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

HOW DO I LOVE THEE? LET ME COUNT THE WAYS!

Reinforcers and rewards can be powerful tools, but get them wrong and you can get very tangled up. I see a lot of newer trainers want to use only one type of treat, or only bring a tiny amount of good stuff and expect their dog to work for the lowest value items. This is what I think of as the cardboard fallacy. Suppose for a minute that you could get paid for your job in one of two ways. Either we will give you your pay this week in gold, or in cardboard. As of this writing, baled cardboard goes for between $10 USD and $162 USD per ton. Gold on the other hand is about $40 USD per gram. Now, one gram of gold is going to occupy 0.05 cubic cm and one ton of cardboard is going to occupy 9 cubic yards. Setting aside that these items are sold in units that are on completely different measuring systems, I could pay you $700/week in gold that would sit nicely in the palm of your hand. Or I could fill your front yard several times over in cardboard to give you the same value payment. The biggest thing here is that if both a handful of gold and your entire front lawn full of cardboard are worth the same thing, why is it that you want one thing more than another? Especially if it is raining. There is a huge disadvantage to $700 worth of wet cardboard sitting on your lawn.

Would you be willing to have this delivered to your front lawn in return for the work you do each week?  Or would a handful of gold be a better choice?  Offering a dog cardboard will decrease his performance and it is up to us as trainers to figure out what is cardboard and what is gold for each of our dogs.  Copyright : Huguette Roe
Would you be willing to have this delivered to your front lawn in return for the work you do each week? Or would a handful of gold be a better choice? Offering a dog cardboard will decrease his performance and it is up to us as trainers to figure out what is cardboard and what is gold for each of our dogs. Copyright : Huguette Roe

If you are going to give a gift, if you want it to be well received, you need to know your recipient well enough to figure out if they are going to appreciate $700 worth of cardboard, or if they need to get paid in gold. I look at rewards for dogs like gifts; if it is going to be a good reward, I need to know my recipient at least a little bit. To begin with, I need to know my recipient on the species level. This means that I need to know a little bit about what dogs like to do.

Off the top of my head I can honestly say that most dogs like food. There are a few rare exceptions, but for the most part, dogs like food, unless they are extremely distressed. As a group, they have preferences for meat, fish and other high protein sources, and for fats. This means that beef liver is likely going to be a high value item for them, and dried toast will still be valuable, but less valued than is beef liver. Orange slices MIGHT be of interest, but they are likely going to be less valued than is meat. There may be a few dogs who are exceptions to this, but most dogs are going to like beef liver better than dried bread and dried bread better than orange slices. Orange slices are the cardboard of the dog currency world. Yes, some folks would be delighted to have up to 630cubic yards of cardboard as a gift, but these folks are the exception not the rule. Most people are going to prefer a small amount of gold over the same amount of cardboard, and most dogs will prefer a tiny piece of liver over a large slice of orange.

Most dogs will beg for food.  Knowing what your dog prefers will help you to be more effective if you know exactly what food your dog will like.  Copyright: quasarphoto / 123RF Stock Photo
Most dogs will beg for food. Knowing what your dog prefers will help you to be more effective if you know exactly what food your dog will like. Copyright: quasarphoto / 123RF Stock Photo

The next level I need to know a little bit about is the breed level. Within the species “dog” there are many different types of dogs and they are generally grouped into 7 different groups; the sporting dogs, the hounds, the terriers, the herding dogs, the toy breeds, the working dogs and the miscellaneous group. Each of these groups have some commonalities. The sporting dogs are those dogs used for hunting, usually birds. Most of them really like to fetch, so offering them a game that involves bringing back a toy is a natural reward for them. Hounds on the other hand are used for hunting by sight or scent and most of those dogs don’t want to fetch but they DO like to search. Terriers love to dig and tear things up, and they like searching but many of them aren’t as interested in fetching. Herding dogs like chasing and gathering things up, but they are generally less interested in digging. The working breeds include the guarding dogs and the livestock guardians and they have some interesting traits. Guarding dogs love games like tug where they can pretend to take down the bad guy, but livestock guardians don’t like tug at all; they are often hard to motivate because they descended from dogs bred to follow the flocks and get between the flock and a predator. Toy breeds and dogs in the miscellaneous group like things related to the groups that the dogs originated in.

