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Out and In: Door Coaching with My Pet


What are the first things to train a puppy? I’ve seen so many lists. Behaviors at the door rarely make the top five because there are so many other important things! But I work on doors early on because I’ve always had a household with multiple dogs. My dogs need to learn how to respond to my traffic direction. This is something I take entirely for granted until there is a new dog in the house. Whoops! I make the smooth “go ahead” motion with my hand, indicating to the pup to go ahead into the next space (room, crate, outside) and get a blank look. Or, in Lewis’ case, a gleeful leap to grab my hand or sleeve. Yay, this must be a tug game!

I needed to work on this right away. Lewis is not a baby I can lug around. And from the very beginning, I needed to separate him from Clara a lot. She likes him, and he has brought so much to her life, but “merciless pestering” is not part of what brings her joy.

Both Out and In

It’s on almost everybody’s list to eventually teach dogs to wait at the door, which is sometimes followed by a release to go through. For me, when it’s the back door for a bathroom break in the yard, they get released to go through. But when it’s the front door and I’m going out to get the mail, it’s a wait followed by a release inside after the door is closed.

For this kind of “waiting at the door” behavior, I use Sue Ailsby’s “Door Zen” method. More on that later. Because even before I teach a dog to wait at the door, which is a moderately advanced behavior, I teach going through the door on cue, which is somewhat easier. Concomitantly, preventing a dog from going out a door via management is pretty easy, but trying to get them to go through one that doesn’t have anything enticing on the other side is surprisingly hard, especially if they have no idea about hand signals.

Going into Another Space

“This one?”

I believe I first saw this puppy exercise done by Susan Garrett. She used two dog beds (nice antecedent arrangement with the comfy beds) to help one of her very young puppies learn to go from one to the other with hand gestures, a little luring, and of course, a lovely reinforcer for doing the behavior. I did that exact exercise with Clara when she was also a baby. After she would go from one dog bed to another on cue, I built it into “get on your mat” and “go into your crate” and “go through the door” cues. It stood me well with three other dogs in the house.

Lewis is a teenager and already has habits and a mind of his own. He learns fast, but he’s not a malleable baby. I did one session going from one dog mat to another with moderate success, then skipped ahead to doors themselves. I felt like going through a door might be easier to “explain.”

I chose a neutral door in my house with equivalently boring environments on either side. I stood with him on one side of the open door, spoke my cue for going through (“Go ahead”), and tossed a treat underhand through the door. He chased it, as I hoped.

But the first few repetitions were a little rough. He was not familiar with treat tossing but paid close attention to hands for another reason (grab them!). So it took a while for him to realize I was throwing something. I kept my movements smooth and used kibble on a hardwood floor so it made some noise. After he realized I was tossing treats, he still needed lots of practice to find them. This is also a skill dogs learn as we teach them things. It’s even more of an issue with baby puppies because they are learning coordination as well, but there are still challenges for a capable adolescent.

Dogs need to learn to watch treats move in order to find and grab them quickly. Their vision is attuned very well for movement, but their color detection is comparatively weak. Brown pieces of kibble sitting on a brown floor necessitate a search party, so it’s much more efficient to look while the treat is in motion. I also played thrown treat games in other contexts, and Lewis started to catch on. He soon decided this door stuff was a pretty good game. After he went through the door to chase down the treat, I beckoned him back with another treat or a hand target and we did it again.

“Here’s another thing to get in”

So it looked like this:

  1. “Go ahead”
  2. Smoothly toss treat
  3. Dog goes through, finds and eats treat
  4. I get him back
  5. Repeat

We did a couple dozen of those. Then I switched to giving the hand signal with one hand and tossing the treat with the other hand with a smaller hand motion and a very slight delay. This was a tiny step toward fading the lure and went fine.

Then one time I gave the verbal cue, made the underhand motion of tossing a treat, but didn’t toss. He went through the door, and I followed. Before he started looking around, I popped a treat into his mouth. This worked as well. I switched over to just the verbal cue and hand motion without throwing. If the behavior looked a little wobbly, I would do the next rep with a real tossed treat.

