Making Molehills Out of Mountains

I see lots of dogs who have loud, exuberant reactions to a doorbell ringing.  Many go just as crazy over doorbell sounds on the TV.  It doesn’t matter.  A doorbell is something to freak out about!  Isn’t it interesting that we rarely hear of dogs who react this way to a telephone ringing?  Why is that?

As usual, we find the answer when we look at things from the dog’s perspective.  What happens when the doorbell rings?  The first few times a dog experiences a doorbell, it is often followed by their owner opening the door to a stranger (to the dog) or someone the dog knows and is excited to see.  If the dog is a puppy when this first happens, there is probably a lot of excitement coming his way as his owner and the guest oooh and awww all over him.  Awesome!

Every time this happens, the dog gets more and more excited about what might be on the other side of that door.  Sometimes he gets so excited that the entire scenario changes.  His owner is suddenly annoyed with his now-adolescent exuberance and guests to the house are offended by his formerly adorable jumping-up routine.  The energy level of this encounter is still very high, and sometimes even more so than when he was a pup.  Now the humans are getting excited and “barking” back at him.  The door bell predicts wild, crazy drama!

So what about the phone ringing?  Well, in most households the phone rings far more frequently than the doorbell.  When the phone does ring, nothing happens.  Nothing new appears, no one is fawning over the dog, no one is yelling at the dog.  Nothing happens.  Therefore, the ring of the phone predicts nothing and doesn’t need to be paid any attention at all.

So, what if the doorbell was ringing randomly and frequently throughout the day and yet nothing happened?  What if the dog heard the doorbell, but it appeared that the people didn’t?  The doorbell rings, but everyone just keeps doing what they’re doing, no one goes to the door, no guests arrive, and no one yells at the dog or pets the dog.  Nothing happens.

In the beginning, being a smart dog, you would react the way you always have.  In fact, you may have to react a bit louder and crazier since the humans are obviously not paying attention.  “HEY!  The doorbell is ringing!  The doorbell is ringing!  Stuff is supposed to happen!” 

But what if over and over again no one responds and nothing happens?  Eventually, reacting to something that results in nothing becomes a waste of time and energy.  The doorbell becomes more like the phone ringing.  It’s irrelevant, except when it’s not.

There will still be times when the doorbell does produce a known or unknown guest at the door.  Okay, we’re back in business!  But if the doorbell rings ten time per day with no result and only twice per week resulting in a guest, it would make sense to wait and see if this time is worth any effort.  The problem for the owner here is that you (the dog) are still waiting to react, and when it’s worth it, you really go overboard!

But what if your owner is super smart?  What if you heard that same doorbell  and immediately after the sound your owner said, “Sit,” and gave you a treat?  Whoa!!  Then five more times per day you experienced the doorbell, “sit”, treat procedure.  Every now and then you would get a bonus of the sit, treat being followed by a guest’s arrival.  Awesome!

Let’s break this down.  Doorbell followed by big reaction or no reaction equals nothing.  Doorbell followed by “sit” equals a treat and possibly a treat and a guest.  Well, duh!  The logical thing to do is to sit whenever you hear a doorbell because it ensures that something will happen.  Not to mention that the something is always great.

(Now you’re human again.)  You may be asking, “But if the dog doesn’t react to the phone ringing because nothing happens, why do I give him a treat for sitting for the doorbell?  Couldn’t I just do nothing?”  You could do nothing when you are ringing the doorbell, but at some point there will be a guest on the other side of the door.  With the phone, you are guaranteed that there will be nothing happening for the dog…unless the phone rings and then the house starts on fire, but that rarely happens.

In other words, you don’t need your dog to sit or stay when the phone rings because nothing will ever happen after the phone rings that will involve your dog.  The doorbell is different.  Sometimes there will be someone at the door and you will need your dog to be sitting and calm.  If you don’t practice the sit and treat without guests, the dog will learn that most of the time the doorbell is nothing, but sometimes it’s a big fat arousal jackpot!  That will make your dog into a gambling addict who is always rolling the dice for the big win.  Which means every doorbell is worth a huge reaction because this could be the one!

By the way, you can go to any home improvement store and purchase a remote doorbell.  The ringer part plugs into an outlet and you can carry the button around in your pocket.  This will allow you to ring the doorbell randomly and go about your business.  You will need to do nothing after the doorbell sounds for at least a day or two so your dog is less aroused by the sound.  After that, you can add the sit/treat after ringing the bell.  Let us know how it goes!


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