Stranger Danger: Help Your Dog Feel Relaxed When Visitors Arrive

When I ring my friend’s doorbell, her two 50-pound-plus dogs, Nike and Susie, go berserk and bark uncontrollably. Like firefighters racing to a five-alarm fire, they rush the front door, jump, and growl.  If I were an intruder, I’d surely think twice before robbing this house, but I only want to hang out with my gal pal.

Sure, these dogs are protective, but is this normal behavior?

“Dogs will bark when people show up at the house because that’s their job,” says Stanley Coren, Ph.D., professor emeritus at the University of British Columbia. “We wouldn’t have dogs if they didn’t bark at strangers, which is why primitive man wanted them.”

The problem comes when some dogs won’t stop protecting their owners and may sound off with anxious growling the minute visitors walk across the threshold. Other dogs show different fearful reactions, such as making a bathroom boo-boo, backing up, or crouching.

How can you help your dog cope with newcomers and show good manners?

“The trick is to make the appearance of strangers a good thing,” Dr. Coren says. “The worst thing to do is yell at a dog who’s afraid.”

Socializing and training your dog to relax around people goes a long way. When dogs meet new people in and out of the house, they begin to accept others and can drop the tough act.

Here are several ways to ease your dog’s discomfort around visitors:

Give your dog a safe spot and teach him to go to it. To do this, designate a dog crate, bed, mat, or another room where the dog feels no one will harm him. Tell your dog to go to his specific area and reward him with a toy or a yummy treat when he follows your instruction. Begin this training when guests aren’t expected and repeat this exercise many times.

When a visitor arrives, tell your dog to go to his spot. Praise and reward him when he does.

Dr. Coren recommends teaching your dog to sit. “Put a container filled with treats near the front door, attach a short leash to his collar, and tell him to sit.” The leash helps your dog feel secure and under control when someone new arrives. It also prevents him from jumping at the door or running outside. From there, progress to opening the door, handing your dog a treat, and greeting the person.

If possible, walk your dog outside before a guest arrives. To give you a heads-up, ask your visitor to phone you before ringing the doorbell. Your dog may behave more calmly if he’s meeting your guest in a neutral location and doesn’t feel the urge to protect you and the house.

Invite the visitor to enter the home before you and your dog walk in. Once your dog recognizes the guest as part of the household, he’ll likely relax.

  • Tell guests about your dog’s learning curve with welcoming newcomers and share information about your training progress.
  • When someone familiar comes calling, send out a friendly vibe by using a positive tone of voice and greeting your visitor with a warm hug or a handshake. If you project confidence, your dog will pick up on your welcome signs.
  • Limit the number of visitors at one time until your dog becomes accustomed to people he has never met before. Save the big get-togethers once your dog shows good manners.
  • Use verbal praise, toys, and treats to reward your dog for good manners and once your dog is relaxed with that person, you might encourage your guest to give your dog a few treats.

With positive socialization, solid training, and consistency, you can make your dog feel comfortable and even happy when new people come to say hello.

If your dog has ever nipped or bitten a person or you are concerned he might, do not attempt these exercises. For the safety and wellbeing of your dog, first consult with a board-certified veterinary behaviorist, Fear Free certified veterinarian, or a Fear Free certified trainer (or other qualified positive based trainer/behaviorist).

Elaine Waldorf Gewirtz is the author of 15 dog books and a lifelong dog owner and show exhibitor. Her Dalmatians and a new Corgi continue to train her.

This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.