September 4, 2014
Why do dogs bark at the doorbell?
In a word: Anticipation.
To understand the enormous role anticipation plays in dog training, and life in general, you can start by scrolling back to the very beginning of modern behavior science.
In the late 1800s, Ivan Pavlov, a physiologist studying digestion in dogs, noticed that the dogs regularly fed in his laboratory would go from salivating when food was placed in their mouths to salivating as soon as they entered the lab. This observation—and his willingness to follow where it led, even though behavior wasn’t his bailiwick—would forever change our understanding of how animals (including humans) learn.
Pavlov went on to explore how a neutral stimulus comes to be a learned stimulus—or in plain English, how something that originally has no meaning for an animal comes to elicit the same response as something it routinely predicts.
An interesting side note from Paul Chance, in the textbook Learning and Behavior: “Nearly everyone thinks Pavlov routinely paired a bell with food. He used lots of different stimuli,” including a metronome, “but I’m not sure he ever used a bell.”
Anyone who lives with a dog, however, knows that a bell will do the trick and then some. If visitors elicit excited or anxious responses, and the doorbell predicts visitors, it won’t be long before the doorbell triggers the same responses. There will be involuntary, reflexive responses—the kind Pavlov studied—including an increase in heart rate, piloerection (or as one client recently called it, the “doggy Mohawk”), and so forth.
On top of this, when a dog feels anxious or excited, it will often also choose to bark, and when this behavior gets reinforced, then learning can occur, and it’s more likely to happen again in the future. The dog learns: If the doorbell rings, and I bark, then the UPS man leaves. Or people come in and pet me. Or possibly my anxiety about people coming in is slightly relieved. Or the barking isn’t reinforced: People come in and, as my barking didn’t make them go away the first time, I need to bark louder.
The first thing to do if this really, really bugs you is disconnect the doorbell. No, really. Or just pretend it’s broken and put up a sign asking visitors and delivery people to call. Because if the bell continues to predict visitors, even sometimes, the association will probably stand. Plus, the more the dog practices barking when the doorbell rings, and the more it is reinforced by what happens when he does, the stronger the behavior will get. Some people aren’t willing to take this first step, and any training they do will be less effective as a result.
Some who do commit find that it solves the problem well enough without additional, time-consuming training. But take care that your dog doesn’t make a new connection between, say, you answering your cell phone a certain way and visitors arriving. You can prevent this, or proactively teach a new pup to respond calmly to a doorbell, using techniques similar to those described below. They tend to go more quickly when you’re starting with a sound that doesn’t predict anything to the dog yet.
For dogs who already bark at the bell, especially if fear appears to be at play (which would be determined by observing the dog’s body language), counterconditioning and systematic desensitization, to both the doorbell and visitors, may be in order.
For simplicity’s sake, in describing these processes, I’ll stick to talking about the doorbell:
Systematic desensitization means disassociating the bell from the arrival of visitors, presenting it at a reduced intensity level (read: volume) until the dog can hear it and relax, and then incrementally increasing the intensity. The unwanted response should never be purposely elicited during this process, which is why you never see it done on TV—if you’re doing it well, it’s boring to watch. (Though maybe it would fly in Norway…)
Desensitization is usually combined with counterconditioning: changing the dog’s emotional response to the bell by pairing it with something really great, usually super delicious food. When the bell at a certain intensity evokes the same response as the food, the intensity is incrementally increased.
If there is no discernible level of intensity that does not elicit fear, no distance at which the dog can be persuaded to partake in something wonderful, contact a veterinary behaviorist before proceeding.
Even if your dog is just excited to greet guests, pairing the doorbell with food is still probably a good idea. When you change what the bell predicts for the dog, the dog’s behavior tends to change as well. Or as Eileen Anderson so nicely puts it here, “If you play your cards right, your dog does good things to get the good thing.” Pair the bell with food enough and your dog may start to hunt you down when the bell rings.
Besides changing the dog’s emotional reaction to the bell, you’ll want to teach the dog what to do instead. The doorbell is a cue: Currently it’s a cue to bark, because it predicts that barking will be reinforced in some way, but you may be able to turn it into a cue to do something else.
This process, sometimes called response substitution, boils down to:
- Train a different behavior, preferably one incompatible with barking.
- Build in tolerance to gradually bigger distractions.
- Add the bell back in. When the dog hears the bell, ideally before he has a chance to bark, cue this new behavior.
- Reinforce the new behavior with something the dog thinks is fantastic.
Changing the meaning of any previously established cue can be tough—try teaching your dog that “down” now means “sit.” So if you have one of those fancy new doorbells that lets you change sounds, it’ll be easier to teach one of the new sounds from scratch as a cue for your dog to go to his mat or grab a toy.
If not: Initially, you’ll want to reduce the intensity of the bell to a level that lets the dog easily perform the new behavior and start to get reinforced for it. So there’s an element of desensitization involved. And when you follow the bell by cuing a behavior that’s strongly associated with the prospect of earning something wonderful, there is also a counterconditioning effect.
In any of the above scenarios, or any combinations thereof, there’s an additional process that needs to happen: generalization. The dog needs to go through the new if-then scenario with different types of people, and possibly with other variables systematically tweaked, until, as one of my mentors, Dr. Susan Friedman, puts it, “the dam breaks and the learner generalizes new skills to novel situations.”
If this all sounds like a lot of work in real life, well, it certainly can be, especially if the behavior is fear-based.
I used a response substitution process similar to what I outline here to greatly reduce fence barking with my dog, Pigeon. With barking at the doorbell—which, to be honest, bothered me far less than fence barking did—this has devolved into simply handing her something to chew after just a little bit of barking, and then asking for a calmer behavior or two once her mouth is otherwise engaged.
The result has been to change the nature of the barking from anxious to excited (probably counterconditioning at work) and to reduce the intensity and duration (probably because less, and less intense, barking has been reinforced). Because Pigeon used to have a lot of trouble relaxing with visitors in the home, I’ve also done lots of work to create pleasant associations with them inside the house, mostly by having her settle on a mat or perform her favorite tricks in their presence.
Over the recent Labor Day weekend, my husband and I hosted not one but two small cookouts. At the first one, our guests rang the doorbell, and Pigeon barked briefly—until I handed her a frozen Kong stuffed with wet dog food, peanut butter, and a dried fish skin, which she dragged off to the kitchen.
At the second barbecue, two days later, we were in the backyard firing up the grill when guests began arriving, and Pigeon was already in the grass with a Kong as they came through the gate.
No doorbells were rung, and she barely even looked up.
Kiki Yablon can be reached directly via Dog Training by Kiki Yablon.