Adrienne is a certified dog trainer, behavior consultant, former veterinarian assistant, and author of Brain Training for Dogs.
Why Is My Dog Barking at Family and Friends?
Did you recently add a new dog to your home and is your dog barking at your husband, daughter, or son? Did a new boyfriend or girlfriend move in and now your dog is barking at him/her the moment he/she comes into the house or in the room your dog is in? If so, rest assured that you are not alone. Countless dogs are uncomfortable when new people enter their homes!
Even though dogs do not go through divorces or need to balance their checkbooks at the end of the month, changes can stress them out. Many people assume that dogs that are barking at people who are walking into the room or through a door are doing so because they want to be "in control" of who comes into their perceived "territory." However, behind what looks like a bold dog engaging in territorial aggression is often a fearful dog who is simply feeling unsafe.
Unfortunately, this misinterpretation often only makes matters worse. Some people may feel like they "must challenge the dog" by moving into its space and waiting for it to back down. This approach only increases the dog's fear and the dog may feel even more motivated to bark/lunge/growl more in the future because this person has now proven to them that he/she is truly scary and untrustworthy. Not to mention that cornering a fearful dog can result in defensive biting!
When Comfort Zones Are Invaded
The truth is, dogs seek security and peace in the home just as humans do and there is nothing worse than not being able to relax because a particular person makes dogs uncomfortable and nervous. These dogs may not get the restful sleep they need and they may never really fully relax.
It doesn't take long for dogs to learn to use their barking behaviors to let a particular person know they are getting too close for comfort. Fearful dogs will therefore often lunge, bark, growl and show their teeth to inform that they do not appreciate having their personal spaces invaded by a particular person/persons.
For sake of comparison, let's imagine for a moment that you are scared of mice. Just the mere thought of seeing a mouse is terrifying to you, and if you happen to see a mouse, you stomp your feet and make a hissing sound to send the mouse away.
If this helps in sending the mouse away, most likely you'll keep on doing the stomping and hissing behavior because you don't want mice near you! So soon this becomes your default behavior when you see a mouse approach. Did hissing and stomping your feet though teach you to like mice more? Most likely not, you'll still think mice are scary creatures and you'll just keep doing these behaviors to maintain distance from these critters.
What Is Negative Reinforcement?
In the same way, dogs who are fearful will often revert to their barking/lunging/growling because it is highly reinforcing. For science junkies out there, looking for an explanation, it's a matter of negative reinforcement. The behavior of barking/lunging/snarling is reinforced because it makes the "bad person" that makes them feel uncomfortable or "unpleasant situation" go away.
Now, of course, no bad feelings should be taken if your dog categorizes someone as "bad." It's not that your dog really thinks this person is really bad as we perceive it, it's just that, likely, this person may have inadvertently startled the dog at some time. This can be anything, from carrying large tools in the house to coughing loudly or sneezing to simply having an appearance the dog feels intimidating (high stature, facial hair, wearing hats or sunglasses, moving fast, loud footsteps, etc.).
Back to being terrified of mice, how would you feel if one day, upon seeing a mouse, a 20 dollar bill magically fell from the sky? At first you probably would be surprised and may think it's just a mere coincidence, but what if this reliably happens EVERY single time? Every time a mouse appears,a 20 dollar bill falls down. Hmmmm, at this point, most likely mice are starting to become appealing!
Classical Conditioning and Desensitization
At closer scrutiny, what has likely happened in this scenario? In this case, mice, which had a history of eliciting a negative emotion, now have come to elicit a positive emotion, for the simple fact that mice have started to predict the money. In behavior terminology, we call this "classical conditioning," which along with desensitization, can be a very powerful behavior modification tool.
Desensitization means in layman terms "to make less sensitive". Back to the fear of mice, would you feel better if you were immersed in a room full with mice or if you were given time to get used to being around mice in a step-by-step gradual approach? Most likely, the latter. Overcoming fear takes time and requires baby steps meaning that we are exposed to less intense versions of what we fear. If you are exposed to a too intense version of a fear-evoking stimulus, there are high chances your fear will increase rather than diminish.
