Knock Knock … Helping Your Pets Get Used to Visitors

We’re now well into the ‘season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’ (well, today it’s more like the season of damp and drizzle but you know what I mean…) which can be a lovely time for pet owners. We can enjoy walking dogs in the bright autumnal sunshine or watching cats play in the richly-coloured piles of leaves in the garden. The weather’s not yet so cold that you have to bundle up every time you step out the door, but you’re also no longer worried about your pet overheating or burning their paws on the tarmac.

There’s a lot to be said for autumn; it’s one of my favourite times of the year … but (there’s always a but, isn’t there!) autumn also brings with it a couple of celebrations that aren’t generally loved by pets and, consequently, their owners too. Yep, Halloween and Bonfire Night. Barely a week apart and the bane of many pet owners’ lives. I’ve talked about Bonfire Night before, and given some tips on how to help keep your pets calm and settled if they’re particularly anxious about fireworks (read my blog from last year’s Bonfire Night here) so today I’m going to talk about Halloween and, specifically, all the knocks at the door and dings of the doorbell that ensue, with trick or treaters adorned in scary costumes coming in search of their sugar-filled rewards.

Now, one easy option to deter them is to put up a sign saying ‘No trick or treaters please’ or, just avoid having any Halloween decorations or pumpkins out. It’s generally agreed by most courteous trick-or-treaters that you don’t knock on the doors of houses that are clearly not entering into the Halloween spirit (no pun intended). However if, like me, you have children who are desperate to dress up and make the most of the one day of the year that not only are all the neighbours giving out sweets but they’re also allowed to munch through a bucket-load of sugar just before bedtime, well then it’d be churlish to turn visitors away from your own home. So, it comes down to a choice between upsetting your kids or upsetting your pets… not an easy one!

If you have a pet who’s particularly upset by the doorbell or knocking, fearful or reactive to visitors or protective of their home environment, then it’s likely that this problem isn’t unique to Halloween. Your feline friend or canine companion may well become agitated every time post arrives, a parcel is delivered or, indeed, any time someone turns up to visit. With Christmas on the horizon, you may well already be feeling anxious not only about Halloween callers but about the how your furry friend may react to festive guests. So, what can you do about this?

Scaredy Cats…

If it’s Kitty who’s afraid of visitors, firstly it’s a good idea to rule out any medical reason for this. Has their behaviour suddenly changed? If they’ve always been fine previously but have recently become fearful of visitors or particularly jumpy at the sound of the doorbell, then it’s a good idea to have them checked to ensure this behaviour isn’t symptomatic of an illness or injury.

If they’ve always been this way, then there are still things that you can do to help make the situation less stressful for all of you – you can’t just stop having guests to accommodate Kitty’s wishes, but equally you can’t continue to allow your cat to be on edge every time anyone calls at the house.

The natural socialisation period for cats is around 2 – 7 weeks so, if they didn’t become used to being around people as a young kitten, this may be why they’re nervous now. They have no doubt become used to the people they regularly see and the way your household works routinely, but

anything out of the ordinary – including guests calling – can upset their status quo. They may dart off out the door when a visitor arrives, which can be worrying, or they might take themselves away and hide in a quiet spot. This reaction is quite natural for a cat. When faced with a potential problem or perceived threat their first reaction is to run away and hide, or at the very least observe from a safe distance. Like humans, cats all have different personalities so if Kitty is a cautious character and is easily startled then the sound of the doorbell, unfamiliar movements or extra people in the house will be enough to make that ‘flight’ instinct kick in (cats usually choose this over ‘fight’).

Firstly, to stop Kitty dashing out the door in an alarmed state the second it’s ajar, it’s a good idea to make sure any internal doors separating the front door from the rest of the house are shut when you answer a knock. If your cat can’t get outside then at least you know they are safe. They may well still find somewhere in the house to hide, but that’s fine – just leave them to it for now. The last thing you should do is find their hiding place and drag them out. We all know that cats like to do things in their own time! Let them see that the visitor is not a threat. They may observe from afar for a while, taking things in. Shake their food or treats to see if they will come out from their hiding place for something positive. Initially, place this somewhere near their hiding place so they feel able to come out and move around. Then, put some food or treats in the room where your guest is and let Kitty approach them in their own time at their own pace. You need to be strict with your visitor and make sure they don’t move suddenly, make sudden or loud noises, or go to grab or stroke Kitty – remember, it’s all on the cat’s terms! Repeat this process with different visitors until Kitty becomes braver about having strangers in the house. Likewise, when the doorbell rings, shake Kitty’s treats and then give them one after the postman/parcel delivery person/canvassing MP (?!?) has left. Over time, they will begin to create positive associations with the sound of the bell or a knock, rather than being scared.

