Protocol for Desensitization and Counterconditioning to Noises and Activities That Occur by the Door

From Dr. Overall: Clinical Behavioral Medicine for Small Animals



Some dogs react whenever anyone comes to a door and rings the doorbell or knocks. Because the reaction level at the door is a key in the dog's increasing anxieties, clients often need to work separately on desensitizing and counterconditioning the dogs to noises and activities around the door. This protocol is designed to help you teach your dog to relax and to be calm in such circumstances

Place the dog in the middle of the room with its side facing the door. This allows the dog to use peripheral vision but will not draw all attention to the door. It is best to have two people to practice this protocol: one person acts as the person to reinforce the dog, and one person acts as the stranger. It is best at first if the stranger is a person with whom the dog is comfortable.

The goal of the protocol is to get the dog to relax when given a cue to do so, despite the fact that someone is at the door. Some people prefer that the dog be permitted to bark once or twice as a warning before being quiet. This may be possible, but for some dogs, even reacting to that limited extent may send them into a cascade of behavior that is undesirable and inappropriate. It is not sufficient that the dog is sitting or lying quietly—it must not be showing any of the physical signs of underlying physiological stress (shaking, trembling, panting, salivating, increased heart rate, averted gaze, frequent eye movements, and so on). Relaxed animals can learn, and animals that enjoy the tasks learn faster.

When the dog is sitting or lying down and is relaxed, give instructions to the stranger to begin to knock softly and briefly (see the following task list). You should review the plan with the stranger before you practice with the dog so that you two can communicate without confusion. This helps prevent anxiety in the dog. As soon as you hear or anticipate that you will hear the knock, call the dog to look at you. As soon as it looks at you, say, click and reward with a treat. If the dog glances quickly at the door but otherwise does not appear to be upset and either spontaneously returns its gaze to you or responds to a soft signal from you (pursing of your lips, clearing your throat, saying the dog's name, and so on), you can reward the dog. If the dog reacts or stares at the door, call the dog to you; farther away from the door, repeat, with the stranger knocking more softly. If this does not work and the dog continues to react, take the dog out of the room, practice sitting or lying down when the dog is calm enough to successfully do so, and start again at a softer level of knock with more distance between the dog and the door.

Finally, if you must remove the dog from the room, you will be best served by being able to do so with a verbal command. If your dog will not respond to a verbal command to come when it is upset, you will need a collar and leash to kindly and gently lead the dog toward a more appropriate behavior. If you have any doubts that you can easily correct the dog with a verbal command, or if you or the stranger are concerned about personal safety, please use a collar. If you work with the dog, it will learn to couple the verbal command with the collar direction, and you will gradually be able to work off-leash. If this never happens, it is not a disaster. Provided you are with the dog, you can use a head collar and a long-distance lead to correct inappropriate door behavior. Do not leave leads or head collars on an unsupervised dog; the dog could injure itself.

If you do not have someone to help you practice the tasks, you can still participate in this protocol. Make a tape recording of the tasks as listed with appropriate pauses between them, and start with the volume very low. As your dog's behavior improves, increase the volume. This also works well for dogs that react more to the people on the other side of the door than they do to the sounds.

The following tasks will help you teach your dog to react more appropriately at the door. Remember that you can use a baby gate to keep the dog in a room away from the door so that you do not get into a contest of wills at an entryway. If the dog is less upset under gated circumstances, you can progress more quickly with the program because the dog will not continue to learn from and reinforce its inappropriate behavior.


  • Dog's Task
  • Dog sits and relaxes while:
    Person knocks briefly and softly
    Person knocks softly for 5 seconds
    Person knocks softly for 10 seconds
    Person knocks moderately and briefly
    Person knocks moderately for 5 seconds
    Person knocks moderately for 10 seconds
    Person knocks normally, briefly
    Person knocks normally for 5 seconds
    Person knocks normally for 10 seconds
    Person knocks loudly for 5 seconds
    Person knocks loudly for 10 seconds
    Person bangs on the door briefly
    Person bangs on the door for 5 seconds
    Person bangs on the door for 10 seconds
    Person rings the doorbell briefly
    Person rings the doorbell for a normal length of time
    Person rings the doorbell for 5 seconds
    Person knocks on the door normally and turns the knob
    Person opens the door 2 centimeters
    Person opens the door 5 centimeters
    Person opens the door 10 centimeters
    Person opens the door, steps into the doorway, and then closes the door (do not enter)
    Person opens the door, steps through the doorway into the room, then exits
    Person opens the door, enters the room, and closes the door behind him or her

    Once the dog can sit and stay while a familiar person can come to and through the doorway, repeat the task list with someone who is less familiar to the dog.

    For Future Repetitions
    Repeat all tasks in different locations.
    Repeat all tasks with all family members.
    Repeat all tasks with only every second or third task being rewarded with a treat. (Remember praise!)
    Repeat with only intermittent treat reinforcement. (Remember praise!)