Run toward the sun
Spring seems to be the ultimate door-dashing season, as sunshine returns to cure the cabin fever that plagues many humans and canines during the long winter months. In busy families, the front door seems to be in perpetual motion, constantly revolving and providing myriad opportunities for escape. Friends and clients who have dealt with the stress and worry of a lost dog due to an open door accident utter a common refrain: "It was only open for a second."
Once a dog has dashed through an open door, the possibility of the dog being harmed increases. Recently, I heard about a friend's dog that bolted out the door (apparently a well-established habit) and ran underneath a car entering the driveway. The driver said she felt the dog roll under the tires! Thankfully, the dog did not sustain serious injuries. Nonetheless, the experience was terrifying for all involved, and left the dog's owners wondering what they could do to prevent a recurrence. They realized that their luck would run out eventually if the situation were not addressed.
A lot of prophylactic management and a little careful training can go a long way to keeping your canine best friend safe during spring—and for all seasons. If you are trying to prevent your dog from developing a door-dashing problem or if you are already dealing with a seasoned escape artist, installing new safety measures today will be an effort that is well-rewarded with peace of mind.
Provide plenty of legal exploring opportunities
Many of the chronic door-bolters I see are desperate for more physical and mental exercise. These dogs are usually brilliant problem-solvers (making them great candidates for shaping games!) that love a good challenge. Frequently, they are very active dogs that need more structured activity. When dogs lack appropriate and adequate outlets for their natural need to exercise and explore their environment, they will seek these opportunities for themselves. "FINE! If you won't take me to the park, I'll walk!"
While exercise will not solve all problems related to door manners, I find that even my own dogs are significantly less concerned with activity near the door if they have enjoyed a nice long walk or hike that day; their "exploring and adventuring" muscles have already been well-exercised. They've already had the chance to smell a hundred smells, and they already know how many dogs peed in the neighborhood today. At that point, the dogs are more than happy to work on a stuffed Kong or marrow bone so that my husband and I can run in and out of the house with groceries or with tools from a lawn and garden project, or welcome visitors into the home.
Manage, manage, manage
One of the most important things to know about door-bolting is that it falls into the extremely self-rewarding category of dog behaviors, alongside its cousins: prey-chasing, counter-surfing, hole-digging, diaper-genie-rummaging, toilet-water-drinking, litter-box-raiding, and stuffed-animal-humping. With all of these behaviors, remember one thing—Dogs get better at anything and everything they practice. This includes polite behaviors, like sitting, relaxing on a mat, or entering a crate on cue, but also includes unwanted behaviors like those listed above as well. Every time your dog escapes successfully, it becomes more likely that he will try to do so again in the future.
Management generally takes the form of tools (often, crates, gates, and tethers) that are used constantly during the training stages and as needed once the initial desirable behaviors are installed. Once you have completed the training, it is likely that you will no longer need to crate your dog so that you can slip out the front door to retrieve the mail. But, if you are hosting a party of a few dozen friends, not all of whom are well-trained in the management rules of the house, it's might be a good idea to keep your dog crated, gated, or tethered while your guests are arriving.
You may also consider, temporarily or permanently, using alternative exits to the home, if that is an option. It is convenient when owners of very determined door-bolters have an attached garage or can enter and exit through a contained basement. These owners can invest in training if it is a priority, but already have a built-in safety mechanism, much like the double-gating system in place at nearly every dog park, created to prevent "oops" escapes. You may find that exiting through the back door creates less arousal than at the front door. If so, choose to use that exit during the training process to make life a little easier for yourself. Be careful; dogs get wise to this trick pretty quickly.
Know your biggest challenges and have a plan in place. One common challenge for owners of door-bolters is bringing home groceries or bringing large packages inside. Most doors open out (are pulled open rather than pushed open). It can be challenging to block a dog from escaping, especially when your arms are full and your sight may be limited by the items you are carrying.
In a situation like this, an ounce of prevention may be worth a pound of cure. If a family member is home and you are bringing home more than an armful of groceries, consider calling ahead and asking that person to leash the dog or hang out with him in the backyard until you can get your packages inside and secure the door. If you don't expect a family member to be home and are planning a large grocery run or a run to the home supply store where you'll be purchasing many items, consider crating your dog before you leave. When you arrive home, you can unpack without worry. Welcome your dog out of his crate when you have secured the home and are able to give him your full attention for an effusive greeting.
Let the training begin!
Dealing with a door-bolting dog is like training any other behavior. The key factors are:
- Prevent rehearsal of the unwanted behavior (management!)
- Identify an appropriate, desirable, alternative behavior (What do you want the dog to do instead?)
- Teach the replacement behavior, making it a predictor of good things.
Doors are almost always exciting places for dogs. Who knows what adventures are on the other side? Most of the dogs that I know that bolt at the front door also bolt through other doors that are easier to control and present less of a danger if a mistake is made. Use that to your advantage. (Remember, you really want to avoid mistakes—practice makes perfect, so work to have your dog practice the right thing!)
In this exercise, I'll use the crate as the first door, but owners should think of as many doors as possible to practice at, so that your dog can generalize the behavior well. The more doorways you can practice this behavior in, the more solid the behavior will be. You can practice at:
- bathroom door (you know your dog likes to follow you in there!)
