Help! My Dog Barks When Somebody Enters the Room
When Comfort Zones are Invaded
Did you recently add a new dog to your home and your dog is barking at your husband/daughter/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, be rest assured; 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 who are barking at people that 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!
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 though 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.
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" or "unpleasant situation" go away.
Changing the Mindset
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!
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 closed in a room full with mice or if you were given time to get used to being around mice? 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 a on 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 time, she was to repeat the exercises, but without progressing any further until we met 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!
The Importance of Consulting With a Pro
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 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.