So with this in mind, with the help of a professional, you should work on presenting less intense versions of your dog's fear and create positive associations with it. Next, let's see an example of some work I did with a client's dog who barked every time her new boyfriend walked into the house.
How I Helped Molly Conquer Her Fear
When I met with my client, Molly was shaking from fear on the owner's lap, yet according to the owner she was actually doing well considering that her boyfriend could not get nowhere near her without triggering barking behaviors. I took notes about her triggers and while we were talking, her boyfriend happened to open the door after doing some gardening. I heard Molly growl and she told me "See? She is already getting nervous and he hasn't even come into this room yet!" she remarked.
Then, her boyfriend peeked through the room at distance to salute me, and Molly jumped off the owner's lap and started barking, barking and barking. We therefore scheduled a day when her boyfriend was likely to be home so we could do a few rehearsals and work on the problem.
We met on a quiet Saturday morning and I asked that her boyfriend stayed in the yard until he was given directions. I had my phone ready to communicate with him and provide him with detailed directions. In the meanwhile, I was sitting on the couch with the owner (for sake of privacy, let's call her Sally) and Molly was on the leash next to her. The owner had a treat pouch full of bite-sized high-value treats, but I told her to keep several readily available in her hand.
So I called the boyfriend who was in the yard, and I told him to just touch open the door a bit without coming through the door. As soon as Molly's ears tilted in direction of the sound, I told Sally to immediately feed her a treat. We repeated this exercise several times, until Molly came to understand that the sound of the door opening was a predictor of a treat coming her way. We knew this happened when, upon hearing the sound of the door, she looked at Sally's hand for a treat.
In the midst of these exercises, we only heard a few barks happen the first couple of times. Afterward, Sally seemed to catch on quickly. In the next series of trials afterward, we only heard a muffled bark once.
We then progressed to having her boyfriend come through the door and walk a few steps. We repeated the exercise. but this time the owner was to feed her treats upon hearing the steps, rather than the door opening. However, if occasionally the door opening was a bit louder than others, we still gave treats for that and kept giving them when he walked in. Molly was getting a hang of the game, looking for her treats every time she heard the foot steps.
We then decided to further increase criteria, and this time have the boyfriend say something upon coming in and taking a few steps. Every time he said something, Molly was given treats. We also gradually added in the mix him giving out fake coughs, walking more heavily, carrying noisy tools, clapping his hands, and more. Treats were always given when these noises occurred. Molly was starting to understand the game; indeed, every time she heard a less intense version of something that in the past concerned her, she would search for her treat.
Molly that day was left with some homework. When she didn't have time to work on the issue and her husband had to come in and out often, Molly was to be kept away from all the commotion. She could have kept her in the farthest room or taken her out for walk. This because if Molly was allowed too much barking at the trigger, this rehearsal of the problem behavior would have taken us several steps back. When then Sally and her boyfriend had free time, she was to repeat the exercises, but without progressing any further until we would meet again.
When we met again, Sally said she had seen a great improvement in Molly, she did very well and only managed to make a muffled bark just once or twice. This is somewhat expected at some time or another. So that day we worked on adding sights. Molly seemed to have accustomed to most noises made from her boyfriend coming in. Sally said she even practiced having her husband do push ups in another room (something that triggered barking) and fed her treats while he did those and she did great.
So now we had her boyfriend walk in from the door, take a few steps, talk and now move towards the room where we were sitting, just making a brief appearance at a distance. Molly was fed tasty treats, every time he popped up into the room. We even practiced a few "Peek-a-Boo games" too. Almost towards the end of the session, her boyfriend was able to walk half way into the room without her barking. At one point though, when the boyfriend started coming into the room we had an 'oops moment", her boyfriend dropped his phone and when he bent down to grab it Molly started barking.
It's OK, we are humans and we make mistakes some times. Molly's barking though told us that she wasn't ready for this intensity level. So we practiced having the boyfriend pretend to pick up something from a distance, but we further split this in small segments to not overwhelm Molly. We told the boyfriend to just bend down a bit and gave Molly a treat, then told him to bend half way and gave Molly a treat and then told him to bend all the way and gave Molly 2-3 treats at once. We ended this session with this positive ending so to leave a happy impression in her mind.
