Border collie barking at strangers

Is your border collie barking at visitors or strangers in the house? It’s a common behaviour, often first appearing when the dog is an adolescent and may be due to a range of different factors. This post explains how to help adolescent dogs aged anywhere from 4 – 18 months who have suddenly started barking at strangers for no particular reason that the owner is aware of. If your dog shows any signs of aggression, such as snarling, lunging or trying to bite strangers, then please get in touch with me as you will need more specialist advice to prevent the issue from becoming a major problem.

Why is your border collie barking?

So, when trying to solve any dog training issue, always think about what is happening immediately before the behaviour, what the dog actually does, then what happens afterwards – ABC – Antecedent, Behavior, Consequences. Using this line of thought, you can usually work out why the dog is doing something. 

Starting with your border collie barking in the house, someone comes to the door (the antecedent). It’s some dogs’ natural reaction to bark when someone appears on their territory – they don’t want anyone other than their social group on their territory.  They bark (the behaviour).  Then, usually, if the person at the door is the postman or a delivery driver, the “invader” goes away. (the consequence).

As far as the dog is concerned, their barking worked and the person left the premises.  This reinforces the behaviour and makes it more likely to happen again. 

The behaviour may not always be because the dog doesn’t want anyone else on her territory: she may be going through a stage where she is a little wary of strangers and a little fearful. This technique should work for either cause of the barking.

Management

The best way to break this cycle is to keep her away from the door when someone arrives. You can keep her out of the room where the front door is at around the time when the postman arrives, for example, or put her out when you know you have visitors due to arrive, so that if she does bark she is in another room and can’t see the person leave and gets no attention from you for barking. This is the best way to control the behaviour while you work on training her not to bark. Once you have a way of controlling the behaviour so that the dog can’t practice it, you can work on training.

If you can’t always predict when you are going to have visitors and have an open plan home, then, if possible, pre-empt your border collie barking by keeping an eye out for visitors so that you see them before she does. As soon as you see someone approaching the house, pick up a chew or treat that will last a few minutes and take your dog into another room, giving her the treat. Then when the visitor arrives at the door, the dog is already in a different room, she gets no attention for her barking and does not see the person enter or leave.

If, however, you are unable to pre-empt the barking and the dog sees someone arrive before you do, then it’s important that the dog gets no attention from you and is unable to see the person at the door or hear them leaving. There are two options:

  1. Leave the dog in the room you are in and go to the door without taking the dog with you. If you are already in the hallway, then go out the back of the house and round to the front to greet the person there.
  2. Have a long line (lightweight lead) approximately 2m long and leave it on the dog at all times in the house. Cut off the handle so that it can’t get caught on anything. As soon as someone arrives and the dog starts barking, simply pick up the long line and lead the dog into another room, leaving them there before going back and greeting the visitor. Don’t say anything to the dog and don’t give her any treats. We need to be careful not to reinforce the barking.

Training to stop your border collie barking

  1. Breaking the “Doorbell – Bark” association

To break the association of barking whenever the doorbell rings, practice with your family, a couple of times a day.  Ask someone to go outside and ring the doorbell.  The dog will bark. The person will then wait a few minutes and repeat. Don’t answer the door and don’t react at all. Repeat a few times until the dog is no longer barking when the doorbell rings. As soon as the bell rings and she doesn’t bark, be ready with a really tasty chew or treat that will last the dog a few minutes. Show the dog the treat and take her into a different room and give her her treat.  Leave her for a couple of minutes then let her out.  Don’t open the door, just let the bell ring and take her out.  Eventually, when the bell goes, she will look at you for a treat, hopefully without barking.  Keep practicing this regularly.

2. Hearing someone arrive – no doorbell

If she is barking before the visitor rings the bell because she has heard them arrive, then this is not so easy to control and it will be best just to use a long line, as mentioned above. As soon as the dog starts barking, if the visitor is the postman or a courier, pick up the lead the dog is wearing and move her into a different room. Don’t speak to her and don’t give her any attention and just put her in the room and shut the door. It’s important that she gets no interaction or a treat in these circumstances, otherwise, you will be reinforcing the barking. She then won’t be able to see the person leave and won’t learn that her barking gets rid of them.  You won’t have to do this forever, just short-term while you get her through this phase. 

Important:

Always make sure that you don’t get into the cycle whereby she is barking THEN you treat her to move her. This will reinforce the behaviour.  So you will need to pre-empt the barking and reinforce her or completely ignore it. 

People that come into the house

If your dog is barking at strangers but showing no signs of aggression, such as lunging, snarling or attempting to nip, then, if possible, ignore the behaviour. Put her in a different room using her long line as soon as they arrive, then let her out when she has calmed down and monitor her behaviour. She may now not bark once the exciting arrival is over. She is probably apprehensive of strangers and we need to show her that visitors are not scary.

How you behave

If the dog barks, don’t react at all. Apologise to the visitors and then carry on as normal. Trying to talk to the dog while she is barking will have very little effect and may communicate to her that you are also fearful. If she isn’t barking then be completely normal, give her some fuss if you would normally do so, give her a treat if she is being brave. Relax and she should follow your lead.

How to ask your visitors to behave

If your visitors are afraid or have children, put the dog away until you are sure that she won’t frighten anyone. If you are able to let her out, again, ask your visitors to ignore her. Staring directly at a dog is threatening. So is looming over them to give them a stroke or sticking a toy in their face to try and get them to play. Just ask them not to look at her and just to let her approach in her own time. It would also be a good idea to give them her favourite treats to give her when she does finally approach, throwing them onto the floor initially, but not to try and stroke her or look at her while feeding her them.  Feeding the dog by hand puts pressure on the dog to take the food which they can find intimidating.

Collies are naturally wary dogs and historically they haven’t been bred for their temperament. They have been bred to go out in fields where there are no strangers to work sheep. As a breed, this makes them naturally wary of strangers and many go through a stage at adolescence of being fearful of strangers. Handled carefully, as above, this will almost always pass. If the above advice does not seem to be working and your border collie’s barking stays the same or is getting worse, please contact me for advice.

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