The Door

The front door is almost always the culprit when a dog bolts out of the house and gets into traffic.  Cuing the dog to sit at the door only works if you are there to give the cue.  I teach my dogs that the door itself is the important part-if someone puts a hand on the door it means stop, sit and wait.  If the door is open, I want my dogs to choose to stay inside regardless of what might be outside.  Copyright: spirer / 123RF Stock Photo
The front door is almost always the culprit when a dog bolts out of the house and gets into traffic. Cuing the dog to sit at the door only works if you are there to give the cue. I teach my dogs that the door itself is the important part-if someone puts a hand on the door it means stop, sit and wait. If the door is open, I want my dogs to choose to stay inside regardless of what might be outside. Copyright: spirer / 123RF Stock Photo

Doors seem to be high voltage issues for so many people with dogs. You answer the door, and your puppy bolts through and greets whomever is on the other side. You want to pop out to the driveway and hand something to your neighbour who is passing by and the door doesn’t latch and your dog is now running down the street and out of control. Your sister comes to dinner, and not realizing that dogs don’t know about doors stands with the front door propped open so that she can call her kids in from play. Doors are contentious issues for dog owners. Several times a year, clients contact us to tell us that their dogs have bolted out the door and been hit on the road, so for me, this is a very important issue.

Only rarely do I post the steps that I use to teach a behaviour, but today I am going to make an exception. I have had a look around at what other trainers are offering and I have my own thoughts about door manners, so I will say that this blog is about the parts I think are important, not what everyone else does. When I am training I always keep in mind what I want to end up with. My criteria is simple; when faced with a door to the outside of a building, I want my dogs to know that they should never leave without permission. What does that look like? That means that if I am having my furnace fixed and the repair technician leaves the door open while he grabs his toolbox, my dog isn’t going to inadvertently get out of the house. An open door does not mean that you are necessarily going out. I want my dogs to understand that an open door and a closed door are the same thing; stay in the house unless invited out. There is an important part to this whole behaviour. The key is that what the person does at the door is NOT important. This means that if the door opens of its own accord, the dog’s behaviour should be the same.

To start with, I want to make the door really relevant to my dog. I want my dog to understand that an opening door is important, but it doesn’t mean that we are going through. I start at home, by my front door and I work with the dog OFF LEASH. I don’t want to have to fade anything I don’t want or need to fade. When working on this in classes, the dogs are on leash, but at home, I practice without the leash. What I do is walk up to the door, drop treats and walk away. I do this many times in a row without ever touching the door itself. This step is very simple; I walk up, drop treats and then leave, without ever saying anything to my dog.

This dog looks ready to bolt out the door!  This might be a dog who has been taught to sit at the door when told, but not to stop when a door is open.  Copyright: damedeeso / 123RF Stock Photo
This dog looks ready to bolt out the door! This might be a dog who has been taught to sit at the door when told, but not to stop when a door is open. Copyright: damedeeso / 123RF Stock Photo

The next step is to drop the treats, open the door and close the door and then walk away again. I want my dogs to be very sure that I have developed an obsession with approaching, dropping treats and then opening and closing the door. So far, you will notice that we have not gone through the door. During this stage of training I only go through the door with my dog in the event that my dog is on leash. I want my dog to be really, really aware of how different it is to go through the door compared to having the door open and have nothing to do with him.

I continue to practice with my dogs, dropping treats, opening the door and then at some point when they are really convinced that the door opening and closing has NOTHING what so ever to do with bolting through the door, I drop the treats as normal and open the door and go through and close the door myself. I come right back in and drop treats as I close the door and pass the dog. I am working really hard at this point to make staying inside the more rewarding behaviour. If my dog shows the slightest interest in going out the door, I return to an earlier stage and work at that until we are ready to open the door without the dog showing any interest in going through it.

Once I can walk in and out of a door without my dog showing interest, then I work at the next step of the game. For this I usually have to put my dog’s leash on to keep him safe if he goofs, but I don’t want to use it for anything more than a safety line. I start as before, approaching the door and then dropping treats. I open the door and call my dog to go through ahead of, with or behind me. I want to practice all three situations, as they may be relevant to me at various times in my dog’s life. Let me explain. If I am staying with someone who has a backyard, I may wish to send my dog out ahead of me or by himself, so it is important to be able to send him ahead. We may be going in or out of a vet clinic so we may need to go through a door together. And if I am unsure of what is ahead of me, I may ask my dog to fall back and behind me and wait until I have gone through the door first. Regardless of which position I have put my dog in as I go through the door, I stop and drop treats just after the door. I want my dog to pause at the door. I don’t want him to think that just because he has gone through the door that there isn’t more to do. The whole goal is to get him to use the door as a signal or cue to slow down and not bolt.