I saw Molly for another 4 visits and in the meanwhile Sally did "homework." She was instructed that if any time she saw Sally get uncomfortable giving signs of stress (she was provided with a handout on signs of stress in dogs) she would end the session on a positive note letting her boyfriend do something she didn't seem to mind and giving her 2-3 treats for that. She was then to make a note of what exactly happened that made her uncomfortable. We would then work on that and split the action in smaller components.
I knew my work was finally over when Sally's boyfriend was able to able to come into the room, talk, cough, pick up items and then even sit down next to Sally. Every time the boyfriend was able to sit down next to Sally, the boyfriend would give Molly a big reward consisting of an entire cookie or a pig ear or small bully stick to chew on. Molly became more and more comfortable around the boyfriend and we knew he gained her trust when one day she even managed to walk onto his lap and fell asleep! Way to go Molly!
Why You Should Work With a Professional Behavior Consultant
If your dog is barking when somebody is walking into a room, see a professional to help you out. Finding a professional who focuses on force-free behavior modification techniques is important because a dog who is fearful doesn't need anymore more stress due to the addition of aversion-based tools or methods.
The assistance of a professional is important for correct implementation of behavior modification (going too fast in the process can create set-backs that can even have a permanent impact if not remedied correctly) but also from a safety perspective. Dogs who are fearful may bite if they are faced with too intense versions of their fear. And this may even involve owners who the dog appears to trust due to re-directed aggression when dogs are excessively tense.
This article is therefore not to be used as a substitute for professional behavior advice. If your dog is reactive towards people walking into a room or into your home, seek the assistance of a force-free professional to help you out.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
Questions & Answers
Question: I have a 3 year old mix breed Heller/Jack Russel. For some reason he barks at my wife when she enters or leaves a room. He will continue to bark until she returns and sits down. He does not exhibit this behavior with me. This guy is a bit neurotic, he barks at random items he feels do not belong. He will bark at an item that has been in one place and moved somewhere else. He is a loving dog but this is quite frustrating. Thoughts?
Answer: Sounds like a dog who has a hard time dealing with novelties/changes. The same behavior modification described above can be tried with the aid of a professional. Since this happens only when she enters or leaves a room, then you have a predictable behavior that you can work on. About the items, you can help him adjust to these changes by purposely changing them slightly and tossing treats and praising him everytime there's a change, but don't make the changes too overwhelming.
Question: How long did this process take for the dog to finally be able to not be fearful?
Answer: The process took about 1 month of weekly behavior modification sessions with the owners working diligently in between and continuing to work with the dog. The owner reported a couple of setbacks over the course of the following months, but these are quite normal in a dog who has been behaving this way for a long time. One thing to precise is that a fearful dog is never really fully cured: it is important to always manage the environment and do some rehearsals of behavior modification every now and then to "maintain" the progress.
© 2017 Adrienne Farricelli
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on August 25, 2020:
Hi Paula, if your little dog barks when anyone enters the home, and you want to tackle it, he needs behavior modification.
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on August 25, 2020:
Deborah, Remedial socialization, making great things happen when people are presented at a distance without making your dog go over threshold.
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on August 25, 2020:
Collete, the article explains why dogs may bark at people entering the room and offers a detailed behavior modification plan on how I worked on such a case. Please seek the assistance of a dog behavior professional using force-free methods to help you out.
Paula tompkins on August 15, 2020:
Hi, my little dog barks when anyone comes into the house or even down the stairs and into the same room as her, how can I stop her?
Deborah Foley on July 27, 2020:
I have an adopted 2 year old Chaion who's absolutely adjusted to being around the other 2 dogs and is very attached to me however, any time my roommate or anyone walks into the room or stands up after sitting with me.
Alex was only with a foster mom for 2 weeks and was picked up as a stray so we don't know his history. He goes with me everywhere in the car and listens so well.
How do I get Alex socialized with other people?
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on June 23, 2020:
She may need some time to adjust and learn to trust your husband more. Your best bet is to enlist the help of a dog behavior consultant using force-free behavior modification as the methods described in the article.
