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The subject of barking is probably good for a dozen podcasts; today’s topic will be that perennial favorite, dog and doorbell. Knocking and intercom buzzers count, too, but to keep things simple I’ll just speak of doorbells.

So Your Dog Doesn’t Bark? Keep It That Way

First, let me address the lucky people whose dog doesn’t bark when the doorbell rings. A high proportion of you have a young puppy, or else a dog you adopted within the past couple of weeks. Many a puppy offers that first tentative doorbell bark in early adolescence. And dogs in new surroundings often seem to take a while to settle in before they bring out their whole repertoire of behaviors. The trainer’s trick here is simple: notice quiet “nonbehavior,” and don’t take it for granted. If the doorbell rings and your puppy or dog remains quiet, praise her and slip her a treat. Keeping your voice soft and slow helps maintain a calm atmosphere. The idea is to counter excitement about the sudden noise and/or the imminent guest. Treats reward your dog’s quiet response to the bell, of course, but they have another function too. If the sound of the doorbell consistently predicts treats, your dog will come to like the sound. That emotional association is a building block of friendliness to guests.

Teaching Your Dog to Hush If He Already Barks

If your dog already barks at the doorbell, your options depend on the behavior’s intensity. Many dogs respond well to what the great trainer Pat Miller ( calls a “positive interrupt.” “Positive,” because the interruptor is expressly not a shaker can, a harsh shout, or an electric shock. The idea here is not to scare or hurt your dog, only to distract her from barking. Then you can reward whatever she does instead. Here are two ways to use a positive interrupt for barking. Get ready with delicious treats before trying either one. You’ll need to reward your dog’s quiet instantly, before she has a chance to start barking again.

Interruptor Number One: when your dog barks, get up quietly and calmly, walk over to your dog, say a soft “Thanks, Pup,” quickly feed her several treats, and then deal with whoever’s at the door. A surprising number of dogs will settle down almost at once. I hesitate to get into the head of a being who can’t talk to me in words, but my impression is that once some dogs know they’ve succeeded in delivering the alert, they’re done.

If you’ve been struggling with canine doorbell mania for a while, you may have noticed that raising your own voice generally doesn’t help.

Interruptor Number Two: a soft whisper, may succeed where sharp reprimands fail. The reason might be that a whisper stands out from the sharpness and staccato of bells, buzzers, knocks, and barks. I like “Hush,” because it makes a natural cue for “Be quiet now.” Again, be ready with treats to reward a halt in the barking. The sequence might go like this: doorbell, barking, “Hush,” dog is briefly distracted, you take advantage of the distraction and reward the quiet by quickly feeding several treats.

Whichever form your interrupt takes, as your dog learns to associate it with treats she will orient to you more and more readily when she hears it. As far as I’m concerned, you’re welcome to spend the rest of your dog’s life rewarding every quiet with a bunch of treats. But if you want to get fancy, you can begin to stretch out the interval between treats. You can also hold out for longer and longer periods of quiet before delivering the first treat. Eventually you can give food rewards only occasionally. But always be generous with calm, warm praise.

Help for Bigger-Time Barkers

If your dog is a hard-to-distract barker, practice – say, a minimum of 50 times – when there’s no barking to interrupt. Go through the motions of answering the door just as if someone were actually there. Your dog will learn that your thanks or your hush means it’s time to look to you for tasty treats. Having learned that lesson solidly in a calm situation, he will be more likely to respond to you when excited. Practice without actual guests is also the starting point in teaching any dog to stay while you get the door.

Some dogs can’t be distracted. They always resume barking after they eat the treats, or they won’t eat the treats at all. Often these dogs react strongly to many sounds both at home and outdoors. They may belong to an especially vocal breed – Shelties and Min Pins come to mind.

If this sounds like your situation, try lowering your dog’s overall excitability by providing plenty of exercise early in the day. Also, cut back the amount of noise your dog’s exposed to. Close the front windows, perhaps; turn down the ringer on the phone. If you live in an apartment and your dog reacts to hallway sounds, run a white-noise machine by the door. One of my clients had a computerized doorbell, so I had her pick a new sound, teach her dog to associate it with treats, then change her doorbell to the new sound. I don’t recommend punishment. It doesn’t teach your dog what you do want, and it does bupkis to relieve any underlying stress. Ultimately, you may need in-person help to teach a serious doorbell maniac to react less energetically.

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