The arrival of strangers in the home often leads to undesirable behavior — jumping up to greet, excited barking, or general mild chaos. In most cases, this is easily trained by rewarding the dog for keeping “four on the floor.”
For other dogs, the arrival of strangers is a serious problem. This is the case when a dog is reactive to strangers (barks, lunges, growls, etc.) or shows fear-avoidance (hides, cries, barks and retreats, etc.), as well as dogs who are “over the top” in greeting with jumping, muzzle-punching, scratching, etc.
Training for these dogs can involve a range of strategies, from training the dog to go to a mat or crate to lie down, counterconditioning the dog to be more comfortable with strangers, training the dog to back up, etc. However, a critical first step is to set up management and enrichment so that dogs don’t continue to practice bad behavior and make negative emotional associations with visitors. For this, I recommend creating a “safe place” for the dog.
A “safe place” is a room, crate, or other confinement area where your dog stays when people visit – or when visitors first arrive and get settled. It should be a place your dog feels can relax. For dogs that are fearful, reactive, or overly exuberant with visitors, the safe place prevents your dog from making negative associations or practicing bad behavior with visitors. This is a critical part of the training process for fearful, reactive, or “hyper greeter,” dogs. For some dogs, this is a stepping stone toward training to be calm and comfy around strangers after people have come in and settled. For other dogs, the safe room may be a long-term solution.
How to Create a Safe Place?
The best safe place is…
- As far as possible from the door where people enter
- At least one door (two is better). For dogs with a bite history, you definitely need at least two barriers, such as a crate inside a closed bedroom. This backup is in case a child or guest opens the bedroom door or the crate door doesn’t latch properly. The other barrier will still be there to keep everyone safe. A sign on the door that says, “KEEP CLOSED. DOG SAFE SPACE” reminds guests it’s NOT the bathroom or coat closet
- Sound masking – continuous white noise is best, such as a fan or white noise machine
- A drop of lavender or other calming essential oil on a blanket near the crate may also help (don’t use more than a drop, and forego if you have cats – it’s not safe for them)
- An engrossing high-value chew: a meat marrow bone, frozen stuffed Kong, or bully stick. For dogs that are power chewers, you may need to bring a new chew every so often. Remember that for these stressful situations, that old Nylabone or squeaky toy is not going to be good enough. Use the high-value chews!
Condition Your Dog to Love Their Safe Space
You MUST get your dog to be happy and comfortable in their safe space when visitors are NOT present! Otherwise, being sent to their safe space becomes a predictor that strangers are going to arrive, getting your dog worked up or worried every time they go to their safe space.
If your dog already likes being in their crate or room by themselves with their chew, simply do a “dress rehearsal” once every day or two at different times: take them to their safe place, turn on the white noise, give them their high-value chew, and leave them alone. They’ll learn sometimes they go there before people come. Sometimes they go there just to relax.
For dogs that don’t already have a crate or room where they’re comfortable being alone, you may need to help them get used to it by spending some time with them in the room, and then over time, periodically walking out, shutting the door, come back in, etc. Help them learn it is no big deal to be in their safe space by themselves, enjoying a delicious chew.
Remember: A safe place does not take the place of training. It helps set the stage for more successful training by reducing stress (for dogs, owners, and visitors alike) and creating more positive associations with strangers. Once this protocol is in place, the training that comes after will be easier, more pleasant, and much more effective.