Julie on June 21, 2020:
Just got an 18 month female golden retriever. She has been here 3 days now. She is adjusting very well except when my husband walks into the house. She barks at him till I tell her it is ok. What can I do?
Giuliana on June 10, 2020:
My dog only barks at night when someone gets home. He is usually laying down on the second or third floor of the house. He will start growling when he hears the garage door and footsteps coming up the stairs. Even when he recognizes the person, he will continue to growl and bark. This problem ends up waking up everyone in the house. When someone gets home during the day, however, he will not bark.
Jaline Gutay on June 06, 2020:
Hi! I have a 1 year old toy poodle that barks at anyone who enters my room. He only does this when in the room but hes chill with them outside my room. This has been going for a long time and I don't know how to stop it.
Dannette Nix on May 16, 2020:
My one year old westie, Rose, is guarding all family members. If I am on the couch and one of my teenagers walks in the room she will bark and show her teeth warning them not to approach. If Rose is sitting near my son and I walk in the room she will do the same for me. We have tried to approach with treats or a favorite toy, but Rose is not distracted by these. In addition, when she comes to sit near any of us and we try to pet her she will growl (not show teeth) at the same time she is lifting her her paw or rolling on her side to have her tummy rubbed. Her words are go away but her actions say please pet me. We are so confused. Clearly there is some resource guarding issue, but she guards all four of us from each other and anyone who comes over. It happens if she on the couch, the bed, or when we have demoted her to the floor. She has bitten once and I know she will again if we don't figure out how to reverse her behavior. We can not continue this way
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on December 17, 2019:
Rosa Milo, you are very welcome, happy holiday to you too! Good luck with dog, feel free to post updates or other questions you may have.
Rosa Milo from Canada on December 16, 2019:
thank you again for your advice much appreciated and happy holidays to you and your family
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on December 14, 2019:
You are very welcome. I think your vet may be suggesting seeing a DACVB (board-certified veterinary behaviorist). If you Google exercise pen, you will see a variety of examples of these enclosures. Sturdy ones cost more but are worth it if your dog is highly motivated and tries to push through. There are also dog gates that are tall and meant to contain dogs in one area.
ROSA MILO on December 13, 2019:
hello thank you for your advice. i spent 1000 dollars at the vet office to see if he had any medical issues and he is healthy. i got him up to date with vaccines and my vet wants me to go see a behaviorist therapist because my vet is not certified or trained to do behavior therapy. What is an sturdy exercise pen?? I mentioned it to my vet but my vet only speaks french and he does't understand what a sturdy exercise pen is he has no clue what you are talking about. can you send me a link to tell me where i can purchase this sturdy exercise pen.
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on December 11, 2019:
Rosa Milo, you are describing what sounds like a HIGHLY STRESSED dog who spends most his time acting defensively. I am guessing that tossing the treats is not working because he is so over threshold he won't eat or he eats but is quickly back to being reactive. More than a dog trainer, I think it would help to see a veterinary behaviorist, so to rule out medical problems and see whether meds can help calm him down and lower his threshold so that he can be worked on more effectively. Muzzle training is certainly important for liability and also to keep everybody safe when you are doing behavior modification. Any chance that you can use a sturdy exercise pen in the bedroom to prevent rehearsal of the running/barking behavior?
