Teaching a Very Excited Chocolate Lab to Stay Calm and Control Herself

By: David Codr

Published Date: June 1, 2016


Harper is a three-year-old Chocolate Lab who gets over-excited, jumps up, charges the door, barks in a territorial way and nips children’s feet when running by or riding a bike.

Harper was clearly excited as soon as she saw me, but her energy level had the real spike once I actually came inside the home. As many dog guardians do, Harper’s had gotten into a habit of physically holding her back and pulling her away from guests at the door.

Anytime that you have a dog in an excited or unbalanced state of mind, it’s always a good idea to stop and wait for the dog to settle down before continuing. Obviously this is challenging when you have people arriving at the door.

To help the dog learn a new door behavior, I spent a couple of minutes going over how Harper’s guardians can get her to respect a boundary several feet away from the door before opening it.

By using body language, movement and a confident, assertive energy – I was able to easily communicate to Harper that I wanted her to stay several feet away from the door while I answered it myself.

Security for the pack is generally handled by an authority figure, so taking over this job will go a long ways towards helping the dog’s guardians assume the leadership role in Harper’s eyes.

After explaining the technique to the dog’s guardians, I stepped outside so that I could play the part of the guest and allow the family’s father to answer the door himself.

For the most part the father did a good job. However halfway through the exercise he turned his front completely away from the dog. Because we had practice this a couple of times, this error did not result in a failure, but that is more because Harper was maintaining the boundary that I established rather than respecting the movement of her guardian.

I suggested that the members of the family call or text one another and practice this door answering ritual amongst themselves. It will be helpful if one member can observe the other family member as they run through the exercise so that they can point out (after the exercise) what the person could do better. Hopefully watching these videos will enable all the members the family to understand what they should and should not do when answering the door.

After addressing the door excitement, we went over the structure and discipline the family had incorporated into Harper’s daily routine. I should say we discussed the structure and discipline the family had failed to include in the dog’s life, LOL. Harper really didn’t have many rules or boundaries. The guardians had things they wanted, they just were struggling to communicate that to the dog in a way she understood and respected.

While Harper is generally a good dog, this lack of rules and structure had resulted in her thinking that she had the same authority as the members of the family. When a dog sees itself as your equal, then listening to you becomes optional.

To help the guardians start to redefine the leader follower relationship with their dog, I went over a more structured way of rewarding Harper that will motivate her to be more obedient.

By asking the dog to do something before it receives any attention or affection, Harper’s guardians can use positive reinforcement to motivate her, while also helping her see them as authority figures.

Next we went over some nonverbal communication methods and ways for the family members to disagree with Harper. Harper responded to these right away as we were using body language and movement to communicate rather than verbal commands she didn’t completely understand.

It was great to see how quickly Harper got it and responded to these new communication cues. In fact, it will probably take the humans in the house longer to change their behavior than it did for Harper.

One of the other major issues that the dog’s guardians wanted to address was Harper’s territorial barking when people passed by her backyard. This is likely a result of the dog attempting to contribute to the pack by handling security.

As the humans practice the various leadership techniques and exercises that I introduced during the session, they should notice a substantial decrease in her reactivity outside. This is why dog obedience training so important. it helps the dog start to see and identify as being in a follower position.

But there are also exercises that her family members can utilize that will help stop Harper’s reaction to approaching neighbors.

Perhaps the most effective of these exercises is something called counterconditioning. I spent the next few minutes going over how Harper’s guardians can utilize this technique to change her behavior as a pair of neighbors walked back and forth past the yard.

The counterconditioning process will take some time and practice, but if done properly should put a stop to her territorial displays once and for all. I suggested that the family identify times of the day when they are going to have the most people walking by consistently and then utilize this technique until Harper no longer responds territorially.

By the end of the session Harper was no longer barking or getting over excited when people came to the door, she was starting to sit in front of her guardians to politely ask for attention rather then nudging them and was able to observe people passing by the backyard without barking at them territorially.

As Harper’s guardians get better with their technique and timing, they should notice a steady improvement in their dog’s behavior. The most challenging behavior to modify will be her territorial barking in the backyard. But because of how quickly she responded to the counterconditioning exercise, I surmise that this problem will also be something that the family can put to bed in the near future.

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This post was written by: David Codr