Everyone wants a nice welcoming home that friends and family enjoy visiting, right? So what do you do when it’s your beloved pooch that’s preventing that from happening? If your pup can be barky, unpredictable or overly distressed when people visit, then they may be suffering from territorial anxiety or fear, and it may be time to put some solutions in place to ensure your dog feels calm when new people walk through the door, and your guests feel they’re actually allowed to pass the threshold.
Causes Of Anxiety
Unfortunately, not every puppy is brought into the world and reared in the healthiest way. Often, puppies can be left for too long when they’re too young, especially if they’re the last ones in the litter. This can cause the puppy to develop a wariness from a very young age, leading to barking and other anxious behaviours as the puppy grows older.
And it’s not only the rearing of the puppy that can affect the soundness of the dog’s mind but their breed as well. Some dog breeds are more prone to anxiety simply because of their genetics; for example, Border Collies and German Shepherds are incredibly intelligent, highly sensitive dogs, and sometimes this can translate to nervousness. Likewise, some dogs are prone to barky behaviour, such as Cavapoos and Yorkshire Terriers – this is just a trait that has been passed down in which they’re vocal about any kind of distress they feel rather than becoming subdued like other breeds.
If your dog has a generally anxious disposition, then this will require more training outside of the singular ‘guests visiting’ situation, but if your dog is calm in other situations and they just react in this situation, they may have a wariness of change or strangers in particular, and this sometimes causes them to guard their territory out of fear.
The good news is that with consistent training, lifestyle changes, and some natural remedies, the majority of dogs can change their behaviour and response to stimuli even if they’ve been that way for years. It just takes patience and persistence – which of course, we know is a little easier said than done.
General Signs Of Anxiety
Before we begin with the solutions, it’s important to be able to identify when your dog is anxious. The most obvious signs are barking and growling. Naturally, this aggressive behaviour is what will put your guests on edge as well; other clear signs of anxiety such as pacing, chewing furniture, urinating/defecating or panting.
These are easy to spot, but if your dog withdraws or becomes subdued, then this may be their way of telling you they are anxious as well. Less common signs to look for include stiff tail and posture, tight, closed mouth or a lowered head that’s leaning forward.
To change behaviour, consistent training is key, but looking at the dog’s lifestyle is important as well since their daily routine can help or hinder their anxiety over strangers.
As well as training, there are a few key elements to the dog’s lifestyle that will ease anxiety, and the first key factor is enough exercise. It sounds obvious, but we often underestimate just how much outdoor time dogs need in order to feel calm and relieved of frustration. This isn’t going to tackle the issue of fear, but being aware of general restless energy and anxiety is a good idea. Depending on your breed, your dog should spend between 30 minutes to two hours being active a day. Ideally, if you have an energetic gun dog like a Springer Spaniel, Vizsla or a Retriever, they should have closer to two hours a day. Depending on their size, terriers need between 30 minutes to an hour, and small dogs like pugs or chihuahuas need around 30 minutes.
Imagine if you never left the house and never met new people; chances are you’d probably be quite nervous when you were suddenly confronted with a situation in which you had to, so it is with dogs. If you don’t get them used to being around other dogs and other people, their sense of what’s safe can become much smaller as well. This isn’t to say throw your dog a party or take them straight to doggy daycare; instead, try easing them in with one friendly dog and person at a time. Maybe get a dog walking buddy or if you hire a dog walker, maybe see if they can help with slowly transitioning a dog into being around other dogs and people.
From calming plug-in diffusers and calming collars to natural remedy tablets and soothing dog treats, there’s a whole host of natural and safe products that are from trusted brands and have been designed to alleviate anxiety in dogs. Scrumbles Nibbles Calming Dog Treats are perfect for conditioning your dog and rewarding them with a treat, while Beaphar Calming Spot-On Dog Tablets is activated within one hour of administration, so if you know a guest is on their way, this is a quick remedy that will take the edge off your pup’s nerves. Check out our round-up and guide on the Dog Calming Aids available on the market that are tried and trusted.
Now that we’ve covered lifestyle changes for your pup, it’s time to tackle the specific problem of guests in your house. This can be done by desensitising the trigger so that it no longer becomes something your dog reacts to and reconditioning their response in order to make the trigger create a different emotional response in your dog.
First, find out what triggers your dog; maybe they get anxious from the moment someone knocks on the door, or maybe it’s when they enter the house; simply hold the treat in front of them and wait for them to respond to a ‘quiet’ command before rewarding them with a treat. If they won’t stop barking, lead them away from the situation and wait for them to be calm in another room. Do this each time the trigger happens, and if you can, try to get a friend or family member to get involved and knock on the door each time, so you have multiple times to practice with your dog. This way, they’ll learn to associate the knock on the door with something positive.
If the guests enter the room and sit down, that triggers them, then practice the same thing with a friend or family member and have them sit on the couch, not making eye contact with the dog. When your dog responds to your ‘quiet’ command, give them the reward, and if it is safe to do so, ask the guests to place a treat on the floor in front of them so that your dog learns to associate strangers/guests with something positive. We don’t advise letting your dog take it from their hand simply because it’s too close and maybe too intimidating for your dog. Also, if your dog responds aggressively, then this isn’t safe for the guest.
As a backup, we also think it’s a good idea for your dog to have a safe, calming space of their own. A place that’s filled with their favourite teddies, toys and comforting blankets. It can also be a space where you fill a kong with something like peanut butter and allow them to stay in there for the duration of the visit. This can be in a room, the kitchen, an insulated dog house outside, or anywhere that’s a place of comfort and familiarity for your dog and a place where they can preoccupy themselves with something fun.
The main goal is to get your dog used to visitors coming and to associate it with a positive (the treat), but if your dog is becoming too distressed, then sometimes it’s better to let them calm down somewhere and work on it a little bit more in your own time.
Conditioning with treats is a tried and tested technique that works so long as your patient. As a human being, you know how hard it is to break a bad habit, it takes time and patience with the occasional setback, but you eventually get there. So it is with your dog learning a new behaviour that’s different to their pattern of thinking and behaviour before. It will take time, but the method to remember is:
- Identify the trigger
- Show them the treat and wait for them to be quiet
- Reward them
In the meantime, Good luck!