Rosa Milo from Canada on December 11, 2019:
I adopted a rescue dog 6 months ago he is half malteese half shitzhu. i adopted him when he was 1yr 5 months. i am his 4th owner. 1st month i got him he was fantastic loving to my husband 13yr and 17yr old daughter. its going on 5 months now he doesn't stop barking at my guest when they come through the door. when ever i take him for a walk if i talk to my neighbor or say hello to someone on the street he barks and growls at them. whenever i have friends or family over and they get out of the washroom he barks at them. if my guest try to walk in my room or daughters room he growls at them and won't stop barking unless they leave the room. if he is lying down on my 13yr old bed with her cuddled up and my husband or 17yr old walk in he will bark and growl he also bit my daughter and husband. vice versa if he is in my oldest daughter room the 13yr or my husband walks in the room he growls barks and and bites. what is really strange is he never does this to me. i am also the one who feeds him everyday and walks him everyday, i have a trainer and my trainer thinks he is territorial towards me he wants no one to be next to me. my husband can not kiss me he will bark bite him. my big issue is at night time he is not crate trained and we have been trying for 6 months maxmium to crate train him he will stay 10 minutes i throw treats on a daily basis in the crate to get him used to his crate but he won't stop barking he doesn't want to stay the big issue if i am watching tv at night time he is laying down on his bed next to me on the floor. if my daughter or husband walks in the living room he will run bark growl and bite them in the middle of the night if someone wakes up to go to the washroom he will run bark growl and bite we have night lights everywhere in the house so he can see our faces. (he won't bite me) he once bite my husband so bad we thought he needed stitches . the trainer says before we get out of the room to keep calling his name and throw him treats. it is not working. she also told us to roll play it every night before my girls walk into the living room to text me and i am ready with treats so i can give it to him he still keeps barking and growling but i have a leash on him and keep it close to my side..if it doesn't work out with me they will put him to sleep. i don't want to give up on him. my vet tells me to put him on a muzzle when i am walking him or have guest over not to get a lawsuit. right now at night time he sleeps on his bed on the floor next to me and i close my bedroom door. my husband is sleeping next to me and the dog seems to be okay with this but the minute my husband gets out of bed to go to the washroom and tries to walks back into the room he will run growl and bark. . ohh one more thing he also did obedience school but he is the only one in the class barking and growling at all the other dogs. i don't want to give up on him
Ann on November 04, 2019:
Have two eight month old pups from my boy and gal. So a pack of four.
Little ones hark at everyone incl my son when he and other visitors entered the door. Even of my son opens the bedroom door.
The mama has started same too. Papa is quiet and tried to shut them up
Going to try the treats told my son to make friends with the pups sit and cuddle them and off them treats.esp the younger one as he is clearly scared and starts the barking.
They are well socialised from v small. So that's not the issue.
I notice some sleeping across doorways blocking the route to my room so seems a security issue for them. As only in the home.
I am hoping it will work. No trouble any other way just this barking with visitors and ones they have known since birth.
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on February 04, 2019:
Flick, the whole article covers dogs barking when someone enters the room and tips on how to stop it.
Collette Doyle on January 21, 2019:
Hi, I have a 5 month old miniature pinscher and he always barks, growls, wimpers and jumps up at my son every time he enters the living room, not sure if it aggressive behavoiur or if hes scared of my son. Why does he keep on doing this and how can I stop my dog from doing this?
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on August 31, 2017:
Miss Cellany, you raise a good point. First off, give yourself a big pat for the effort and good job done. Enlisting the help of a good dog trainer may be a good starting point as many have other co-trainers or friends to work the role of "strangers." I have personally used a co-trainer or assistant or even my husband many times to work as "stranger" for many cases as yours. Patricia McConnell in the book "Cautious Canine" suggests to even practice with the pizza delivery guy. I wouldn't practice though with repair people or construction workers as this may be too much for the dog due to the abrupt movements and noises produced.
Miss Cellany on August 25, 2017:
Lovely step by step training guide - however what do you do when the dog is comfortable with everyone it knows but is terrified of strangers as my dog is?
You can't really use this technique as after a few repetitions the dog gets used to the person doing the exercises and they are no longer a stranger (have been working heavily on desensitization and socialization with strangers and she gets used to new people quickly now - after a few treats and ignoring her for the first few minutes she works up the courage to approach and sniff them and will even usually let them stroke her, but any new person STILL gets the barking, hackles up, threatening treatment).
Would you have a whole bunch of different people the dog has never seen coming and going one after another and give treats to the dog each time? I don't know this many people (that the dog doesn't already know) so what do I do? - please help!
Muhamed Mostafa on March 07, 2017:
Thanks so much wonderful theme
Heidi Thorne from Chicago Area on March 06, 2017:
I think one of the most important parts of this case study is patience and persistence. People often expect pets to get the hang of environmental changes right away. I just think of how long it takes me to get acclimated to a change. Ack! Love the mouse analogy. Sums it all up. Thanks for another great insight into our furry family!