Helping Fearful Dogs Handle Visitors

One simple tip to try
By Karen B. London PhD, September 2015

Trouble when visitors arrive is a common concern of many guardians. I get calls every week because people want help with dogs who react badly to anyone who comes to the house. More often than not, these dogs are afraid, but people rarely call to say that they have a fearful dog. They call to tell me that their dogs are barking and lunging, growling, or even biting visitors.

Comprehensive programs for improving a dog’s emotional state and behavior when visitors arrive must be individually designed for each dog and each situation. Often, the use of treats or favorite toys is involved so that the dog learns that all visitors have something fun and wonderful to offer. When a dog has grasped the strong connection between visitors and good things, happiness can replace fear as the dog’s response to people coming to the house. That’s a very brief and simplified description of what can often be a long and detailed process. Sometimes a little trick can help make visits easier for dogs so that they are in a better state for learning to like having company.

The little trick is to make sure that the dog does not see the visitors enter but only first notices them when they are already settled in the house. It’s a lot easier for a dog to see people already seated in the living room or around the table than it is for the dog to see people arrive and enter. Having visitors show up at the door is a very intense situation for a fearful dog. The sight, smell and sound of someone other than a family member appearing at the door and entering the home is a big deal to a dog who is not comfortable with new people. It sets off all of their alarm bells (“Intruder! Code red, code red!”) I’m all for avoiding this challenging situation whenever possible.<

To avoid that situation takes some planning ahead. Hopefully, you can tell your visitors to call or text right before coming in so that you can make sure you have the situation set up to maximize your chances of success. Before opening the door for your visitors, temporarily put your dog in a place out of sight of the entry such as in a crate in another room, in the back yard or in the laundry room. I’ve even had clients briefly put their dog in the car in the garage if that is where the dog is most comfortable when not with his guardians.

Once the dog is where you want him, let your visitors in, have them sit down and give them whatever treats or toys your dog loves best. Then, bring your dog into the room where the visitors are and have them give the dog those goodies. Depending on the details of the dog’s issues, you may need to have the dog on a leash or behind a gate during this interaction.

Some dogs will be fine with people once they have met them in this way, and if that’s the case, then this may be all you have to do during this particular visit. Other dogs may react as usual if anyone stands up or makes any sudden movements, and may be better off kept separate from the visitors after the initial exposure. Such dogs can benefit from additional work, but this technique can still be a good first step. No single method suits every dog, and extra caution is always advisable with dogs who have bitten. Still, it is easier for almost all fearful dogs to meet visitors who are already in the house sitting down than it is to meet people as they enter the house.

Have you tried this technique with any dogs who react to visitors because they are afraid of them?

Karen B. London, PhD, is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral problems, including aggression. She is the author of five books on canine training and behavior.