Danger at the Door

Written by Sarah Dixon, CDBC

City life is not easy for all dogs. For the outgoing canine “extrovert” it’s a walk in the park — new friends and adventures around every corner. For the more reserved or fearful dogs, however, it can be a nightmare.

One of the unique challenges for dogs in urban environments is apartment living. Even for a confident dog, tight spaces such as elevators and hallways can be tricky. For a dog that is nervous of people or other animals these confined spaces can mean running a gauntlet multiple times a day. Avoidance isn’t an option in most situations in the city.

One of the most common issues I see as a behavior consultant in Manhattan is dogs that have issue with strangers entering the home. Interestingly, I seldom worked with this behavior problem when I lived in a rural area. There, dogs were expected to bark at strangers, and it seemed that they were more accepting of newcomers to their homes, possibly due to space not being so constrained and not being constantly bombarded by terrifying delivery men at the door. Most of us city-dwellers do not have yards — or even an extra bedroom (studio apartments, anyone?) — to stash our dogs in if needed to avoid a potentially hairy encounte,. Having a fearful or aggressive dog in an apartment building simply amplifies these concerns.

My goals with stranger danger dogs in apartments are to make the dog as calm and comfortable as possible, and for the owner to have a system to safely have guests over and (if appropriate) to introduce the dog to new people. Some dogs, depending on temperament, can be safe and friendly with new people on the first meeting with proper introductions. Some dogs need to be introduced methodically and over several meetings, and some should not be expected to interact with guests — only to build relationships with people who will be a regular part of their life. This can involve various options for environmental management, including crates, baby gates, tether stations, and sometimes muzzles.

The initial entry

Skills needed:

  • Indoor recall
  • Relax in a crate or behind a gate
  • Optional: acclimation to tether

Most dogs are going to be much more relaxed if they do not see the guest come in through the door. This is not a hard and fast rule, as some dogs prefer to see the person enter, but by and large, most do not get as aroused if they do not see the stranger enter. I think there is something about the stimulus of a very scary person suddenly materializing in their space and their not having the room to feel they can safely retreat that causes a lot of dogs to be terrified in this situation. Many dogs get intensely conditioned to the apartment door buzzer, and begin to get nervous or stimulated as soon as the buzzer sounds. There is a large build-up of anticipation before the person enters the space.

Test having the dog crated in another room or behind a baby gate in a hallway or room with a Kong stuffed with something high value like cream cheese or canned food. I like to use these for guest protocol training because it helps the dog to associate visitors with something really special and provides the dog with a long-lasting distraction as well as potential stress relief.

Often, being away during the initial entry of strangers drastically lowers the dog’s arousal and increases the odds of a successful guest visit and possible human-canine introduction. Of course the occasional dog prefers to see what is happening and will be calmer if not separated, so a tether station at a safe distance from the door is an alternate option if you notice the dog gets more upset when put away.

Sometimes work needs to be done to acclimate the dog to being away. This helps the dog to feel comfortable and understand that the area where they are secluded is positive place. There are other benefits for the dog’s confidence and the relationship between dog and human to work through teaching the dog to comfortably accept some form of confinement away from their people as well.

Additionally, work should be done to desensitize and counter-condition the dog to the sound of the buzzer. I do this by having my client record the sound of the buzzer on their phone, and beginning to play it back at a low volume, pairing with high-value treats. Raise the volume when the dog is no longer concerned at the current level, and repeat until there is no reaction at full volume.

Delivery and maintenance people

Dogs with fear or anxiety regarding guests should not be expected to interact with delivery people or maintenance workers. Dealing with these situations utilizes the same steps as the initial entry of a guest, except the dog should be comfortable with being confined longer term. I usually recommend that clients practice calling their dog to move behind the gate or to go into their crate on a regular but random basis, and then rewarding with multiple high-value treats so that this routine is familiar to the dog when it’s needed.