What’s Really Happening Here?

I can’t decide whether my method is sloppy or elegant. In one sense, I am lumping. With Lewis, I taught a naïve dog about finding thrown treats on the floor, a verbal cue, and a hand signal all at the same time. I used a lure way longer than you are “supposed to” before fading it. But it worked well. The timing is important, and I am careful about that. I always give the verbal first, followed by the hand signal. The hand signal is likely easier for the dog to learn, so the verbal coming first becomes the “new cue” in a version of the “new cue old cue” method, even though they are both introduced in the same sessions.

This method works for me but check into books about multiple dog households by professional trainers for better vetted methods for traffic direction! My goal in this post is to talk through the issues more than to recommend my own process. I haven’t trained enough dogs to know whether it has a high likelihood of working for most.

One more thing. Speaking of professional trainers, I’ll include yet another name here. This method also “accidentally” teaches a strong reorientation to the handler after the dog goes through the door, especially if you use high-value reinforcers. (The reinforcer and reinforcement history have to compete with whatever is on the other side of the door.) Leslie McDevitt recommends this reorientation as a default behavior for dogs when entering new areas with their person.

I haven’t gotten this cue up to total strength with any dog, but “Go ahead” in my household has come to mean “go through the door before me but immediately turn around and reorient to me afterward.” So while I wouldn’t test if off leash when getting a dog out of a car in a new place, I can use it for things like cuing the dog to go into the closed garage but turn around so I can put her harness on before we go on our walk. My dogs have all recognized the difference between a general release into the new space and the “go through but turn around” cue. But I won’t bet their lives on it. I could definitely work it up to be stronger, though. Probably a good idea with Lewis.

Strengthening that behavioral response would mean upping the value of my reinforcers. I may do it in the future, but since I’m not taking Lewis to the mall anytime soon, I’ll save high value stuff for recall and learning to love his crate.

Waiting at the Door

“I know what the hand on the doorknob means!”

I will not go into as much detail here. I follow Sue Ailsby’s protocol from the Training Levels, as I mentioned. You can see the first couple of steps in the video. The handler touching the door handle becomes the cue for the dog to orient to the handler and stay back from the door until released.

Sue classifies waiting at the door as a Zen exercise, Level 3. (Sue, I have also been working on Level 1—I promise!) Zen teaches a dog an alternative behavior to something else they really want to do (grab the food, run out the door) and makes it worth their while. And with doors, sometimes they do get that ultimate reinforcer of running through.

Combining the Two Behaviors

As you can see in the movie, I can use the two cues in sequence. I first use the “wait at the door” cue, which is grabbing the handle. By the time I recorded the video, I had taught Lewis to stay back when I open the door wide. Then I can give the “go ahead” cue to send him through.

Note: It’s important to practice a lot without sending the dog through. In real life there will be plenty of situations where you need to go first, or the dog doesn’t go through at all. Don’t teach these two behaviors as a unit where the dog is always released through the door. Remember the Matching Law and do tons and tons of reps where the dog stays in the room while you go through the open door.

Lewis Learned Faster Than I Did

Something funny happened with Lewis, and it took me a while to figure it out. I haven’t used either of these newly learned behaviors in real-life situations yet, or so I thought. Lewis has, though!

I’ve mentioned that when he first came, I couldn’t get him to go through doors with a hand motion because he focused on the hand itself. That was apparently so he could jump in the air and bite it. But that has already changed. When I open random doors in the house and hold them open for the dogs, Clara will go through. Lewis won’t. I’ll stand there holding the door open, waiting for him. Now what? I finally realized: he has noticed my hand on the door handle and is responding to that cue by stopping and looking at me. Exactly what I trained—I just wasn’t expecting it in real life this soon. As Sue Ailsby would say, “Oops, I broke my dog!”

I do love it when they make it clear how much faster they learn than I do!

“Sorry, can’t go through while your hand is on it unless you say the magic words!”

Related Post

You Don’t Have to Go Through the Door Before Your Dog!

Copyright 2022 Eileen Anderson

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