rush to greet the person. Don’t scold him, as he is still learning; just give a quick hello, lead him to the mat, and reward him. It is helpful if one person waits with him by the mat, holding his leash and feeding treats, so he understands that being on the mat when the door opens is a great idea.

How is the alternative behavior used when there is a visitor outside the door?

Until your dog has mastered the alternative behavior of “place”, it may be best to keep him out of the area when you open the door.

Another option is to keep him on his leash, at his place, as described in the previous section. Stand beside him and feed him many treats, whether he is sitting or not, until your guests have taken their seats. Soon, your dog will begin to relax, and you can use a calm tone to praise him and ask him to “sit” for a few more treats.

When he is calm and the guests have settled, you can release him to greet. If you are concerned he might jump up, keep him on leash and walk him over to the guest area.

Can I prevent my dog from rushing to the door or window when there is a delivery person outside?

The same alternative behavior, “place”, can be used to prevent your dog from rushing to the door when he notices a passerby or delivery person. Since these triggers are not usually predictable, you can’t wait with your dog. Instead, if your dog starts to bark, quietly walk to the mat with delicious treats in hand. Do not use any cues, just shake the treat container until your dog notices and rushes over. Then, reward and continue to reward until the stimulus has passed by.

It is fine to give a couple of treats and then fasten a leash to keep your dog from rushing back to the window. When you are busy and cannot train, consider confining your dog in the room, either on his own or with you, so he cannot practice undesired barking. Remember, this behavior is self-rewarding for your dog.

Can I prevent my dog from barking at the doorbell?

Dogs are very smart, and through classical conditioning, quickly associate the neutral stimulus of the doorbell with the arrival of a stranger. This same learning process can be used to your advantage, to teach your dog a behavior other than barking. In fact, the doorbell can become a cue for “place”.

To begin, you must dissociate the bell from the arrival of visitors. It can be helpful to place a sign outside (“Please do not ring the doorbell - text us”) to weaken the association.

Now you can condition the desired response of “go to place”. Ring the doorbell while your dog is nearby and watching. Then, whether he is barking or not, head directly to the “place” with a great treat in hand and reward your dog. Alternatively, you could use a phone app to create a “ring” and then wait at the mat with treats in hand. Your dog will bark, but eventually will stop and notice the treats are waiting for him.

Practice several times daily. Once your dog will “go to place” while you are both near the door, ring the bell when your dog is far from the door. If you have a helper, they can ring the doorbell from outside but should not enter the house. Remember, you want to dissociate the doorbell from the entry of a person.

Keep practicing and eventually your dog will hear the bell and immediately run to the “place” to wait for a treat.

How do I prevent my dog from rushing out the door when it opens?

Many dogs rush out the door when it opens. They know that the outdoors means a chance to play, a walk, or even a car ride. For safety reasons, it is important to teach your dog to wait in his place every time the door opens. If you are taking him with you, go to him while he is in “place”, treat, fasten his leash, and release him to walk out with you. Once you get to the door, ask him to sit, reward the sit, then release him to go out with you.