Is Your Dog a Door Dasher? Teach Your Dog Door Manners.

Training your dog is sometimes an activity that slips naturally into the flow of your interactions with your dog throughout the day and sometimes it’s an intentional activity which is purposefully planned. And sometimes we teach our things just for fun.

At the present, I’m teaching one of my young dogs how to weave between my legs while I walk. That may not be very practical, but it’s a fun trick!

Then there are skills we also train that are practical needs and that help our day together flow more easily. For example, my dogs learn to sit while I attach the leash. It makes my life easier. But sometimes the skills we train are for SAFETY. A behavior that is not only practical, but also helps to keep my dog from getting hurt.

DOOR MANNERS are skills that help keep my dog SAFE.

If an open door is an invitation for a dog to bolt outside and explore, the dog could get injured or lost. My dogs need to learn to WAIT TO BE RELEASED when the door is opened so that they don’t end up in the road.

One way to keep the dog safe around doors is to train the people in the house to keep the doors closed when the dog is near the exit. But what about visitors who don’t know the rules? And children who forget to think about the rules . . . sometimes I forget!

So my dogs need to know that an open door is NOT an invitation to bolt outside.

First, I teach a dog to SIT. That part is easy. I begin to teach that as soon as the puppy enters my home. I want my puppy to be able to communicate with me when she wants something.

SIT is the way I teach my puppy to say “please.”

I usually teach this skill by capturing it. I just wait for the young pup to SIT, I click, toss a treat on the floor for them to go eat which reinforces them for the sit AND then gets them up so that they can SIT again. Since SIT gets lots of reinforcement around my house, my dogs offer SIT whenever they want something.

Next, I need for the pup to understand SIT near a doorway (and maybe with a leash on). Dogs don’t necessarily generalize behavior to all situations and all locations, so my puppy, Kip, and I visit doors all around our house. We practice the SIT behavior in front of each door, while wearing a leash and at other times without a leash. Move to a nearby door, cue the SIT, mark and reinforce. Repeat. Find another door. Repeat.

Remember, when we train a dog, we are teaching the dog what she SHOULD do rather than what she SHOULDN’T do.

My goal is door manners. To me this means the dog waits for my cue before going through the door. “Sit” is just a simple way for me to ask the dog to wait for what I might cue next. If the puppy is sitting, she isn’t bolting through the doorway.

Next, I want to transfer the cue. I want the behavior to be default, which means that when no information is offered, the dog “defaults” to a specific behavior. I don’t want to have to say “sit” each time we approach a door. I might forget. Or I might have visitors who haven’t been coached to say “sit” every time they open a door.

The new cue for “sit” will be “touching the doorknob.” To teach the dog the new cue, we visit doors in my house again. As I approach the door, I reach out and touch the doorknob (that’s the new cue), then I say the word ‘sit’ (that’s the old cue). The dog sits, I click and reinforce. And repeat. And repeat again.

Eventually the dog begins to anticipate the verbal cue “sit.” I watch for the dog’s weight to shift in anticipation as I touch the doorknob – I know she is anticipating my next word. I wait before saying “sit” because I know she is now associating ‘touching the doorknob’ with the old cue “sit”; I don’t need to say the word anymore. The cue has been transferred.

Next step – Pup remains sitting while I open the door. My goal is for my pup to succeed, so I am only going to slightly open the door. Dog is sitting. Click and reinforce. Close door. If she stands or moves toward the door, I just calmly close the door and try again. But that next time, I make it easier for her and open the door even less. I want her to succeed. As she is able to remain sitting for the tiniest opening of the door, I incrementally begin to open it wider and wider.

If she ever gets up or approaches the door, I merely start all over. I call that “going back to kindergarten.”

When a puppy makes a mistake in learning, I go back to a place where I know she will succeed and begin to slowly add difficulty again. The more times she succeeds, the more confident she becomes and the better she is able to learn new concepts and succeed with more difficult criteria.

Next step – Duration. I’d like my pup to remain seated while the door is open for longer periods of time. I add that time in incrementally – starting with just a second (literally) and adding in small bits of time until she understands the idea of remaining seated at the door for longer periods of time.

Finally – Add distractions. Sometimes I need the pup to remain inside while I go out and come back in. As she is able to maintain her sit with the door open, I begin to introduce the idea of me walking through the door. Often at my house, I need one dog to remain inside while another goes out. I introduce and train these distractions small slices very slowly approximating real life situations.

Now to begin to make training look more like real life. I move more naturally. Open the door more confidently. Move comfortably in and out of the doorway.

In the below example, I didn’t really need to carry these empty boxes in and out; I was just trying to approximate real life situations for Ari’s training. Notice Ari is not sitting. When I was teaching door manners to Ari, I didn’t ask that she sit – I just asked that she remain inside. The goal behavior is waiting to go out until she is released.

Knowing how to wait at the door is good manners. I don’t want to be crowded by dogs when I go in and out. But, much more importantly, knowing how to wait at the door is an issue of safety. I don’t want to risk loss or injury simply because I didn’t teach my dog the importance of waiting at an open door.

Here’s a video that summarizes most of the steps :

Sit at closed door on verbal cue
Transferring cue
New cue: Turning doorknob
Opening door
Adding duration
Release to go thru door
Reinforcing turn-back after going thru door

I’d love to see video of your dogs showing off their door manners! Please share. And, as always, Happy Training!

Rachel Thornton is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer – Knowledge Assessed, a graduate of the Karen Pryor Academy of Animal Training and Behavior and Owner of Cold Nose College Natchez Trace located in Hamilton, Alabama. She’s also well-known trainer and mentor in the service dog community. Rachel offers force-free training and behavior consulting to clients in the tri-state area of Alabama, Tennessee and Mississippi. 205-412-3612; www.coldnosecollege.com

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