Most of all, don’t try to force a change of behaviour onto your cat. They need to understand that there’s no reason to be fearful and they may need to get used to the idea by watching from a distance at first, but as long as you can show them that visitors are not something to be feared, they’ll start to get used to the idea. It’s a little like ‘trick or treat’ but from the inside of the house, rather than the outside … and without the tricks, obviously! So, just ‘treat’ really. And cat treats at that, definitely NEVER chocolate, and without the fancy dress too. So, not much at all like ‘trick or treat’. Scrap that analogy! Anyway, moving on…

What to do if your dog doesn’t like visitors

So, we’ve talked about how we can help Kitty to get used to strangers calling at the door or coming in, but what about Fido? Well, for a start, dogs are generally a lot noisier in the way they react to a visitor! Not only can this be alarming for the person on the other side of the door but it can be very inconvenient for other members of the household (sleeping babies, partners who’ve been on nightshift, anyone conducting a Zoom meeting, etc!). Again, it’s about removing the fear and replacing it with a positive association but with dogs you can be more proactive about the situation. Unlike cats, you don’t need to wait for Fido to come around! Firstly, get your dog used to sudden noises that may make them jump, and show them that it’s nothing to fear. You can do this by knocking on the table or internal doors; if the sound alarms your dog then do it again but more quietly. Repeat this process until they begin to get used to it, gradually getting louder until your dog

is able to ignore the sound. You can also do the same with a doorbell (or use a doorbell sound on your phone).

When someone is actually at the door your dog’s territorial instinct may kick in and they may want to alert you to this fact, or they may be excited about who’s there. But, they can alert you in another way than barking! When you go to answer the door ask your dog to sit quietly in a spot nearby, then, when they do as they’re told, reward them with a treat before opening the door. You can use a command such as ‘door’ for this action. Dedicate time and effort to this training (firstly without anyone at the door – just get them used to sitting in their designated spot with the ‘door’ command – and then later with someone helping you out by ‘turning up’ outside and ringing the bell/knocking). Be consistent and you’ll be surprised how quickly Fido catches on. They’ll soon realise that going to their ‘door place’ and sitting quietly when there’s a knock at the door will earn them a reward! Give them the command ‘ok’ when it’s time to leave their spot and they’ll know they’re free to move and calmly greet your guest.

Stranger Danger

If the problem is not just that your dog is noisy when a visitor arrives, but that they’re fearful (sometimes presenting as growling or curling their lip, which could be viewed as aggressive) then you need to make sure that both your dog and your guest feel safe. In these situations, give your dog a safe space – maybe their bed or crate – which is away from the visitor but ideally somewhere where they can observe your interaction (perhaps by using a stairgate in an internal doorway). Make sure your dog knows that their safe space won’t be invaded. Try not to get angry or stressed with Fido but be calm and reassuring. Ask your visitor not to look at or interact with the dog but instead give them some treats to gently toss in Fido’s direction. Once your visitor is seated you may want to bring Fido into the room on a lead (the lead reassures both your visitor and your dog, a bit like hand-holding with a toddler!), so that they can observe the situation more closely. Little by little, they should become more used to having strangers in the home once they realise there’s no threat.

Obviously, this advice is general and if your dog is particularly scared, especially if they’re showing signs of aggression, then it’s a good idea to work on a one-to-one basis with a dog behaviourist to help both you and Fido to feel confident about welcoming guests. There are lots of factors that can cause this type of behaviour, from previous trauma to not being socialised as a pup. A behaviourist will be able to identify and work through the specific triggers for your four-legged friend and hopefully make your home a calm, happy and welcoming environment. As with cats, if this behaviour is a sudden change then pop your pooch to the vets for a once over. Behavioural changes can sometimes be indicative of a health problem which will need to be investigated and treated.

Essentially, whether it’s your cat or dog that doesn’t like visitors, it’s all about showing them that there’s no reason to be scared and creating positive associations with a situation that has previously caused fear. It’s not something that you can change overnight but with a calm, consistent approach you can help your pet transform from antisocial and anxious to warm and welcoming!