When someone knocks on the door, Willow morphs into a little monster.

This gentle, affectionate 20-month-old Cocker Spaniel goes into a sudden frenzy when someone comes to the front door resulting in an attack on the nearest person including the twelve-year-old son. Willow has drawn blood.

The question is, why?

We know that the immediate trigger for attack is when she either sees someone coming up the path from her perch on the sofa arm or when she hears the doorbell or someone knocks. An attack may even happens if it’s a family member approaching the door.

Her arousal is so extreme and so sudden that she flies at the nearest person, teeth barred.

Attack on owner when someone comes to doorAttack is the only way she knows to vent the level of arousal she is feeling. She has to redirect it somewhere.

Her uncontrolled stress at someone coming to the door is the immediate ‘why’, but it should be seen in a bigger context. How does she come to be so trigger-happy when otherwise she’s so sweet?

On asking lots of questions it became apparent that there were other pieces of the jigsaw that could be contributing, so we need to take a holistic approach.

She was initially a bit scared of me though that didn’t last long and she showed me no aggression at all – but a degree of fear will be involved.

She’s unfulfilled for a working dog. Like so many dogs living with busy people, they don’t really have sufficient time for her. With the best will and all the love in the world people often simply don’t realise when they get their puppy the amount of time required for many years into the future. (It’s not like the dog gets no stimulation or attention – it’s just either the wrong kind or not enough and this is due to lack of awareness. She is a much-loved dog).

Willow’s days alone by herself, despite a short visit at lunchtime, are too long. The two boys get home first and want to go on their X boxes, not play with the dog. The adults are tired when they get home a bit later, so she gets just a short walk in the week and sometimes no walk at all.

Then they want to settle for a peaceful evening. Understandably. Life is challenging with full-time jobs, a house to run, two active boys with their own requirements – and a little red Cocker Spaniel who wants some action!

It’s easy to imagine how Willow must be brimming with invisible frustration. I suggested one of the lads imagine how he might feel if he was locked in a room for hours on end, day by day, without his phone or his X Box!

We have looked at various ways of giving Willow work to do – working for her food using a Kong and a treat ball, and sprinkling her dinner over the grass. She needs more things to chew as chewing relieves stress. She loved the Stagbar I lent her.

In the evening, instead of only responding when she’s a nuisance, barking at them or stealing something, could they not initiate regular short activities?

How about ‘Advert-Time Fun’? Five minutes at a time during advert breaks on TV doing things like a walk around the block, standing out in the road just sniffing and watching the world go by, a training game, ‘Find-It’ game, tug or ball game and so on. They can take it in turns. We have a list. We need to motivate the boys too.

How can they prevent a further attack?

I have worked out a plan to gradually desensitise Willow to people coming to the front door. If they do this many times, over and over, they should get to the stage that when she hears the bell she happily runs away from the window and into the kitchen. Anything is possible given sufficient time and effort. This is another thing they can do in 5-minute advert breaks.

They can help matters by blocking part of the window with frosting and installing an outside mailbox.

The plan involves coming when called. People often expect their dogs to comply without giving them motivation. If someone said to me ‘Theo, come here’, and I came, then all they said was ‘Nothing’ or ignored me altogether, it wouldn’t be long before I stopped coming! Willow’s food can be earned. I don’t mean commercial treats full of additives – I mean her regular food – or special real food like chicken for something particularly impressive.

I reinforced Willow with tiny bits of food all the time I was there and a couple of people did come to the door. She started her barking. I immediately called OKAY and ‘Willow Come’ before she had time to get stuck in. She came. Okay, she went back again a couple of times to bark but came back immediately I called her. She soon stopped and there was no redirected frustration at all in terms of aggression.

I succeeded because I was immediate, because I used a high bright voice and because I FED her when she came to me.

The formula for Willow’s success is this: more to do, more to chew, more proactive play – but not rough over-arousing stuff, and more exercise. Exercise in terms of duration so she has more time off lead and time to sniff – not exercise in terms of pulling on a short lead around the roads or covering too much distance with too much ball play which would have the opposite effect to de-stressing.

I wonder whether a daily dog walker would be part of a solution.

If they don’t have much time, they could do a daily Rucksack Walk.

Against a background of better fulfilment, they can much more successfully teach her the alternative thing to do when someone comes to the door – something incompatible with going into a frenzy and attacking someone. This is because they will be dealing with her whole underlying emotional state, the full ‘reason why’, as well as dealing with the actual behaviour itself.

NB. For the sake of the story and for confidentiality also, this isn’t a complete ‘report’ with every detail, but I choose an angle. The precise protocols to best use for your own dog may be different to the approach I have worked out for Willow and I’ve not gone into exact details for that reason. Finding instructions on the internet or TV that are not tailored to your own dog can do more harm than good as the case needs to be assessed correctly, particularly where aggression issues of any kind are concerned. One size does not fit all so accurate assessment is important. If you live in my own area I would be very pleased to help with strategies specific to your own dog (see my Help page)