When I am able to walk up to the door and my dog anticipates that I will drop treats, open the door and walk through and he anticipates that I will drop treats, I start reversing the order of the activity. I walk up to the door and open it first and then drop treats. At this point I go back to working on just one side of the door at a time. I want my dog to notice that the door is opening and that the opening door doesn’t predict going through; it predicts dropping treats. When I can count to five and my dog neither leaves nor looks out the door, I know that I am ready to drop treats, step through the door, and then step back in and drop more treats.

If you have persevered this far, you must be beginning to think that I am unusually detail orientated and patient. I might be detail oriented, but really, I am not that patient. I just keep doing this when I have a few moments here and there until I see the results I want. This is a case where I am not paying the dog to pay attention to what I tell him to do, I am teaching the dog to be aware of what is happening around him, and the more intense I am about the dog attending to me, the less successful I will be in terms of training the desired behaviour.

When I am able to step out and back in and my dog doesn’t even think about going out the door I will begin calling him through the door again. Notice that my criteria here don’t include my dog sitting; rather I am interested at this point in creating a situation where my dog will wait patiently for the door to open and then close and not bolt through. Soon I will add in the sit, but it is an automatic sit, not a cued sit. To do this, I approach the door and reach out to touch the door handle. At this point I stop and wait and wait and wait. At some point, the dog is going to ask himself why I am stuck, and what he might be able to do to get me unstuck to move on with the procedure of open the door and dropping the treats. I want touching the door handle to be the cue that the dog uses to tell him to sit. When eventually he tries sitting (and with most dogs, if I have done the background work, it takes less than two minutes the first time!), I drop treats and open the door. I keep repeating this over and over and over again until my reaching for the door handle causes him to sit. During training I will wait as long as it takes, but I won’t move on until the sit is both automatic and quick.

When my dog has started to figure out that reaching for the door will only be followed by treats if he is sitting, I want to speed that up significantly. To do this, I mentally count while I am waiting for the sit for five repetitions. Suppose I was working with a dog who took a count of 15 the first time, 12 the second time, 16 the third time 4 the fourth time and 11 the fifth time. From this data, I can notice that the dog is taking far longer to sit than I want, and I have a rough estimate of how long the dog takes on average. I am going to disregard the 4 count sit because although it is closer to what I am looking for, it happens too rarely to impact what I am working on in the moment. Using the 4 numbers that are pretty close together, I can figure out that I want to only reinforce sits that take less than a count of thirteen. With this in mind, I will approach the door and put my hand on the handle and then start to count. If I get to thirteen without a sit, I walk away. If my dog sits before I get to thirteen, I drop my treats as before. When my dog is reliably sitting at less than a count of thirteen, then I will drop my number a bit; let’s just say that I will start walking away if my count reaches eleven. I keep dropping this number until my dog will sit at a count of three. Three is a reasonable number to live with, and at that point I can move to the next step.

Once my dog is reliably sitting when I approach the door and I can open the door and he will stay sitting while I drop treats, it is time to start to lengthen the amount of time that he waits before I treat. I like to build up to at least three and preferably five minutes. I continue to ask him to walk through the door with me from time to time, dropping treats on the outside of the door too. The door itself should be a very strong cue about behaviour, and the desired behaviour is not “run out the door and hope for the best”!

At the point where my dog will hold a five minute sit stay while I stand in the door, I start to introduce guests to the picture, and I decrease the rewards. I truly want this to become an automatic behaviour that my dog just does without my input. I want my dog to see the open door as an important piece of information; don’t go through unless told, regardless of who opens the door, who or what is on the other side and what rewards are available. If I am outside the house, I will sometimes open the front door and drop treats inside so that the reward for the door behaviour remains strong regardless of when the door opens, who is opening it or what is happening outside.

Notice that at no point do I tell the dog what to do. Never. Not once! If I tell the dog to sit or stay or prompt the dog or correct him for moving then I am the thing stopping him from bolting out the door. Successful door manners rely upon the behaviour occurring even in my absence.

Below is a video I made outlining the steps I take to teach a dog to stay inside when a door opens.  I used my elderly Chesapeake D’fer to demo this behaviour.  D’fer knew this behaviour really well as a much younger dog, but doesn’t get to practice it much because he is quite arthritic and no longer gets up when people come or go.  You will notice that D’fer takes a long time to sit and at one point struggles to get in the house.  I did not follow the sequence to the end because he was becoming uncomfortable and his comfort was more important than doing a demonstration.

I will add in here that for my own dogs there are exceptions to the door rules. When I am working with or training a service dog, I teach them to give me eye contact through every door, but to keep moving. I do this so that we can pass smoothly in and out of buildings when I am out and about. In general though, for pet dogs, the door itself should be the cue to tell the dog what to do. Imagine now what life might be like for your dog if you could throw open your front door and your dog would not run out. Would it make your dog’s life safer? I think so, and I hope that this blog will help prevent door bolting accidents.

The Door

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