Teach Your Dog to Wait at the Door

Get your dog to wait for your okay before going out an open door.

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA,
January 30, 2011
Episode #014

I’ve gotten several e-mails from listeners whose dogs have narrowly escaped danger after bolting out an open door. Today we’ll talk about how to teach your dog to wait for permission instead (if wild barking at the door is more your problem, I have another episode with you in mind).

Why Dogs Bolt Through Doors

Many trainers will tell you to go through doors ahead of your dog so as to assert your rank. There is exactly zero science behind this advice. Doors lead to the outside, dogs love to go outside, and dogs don’t come with impulse control factory-installed. If they have a thought in their heads when they bolt out the door, it’s “Whee! Squirrels!” Orderly exits are safer for both of you, but Fido is not staging a palace coup every time he acts rude and doggy.

Getting Your Dog to Stop Bolting

To teach your dog to wait for permission before going out an open door, you’ll also need to teach her that bolting will no longer work. Never open a door that leads outside unless you have first made it impossible for her to exit by that door. Leash her, crate her, or put her in a closed room before you answer the doorbell or pick up the mail. If you’re leaving the house for a while but don’t want to confine your dog in your absence, then be ready to gently block her from dashing out as you go.

Strive for 100 percent prevention -- not only for safety reasons, but because it makes training easier. Behaviors that are rewarded occasionally and randomly will hang on much longer than behaviors that aren’t rewarded at all. If bolting completely stops working for your dog, it’ll be easier for her to give it up in favor of the new strategy you teach her.

From now on, your dog will cunningly manipulate you into giving her permission to go out the door. She’ll do it by sitting quietly until you say “Okay” or “Go” -- or whatever word you’ve chosen to mean “You may exit now.” Here’s how to teach her this new trick.

Teaching Your Dog to Wait Patiently at the Door

Choose a time when you’re not in a hurry, your dog doesn’t need a toilet break, and you’re feeling cool and patient. Leash your dog and ask her to sit. As soon as her rear touches the ground, reach for the doorknob. Odds are, she’ll instantly get up. “Oops!” you say pleasantly, and take your hand away from the door. Again ask her to sit, then reach for the door. Once again, she’ll probably get up; once again, you’ll say “Oops!” and take your hand away from the door.

After a few tries, though, your dog will start to get the idea -- you may see her put herself back into the sit after getting up. Now she’s on her way to sitting automatically in order to get you to open the door.

For this first training session, count it as good progress if your dog learns to hold her sit while you turn the doorknob and just barely open the door. At that point, say your permission word and invite her to go out the door; then take her for a short walk, so the training doesn’t end in frustration. You can do another quick session as soon as you get back, again rewarding your dog with permission to go through the door, plus a quick walk.

Continuing the Training: Raising the Bar

From now on, each time you take your dog for a walk, raise the bar a little. Put on her leash and wait; give her the chance to figure out that sitting makes you reach for the knob. Once she learns to sit automatically, you won’t need to give the cue. Next time, open the door a couple of inches farther before you give permission to go through. When your dog is able to hold her sit while you open the door completely, wait a second longer before you give the okay. If she breaks her sit, mark her mistake with an “Oops!” and start over. Make the next try a little easier so she can succeed.

Once your dog reliably waits for your okay even with the door wide open, you’re ready to practice without the leash. Start over from scratch, with the door closed and your dog in a sit. Position yourself so you can block her and shut the door if she makes a break for it. As you did when your dog was on leash, work gradually to develop her skills. Throw in some practice while she’s eating dinner or lounging on the couch. In real life, you’ll be opening the door lots of times – not only when going out with your dog. She’ll learn that no matter what she’s doing when the door opens, making a break gets the door to close, whereas staying put earns her something good.

Using the Right Rewards

Which “something good” you choose when working off leash depends on what’s outside your door. If it opens onto a fenced yard or a 40-acre spread where your dog can safely go off leash at times, you can reward her with permission to do just that. If your door opens onto a suburban or city street, though, you’ll need a different reward. You’ll also want to mix up the rewards if it’s sometimes okay for your dog to go out without a leash, but sometimes not. For most dogs, praise isn’t going to cut it as compensation for giving up a chance at the great outdoors. Use delicious treats, such as plain boiled chicken, or toss a ball. If you can, end the training session with an on-leash walk.

One more point. What your dog knows in one place, he may not know in another. If you move or bring your dog along to visit friends, plan to give him a quick refresher course.

Your questions and comments help me prepare future episodes. Email dogtrainer@quickanddirtytips.com, call 206-600-5661, or talk to me on Facebook. That’s all for now. Thanks for listening.

Dog at Door image courtesy of Shutterstock