I also recommend owners purchase multiple Kongs, and pre-stuff them and place them in the freezer. This way, there is almost always one ready in the freezer for deliveries or unexpected situations.

Acclimating to seated guests

Skills needed:

  • Acclimation to tether
  • Go to bed, settle, and stay

Once the dog and guests are settled, bring the dog out on leash and direct them to their bed. You may need to use a high rate of reinforcement with high-value treats while the dog is moving to their station. The dog can also have their stuffed Kong during this phase as well. The Kong can also be handy to use as continuous reinforcement during transit, acting as a “treat magnet” to keep the dog from becoming overly focused on the guests when moving from one location to another.

The settle-on-a-bed behavior should be taught separately so the dog has a good understanding of going to their place, relaxing, and staying there once guests are integrated.

The bed should be situated in a location where the owner can sit nearby (to help keep the dog calmer and also to easily reinforce desired behaviors) and the dog doesn’t have people walking by them too closely. This helps the dog to feel safe and not as threatened by the people in their space. It’s imperative that people do not try to pet the dog when the dog is on the bed — this should remain a safe space. Ideally, guests should avoid paying any attention to the dog, instead opting to ignore them completely. The goal should be letting the dog decide when to interact with people; humans trying to initiate interactions before a dog is ready causes a lot of problems in these situations. The handler should continue to reinforce relaxed behaviors such as lying on the bed and looking calmly at the guests. The handler may intervene by giving cues if the dog is struggling. These may include “go to bed” to increase distance, and “settle.” Some dogs may only be able to be out on their beds for short periods, needing breaks in their space alone after spending time observing the guests.

A tether may be useful depending on the dog’s behavior and handler’s skill and comfort level. The purpose of the tether is to prevent the dog from suddenly and unexpectedly getting off their place. Many dogs can relax if guests stay sitting but will struggle as guests gets up and move around; the tether can be a helpful management addition for “just in case” situations where, despite training and counter-conditioning, the dog still reacts. It can also help the dog to settle faster if their options for movement are limited.

This was the first session with this dog. He was initially very volatile when I entered the apartment – lots of frenzied barking, spinning, and running all over. This was the first time he was introduced to settle on the mat. We taught him this behavior and then introduced the bowl game, at first with me seated (shown) and later with me moving around the apartment and he was able to remain relaxed. At first he needed to be cued to return to his mat a few times but the frequency of his barks reduced quite quickly. He has no bite history, so he doesn’t need to be tethered for safety.

Millie has a bite history and tends to move into people’s space so we are using a tether for safety and keeping her in a predictable area. Here we are using a modification of the Bowl game using two target bowls. This can be helpful initially if settle on the mat is too difficult for the dog to perform at first. This is my first session with Millie.

Counterconditioning to standing and movement

Skills needed:

  • Indoor recall
  • Go to bed, settle, and stay

Many dogs can settle quite well when guests are relaxed and sitting, but display volatile reactions if guests stand up, or move around the apartment. Pet owners often find this confusing, but it’s quite common and makes sense when considered from the dog’s point of view: people sitting down calmly are a predictable and low-intensity stimulus. It’s much easier to get comfortable with seated strangers than when they stand up (suddenly becoming tall) and begin moving around. Seated guests are predictable, and standing/walking ones are not.

To being to counter-condition dogs to guests standing and moving, I use a combination of settle on a mat and a target food delivery exercise. I prefer to use a stationary glass or ceramic bowl placed in between the guests and the dog for the food target. The guest will deliver a food treat each time they stand up, move away, or re-approach the area where the dog is.

The dog goes to their bed first to settle, then when the person stands the dog is asked to stay, the person drops a treat into the bowl and walks off or returns to their seat. The dog is released to go and get the treat, then called back to their hander and cued to return to their bed. This is repeated each time a guest stands up, or approaches the area. The dog may or may not be on a tether for this exercise.