- bedroom door, if dogs are allowed to sleep in your room or on your bed
- garage door
- car doors (both going in and getting out of the car)
- gates at the dog park, if you frequent one
- entrance to the training classroom, if you attend training classes with your dog
- door to backyard
- door to the pet store
- any other doors you can think of!
Step one: Install default behaviors
Decide what you want your dog to do when approaching a threshold. I recommend choosing a behavior for which stimulus control is not required, because you want this to be a default behavior. When this behavior is trained, you want at least one of the cues for the behavior to be environmental. I choose "sit" for my dogs, and eventually want the sight of a door to be a cue to put their butts on the ground and keep them there until instructed otherwise.
To begin installing a behavior like this, simply take a good portion of your dog's kibble and for a few days feed your dog any and every time he sits, whether you ask for it or not. As if by magic, you'll notice those sits happening a lot more frequently. Let your dog know that sitting earns treats in all kinds of environments—in the backyard, in his crate, out on a walk. The more times you can feed a sit, the better. You want to teach your dog that sitting is a VGT (Very Good Thing) because it makes Very Good Things happen for dogs!
You also want to install eye contact/a whiplash turn so that your dog knows what is expected of him immediately after crossing a boundary. Practice saying your dog's name in a happy tone of voice, immediately following with a number of super-yummy treats. Do this for a few days as well, in all kinds of environments, until your dog responds rapidly and happily when he hears his name!
Once your dog is throwing sits at you left and right and loves the sound of his name, it's time to move on!
Step two: Teach the butt button
The butt button is a magical button that exists on floors all over the world. This button, when pressed by a dog butt, makes all kinds of doors open miraculously. You and your dog will be learning a very important lesson together. The butt button is in place so that your dog can train you to move toward and open doors.
My recommendation is that you start this exercise with your dog in a crate, provided your dog is well-acclimated to his crate. If your dog is not crate-trained, it's worth teaching, but you can skip on to the next step, Step three: on-leash practice, for now.
Sit in a comfortable space near your dog's crate, where you are able to see him easily. I recommend grabbing a magazine you like and browsing an article, using your peripheral vision to keep an eye on your dog. As soon as your dog sits, get up from your chair and begin approaching his crate. As you move, keep an eye on that wiggly butt. If it leaves the crate floor, do not say anything, exhibit no frustration, but quietly return to your seat and the fascinating article you were reading. Again, keep a close eye on your dog, and as soon as he presses the butt button, begin moving. Work in this manner until you are able to approach the crate and place your hand on the latch.
Throughout this exercise, you are only watching your dog's derriere. As long as it is on the floor of the crate, continue to slide the latch up and open the door. If at any point your dog stops pressing the butt button, stand up and wait for it to go back on the floor before you resume opening the door. Alternatively, you can return to your seat each time the butt comes up and start the exercise again. Eventually, you will be able to get the door all the way open and your dog's butt will still be on the ground—it's a miracle! Release the dog from the crate with a "let's go!" and immediately say his name when he leaves the crate. As soon as he whips his head around, jackpot with 10-15 rapidly-dispensed, but individually-dispensed, super-yummy treats.
Once your dog begins sitting to ask to get out of the crate and waits readily for a release, looking happily to you after exiting the crate, it is time to begin generalizing these behaviors to other doors.
Step three: On-leash practice
It's time to begin leashing your dog and practicing the same steps:
- wait for butt button
- quietly and slowly begin opening door
- continue opening as long as butt button is pressed
- release with "let's go"
- cross threshold and, as you cross, say your dog's name in a happy tone of voice
- get ready to pay off with something fantastic
Practice at all of the doors mentioned above. Practice going in, practice going out. Practice before walks. Practice if your dog wants to go in the backyard for a potty break.
You'll notice that some doors trigger greater arousal levels than others. To deal with these doors, do lots of practice at less exciting doors first. Practice with the very best treats at the very hardest doors! As your dog progresses through the training stages, you'll notice that he begins pressing that button faster and faster, even at new doors. You'll find yourself closing doors far less frequently, and then hardly at all, and then never. You'll notice that whiplash turn/name response becomes faster and faster until you don't need to use it much anymore. Your dog will know that walking through a doorway is an environmental cue to offer you focus. At this point, you can choose to vary your rewards—sometimes with a treat, sometimes with a walk, sometimes with the freedom of removing a leash (if the environment is safe!).
Step four: Off-leash?
Some doors will present more danger than others. Often, these are doors that open into potentially dangerous unfenced environments, and may include your front door and car doors. Manage those exits safely over your dog's lifetime by only allowing him to cross the thresholds when cued and when the leash is safely in your hands. Keep in mind that it is often easier to body-block a dog from bolting through a door that pulls open (moves toward you) than it is with a door that is pushed open (opens "out").
If there are other doors where it is safe to practice, begin dropping your dog's leash as you approach the door, releasing him through the door with a cue, saying his name as he crosses the threshold. Either reward him with treats as you gather up his leash and move along or unclip the leash and allow safe access to free exploring. This is certainly a "know thy dog" exercise and is not safe for all dogs or all situations. It is better to be safe than sorry when your dog's safety is on the line, so proceed with caution!
If you are new to clicker training, you may benefit from hands-on coaching from a qualified trainer as you work through the training program. A trainer is someone who can answer your questions, break big learning goals into smaller, achievable steps, and problem-solve if things go off track. Consider working with a Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partner in your area to learn more about clicker training and how it can be used to keep your furry family members safe!
Originally published 5/1/2016.