December Ask a Trainer: Teach your dog to wait at doors

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By Kiki Yablon, KPA CTP, CPDT-KA

One of the first things I learned as a new dog owner was that I should never let my dog go out the door before me, lest she think she was the “alpha” in our “pack.”

This rationale is still quite prevalent, despite pretty thorough debunking by experts across multiple fields. And unfortunately the corollary that you must prove that, no, you are the alpha leads to some pretty unpleasant ways of teaching and enforcing doorway protocol, among other things.

Many such methods focus on stopping the unwanted behavior, rather than teaching an alternative. So they set the dog up to start walking through the door and then get corrected for it—be it by walking into the dog, yelling and clapping, spraying the dog in the face with a squirt bottle, throwing an object at the dog, or choking, poking, or shocking with a collar. Almost nobody actually enjoys doing these things to a dog, and in dogs as in children, the use of physical punishment carries the risk of some well-documented side effects, ranging from apathy to fear to aggression.

But let’s not throw the puppy out with the bathwater. There are a lot of perfectly valid reasons to teach your dog how to behave around an open door. Especially in the urban environment, there’s endless trouble a dog can run into by darting across the threshold before you’ve had a chance to scope things out. Every dog who lives in an elevator building, for instance, ought to learn how to wait before entering the car.

Fortunately, it’s easy to teach a dog what to do instead of dashing through an open door.

Start your lessons with a door that doesn’t lead anywhere dangerous or incredibly tempting. Put your dog on leash if you need to work at an exit that goes to an unsecured or particularly fun area, but keep the leash slack—think seat belt, not reins.

Open the door just a crack, then toss a small treat your dog really loves on the floor behind the dog. Close the door and wait for the dog to eat and reorient to the door. Repeat.

If you’re working at an elevator, push the call button, walk back 10 feet, and simply start feeding the dog just as the elevator door opens. Don’t walk toward or get on the elevator; just continue to feed until the door closes, then stop abruptly when it does. Repeat.

If your dog likes the treats you’re using, he’ll quickly start to make some associations:

  • The door opening predicts treats, and
  • Those treats will come from my human’s hands and/or appear a few feet behind me.

Anticipation will begin to change what your dog does when you open the door. In most cases, he’ll start to shift his weight back and/or look at you as the door opens.

Observe what he does that you like—whatever’s incompatible with running through the open door—and begin to mark it with a yes or click from a clicker before delivering the treat. The more specific you can be about what you mark, the faster the training will likely go.

When your dog has confidently offered this lovely behavior four or five times in a row, begin opening the door a little bit further. As the response becomes reliable at each new level, open the door incrementally wider.

If at any point the dog walks through the door, don’t click, don’t treat, and don’t head out for a walk. Simply invite the dog back inside to try again. If the dog fails once more, back up your criteria a little, use better reinforcers, or both.

When you can open the door wide enough for the dog to move through, and he chooses to plant his front feet or look at you instead, you can add a verbal cue, such as “wait.”

You don’t really need a verbal cue if you only want this behavior when you open a door—the door opening will become the cue to wait. But adding a verbal cue lets you quickly teach this behavior at other doors, doorways without actual doors, car doors, curbs, and other locations. You can even use it to stop your dog in his tracks with no doorway in sight—say, if he’s heading for a dropped item on the kitchen floor.

Pretty quickly after teaching the wait cue, teach the dog that there’s another signal that means it’s time to go through the doorway. Reinforce the behavior of moving out of position, at least initially, with a treat or play as well as access to whatever’s on the other side of the door. Putting the release on cue, if the cue is a promise of extra reinforcement for a behavior that the dog already wanted to do, makes moving out of position less likely when you haven’t given the cue.

Here’s a video of Stella, a border collie mix, a former client of mine through Animal Behavior Training Concepts, responding to “hold up” and release cues taught earlier in the same session at an interior doorway. Because the release cue is an opportunity to earn the treat, giving the release cue reinforces the wait, and the click/treat strengthens both the release behavior and the wait.

If your dog doesn’t pay attention to treats when there’s a chance to go through the door, that doesn’t mean this method won’t work for you. Reinforcement value is relative, and for Stella, when we took her “hold up” to an exterior door, the chance to go through the door trumped any food or toy we had to offer. So did we resort to punishment? No; we simply used what she told us she wanted, a win-win for dog and human.