What do the groups have to do with what rewards your dog will like? Ask the next Basset Hound you meet how he would feel about herding sheep as a reward and you can see quickly that knowing something about the general preferences of the groups of dogs can really help to inform you about what to try first as a reward. If instead I offered my Chesapeake Bay Retriever the chance to swim if he did something I liked, I would be more on track than if I offered a Basset Hound the chance to herd sheep. Now you may be thinking to yourself that you have met oodles of Border Collies and German Shepherds who love to play frisbee or swim, and you would be right, but that brings us to two points; herding dogs tend to be pretty flexible in what they like to do, and the individual can give us a better picture of what they actually like to do as an individual.

When you get a puppy, you will find that he is fairly flexible in what he likes and doesn’t like to do. I have seen young retrievers who will spend a whole day fascinated by a herd of sheep that would not attract an adult retriever in the least. Herding dog puppies will often learn to chase and grab things easily and that is easy enough to translate into a number of interesting and rewarding behaviours such as tug, fetch or search. You can often teach a young terrier or guarding dog to fetch in a similar way. Doing this at a young age is quite straight forward, but trying to get it started with an older dog is much more difficult. This is where knowing your individual is important.

Young animals are very flexible in their learning and this gives us an opportunity to teach them to enjoy games that they might not learn to like if they first tried them as adults.  This beagle will play fetch with his ball and doing so often will help him to learn that it is a fun game.  Later you can use fetch as a reinforcer for him.  Copyright: lunja / 123RF Stock Photo
Young animals are very flexible in their learning and this gives us an opportunity to teach them to enjoy games that they might not learn to like if they first tried them as adults. This beagle will play fetch with his ball and doing so often will help him to learn that it is a fun game. Later you can use fetch as a reinforcer for him. Copyright: lunja / 123RF Stock Photo

My dog Eco really, really likes biting bad guys. We did protection work when he was younger and he is really good at it. Eco’s pinnacle reward is biting bad guys. Bad guys are gold to Eco. It is not practical to carry around a guy in an agitator’s suit to reward him on a regular basis, but that is his top reward. We started when he was about 9 weeks old, teaching him to “worry” a rag and then to tug and then to tug big and then to get a good bite on a bad guy. The most valuable behaviour to me is self control. This means that I had a perfect situation to use in order to reward Eco for self control. As a youngster, the best way for him to get a chance to bite a bad guy was to show self control and follow my cues. If he didn’t show self control in training, he didn’t get his turn to bite the bad guy. In this situation, knowing my dog and knowing what I had taught him to do this worked brilliantly.

Friday could care less about biting bad guys. If I offered her the chance to do so, she would just stand back, looking confused because that isn’t what we taught her as a youngster. What she does love though is frisbee. John took the time to teach Friday to chase and fetch back a frisbee and when they are working on obedience behaviours, this is her gold reward. Heeling and coming when called are always faster and sharper if she thinks she is getting a frisbee at the end. Again, this is not a reward John can use all the time, but in a training set up, it works really, really well.

John made a mistake when Friday was a puppy. He used only her kibble for rewards for many months. At first, she liked her kibble well enough, but later, she got tired of it and eventually, it became a cardboard reinforcer. I remember one memorable class where she gently took the kibble out of John’s hand, and then panted with it stuck to her tongue! While this was funny, it did nicely to illustrate what happens when you use cardboard to reward a dog; she humoured him for a bit, but she really, really did not want kibble as a reward.

Our first Chesapeake Bay Retriever was named Bear and Bear had a few things he loved to do. One thing he really enjoyed was swimming. He loved to swim so much that we had to teach him to get out of the water when we told him to do so. What might have enticed him enough to come out of the water? The opportunity to swim again! Bear would get out of the water in order to get the chance to go back in again. Getting into the water was Bear’s gold reward. While it was really difficult to carry a river in our pocket, we did an awful lot of training around open water to take advantage of this great reward.