I affectionally call this exercise the Magic Bowl or Bed-to-Bowl game. It provides a predictable sequence of reward delivery for the dog, which seems to help lower stress and help the dog relax around the stimuli more quickly than the guest tossing the dog a treat, or the handler offering reinforcement. It seems there is something about the anticipation of the treat being delivered at the same target that is helpful in this process. As well, it prevents the guest from getting too close to the dog, and the directions are simple for guests to follow without a lot of room for error.

This is later in the initial session with Millie. I’m starting to add movement to the bowl game. Here she was more relaxed, and we were able to add the bed stay back in.

Introduction to guests

Skills needed

  • Polite greetings (when appropriate): hand target
  • Indoor recall

The speed at which this stage can be achieved varies greatly from dog to dog. Some dogs will easily accept new guests during a first visit, and not only be relaxed in their presence, but also affiliative. Some dogs will take a few visits to warm up, and others may take a very long time to acclimate to new people.

Even if a dog doesn’t have a huge reaction to guests standing and moving, the Bed-to-Bowl game is a good first step for introductions. It lets the dog see the new guest as a source of good things without putting a lot of pressure on the dog. A dog who is generally pro-social and warms up quickly may graduate from this exercise to moving freely (perhaps dragging a lead) and greeting the guest as desired quite quickly. Some dogs may benefit from an intermediate step of going to the guest to do a hand target and then recalling back to their handler for a reward. This can be a nice ice-breaker, allowing the dog to gain information about the person without feeling like they are “stuck” in the interaction. If the dog is potentially still feeling a little conflict, this is a useful step to help them feel more comfortable with the guest before an all-out greeting.

The dog should always initiate touch from the guest. Instruct your guest to watch for signs like resting the head calmly on the lap, nudging the hand, or leaning the body on to the guest before initiating petting. Once the dog has indicated they are comfortable being touched, I also recommend instructing the guest to play by the “five-second rule”: petting for five seconds, then removing their hands to see how the dog responds. The dog may walk away, signalling they need a break, or they may communicate they would like more interaction by nudging, leaning, or other affiliative body language. This allows the dog to feel free to move away if they are uncomfortable, whereas if the person continues to pet beyond five seconds, the dog may become overstimulated, and this could result in distance-increasing behaviors such as growling or snapping.

Some dogs may be able to learn to settle and relax with guests over, but may not be ready to directly interact with physical contact until multiple visits have transpired. Exactly how many visits will vary by individual dog, but for those in this category it is often two to three visits.

A muzzle may be used here for dogs with bite histories, or for dogs whose owners are worried they might bite. If their dog wearing a muzzle helps the owners to relax, then this will help the dog to settle and become comfortable faster with new people.

This is from my introductory session with this dog, Saki. We had asked her owners to put her away as I made my entrance; they brought her out after I was inside. She is tethered because she has a bite history and moves into people’s space to nip. It also helps her to stay on the bed.

A small percentage of dogs are simply not “pre-programmed” to accept new guests in the home readily. These dogs are more difficult to work with in apartment settings, especially with owners who have frequent visitors. Managing expectations is critical, as the owners need to understand that in many instances their dog tolerating being confined when guests are over, or being able to relax while seeing them but not being expected to interact, is typically a best-case scenario. These types of dogs do not accept new people easily, and should not be expected to interact with visitors safely and comfortably in most cases. They can, with time and care, form attachments with new people. This approach would be recommended to be reserved for those who must be in their life on a regular basis, such as caregivers or immediate family members.

This is my final session with Saki, which I think illustrates the difference in body language after we had been working for a while. She is much more relaxed here. As she is off her tether, she is still wearing her muzzle for safety due to her bite history. Here we were working on her responding to cues from me.

Sarah Dixon is a Certified Dog Behaviour Consultant and IAABC Board of Directors member. She works for Instinct Dog Behavior & Training LLC in New York City where she specializes in behaviour problems such as fear, aggression, anxiety, and reactivity.