German shepherd at door

Q. My 5-year-old German Shepherd/Belgian Shepherd mix is well behaved and follows commands when she is at the vet, at the groomer, and at home with me. But when I have visitors, she becomes overly excited and barks, and will not obey commands. What can I do about this behavior? She absolutely ignores me when visitors come to my house.

A. This is the most common complaint I hear from pet owners: The sound of the doorbell often unleashes an eruption of barking, racing back and forth, pawing and scratching at the door, and jumping all over any and all guests. Even worse, an excitable pooch takes several minutes to calm down enough to respond to familiar commands. Your situation — where your dog listens well under relaxed conditions but tunes you out when extremely excited — is very normal.

Keep Your Pooch on a Leash When the Doorbell Rings

Start by teaching your dog to do a down stay on a mat when a visitor comes to the door. You will need to teach this behavior well in advance of someone ringing the bell or knocking at your door. Mat training should slowly integrate distractions and visitors as your dog’s training progresses.

In the beginning, give your dog only limited freedom on the end of a leash when a guest comes to the door; over time, work up to having her off leash when the doorbell rings. Have a leash next to the door that you can easily snap onto your dog’s collar when a guest arrives; this will prevent her from racing around your house, dashing out the door, or jumping on your visitor. Be sure to practice your mat work beforehand with the leash on. Using a leash keeps your dog closer at your side and gives you more ability to direct her to perform appropriate behaviors.

Offer Treats — and Distractions

Set up a treat station by the door that is out of reach of your dog, but can easily be accessed when a guest comes over. When a guest comes in, treat your dog for sitting, and then immediately ask her to do another behavior, or simply to stay in the sit to await another treat or petting. You may need to treat your dog more frequently until she learns to behave calmly under the most exciting circumstances. For instance, when you are home alone, you may only need to treat your dog at the very end of a long sit stay when the door opens. However, when a guest comes over and ups the excitement level significantly, you may need to treat her every few seconds to begin with. Involve your guests and reinforce positive behavior in your dog by asking them to treat or pet your dog only when she’s sitting.

Provide a positive outlet for your dog’s energy once your guest comes in the house. Giving your dog a food puzzle or a chew toy, or engaging her in an interactive game such as fetch, will direct her excess energy into something productive and distract her from jumping on your visitors.

Outlets for excess energy, such as twice-daily walks or doggy day care, are critical in decreasing your dog’s excitement level. Dogs that rarely get outside to run are understandably going to wreak havoc and be very unresponsive to their owners. However, the more outdoor exercise your dog gets, the more able she will be to relax at home — even when someone exciting comes for a visit.