In class we can use some play and some life rewards (the rewards that your dog just loves to have and that just happen to happen along the way) but for the most part we are going to use food. There are a lot of reasons to use food. To begin with it is fast. I don’t have to take it away from the dog after he is done with it. I can use it in gradations to pay really great behaviours with really favourite foods, and really easy behaviours with so-so foods. This means though that you have to know a little bit about what your dog likes and doesn’t like.

This dog wants to go through the door and this makes for a great life reward!  You can ask your dog to do something he knows how to do in order to get you to open the door.  This is not a cardboard reward, nor is it a gold reward, but it is a highly available reward and it would be a shame to waste that.  Copyright: whitetag / 123RF Stock Photo
This dog wants to go through the door and this makes for a great life reward! You can ask your dog to do something he knows how to do in order to get you to open the door. This is not a cardboard reward, nor is it a gold reward, but it is a highly available reward and it would be a shame to waste that. Copyright: whitetag / 123RF Stock Photo

There is an easy game to play to help dogs to tell us which foods are gold rewards and which foods are cardboard rewards. Take two different foods; say kibble and sausage. Give the dog a piece of kibble. Give the dog a piece of sausage. Now, offer kibble in one hand, sausage in the other. Which does he choose? Kibble? You would be surprised the number of dogs who choose kibble over sausage. Now take your kibble and cheese and repeat. Let’s say that the dog chose kibble over sausage, but cheese over kibble. Now you have a hierarchy of treats. You know more now about what your individual dog likes; this particular dog likes sausage, prefers kibble, but really gets excited about cheese.

Observe your dog carefully and be aware of what drives their behaviour. I have seen dogs who will do nearly anything to get to roll in mud. One of my dogs particularly likes to go out to the barn and smell the horses (they are less enthusiastic about the activity). I had one dog in class who would do nearly anything for the chance to heel on leash; he loved heeling! There are many dogs who love to scavenge and will do a lot in order to get the chance to sniff around for treats. Don’t dismiss these reinforcers just because they are infrequent or unusual or because you don’t like them; you don’t have to like the gift you are giving; what matters is if the recipient likes it.

Unless you are a recycled cardboard dealer, you would probably prefer to be paid in gold than cardboard.  This is about how much gold would be needed to purchase all of the cardboard in the first image of this blog.  Copyright: gillespaire / 123RF Stock Photo
Unless you are a recycled cardboard dealer, you would probably prefer to be paid in gold than cardboard. This is about how much gold would be needed to purchase all of the cardboard in the first image of this blog. Copyright: gillespaire / 123RF Stock Photo

Once you have a good long list of things your dog likes, you can pair them with what your dog is doing. If your dog is learning something really difficult, choose something he likes a lot but doesn’t lose his mind over. It is no good using a bad guy to teach Eco to fetch for instance because he would be so very excited that he would throw the item at me in his enthusiasm to bite bad guys. I might choose a lesser and more convenient reward for bringing a toy back to me such as the opportunity to chase and get another toy! If I am working on quiet work, such as holding an item while sitting, I might use a medium value food treat so that Eco wouldn’t get too excited, AND so that he would still know that he was on the right track. Once the behaviour is well established for a medium value reward, then I might set up a situation where he could have his gold reward, but he would need to be very well trained on a behaviour before I would reward it with the chance to bite a bad guy.

The end of this story is simply that good training often requires that you have a variety of reinforcers available to use under differing circumstances. There are thousands of great things your dog can have as reinforcement; food, toys, the chance to greet a friend, time off leash, time to himself, time with you. I even let one of my dogs fetch a lawn chair as a reinforcement once! Be creative. Don’t pay only in cardboard and know what is gold to your dog. And remember to bring at least three different types of reinforcers to class each time so that you have a good chance of reinforcing your dog if he changes his mind about what he likes today.

HOW DO I LOVE THEE? LET ME COUNT THE WAYS!