It seems easy enough. You just want to answer the door to receive your pizza or welcome a visitor. And yet, in many homes, this seemingly simple task requires ninja-like reflexes as owners struggle to keep their dogs from squeezing past them, eager to embark upon a neighborhood joy ride.
Trainers call this behavior “door darting.” Not only is it inconvenient, it’s dangerous – especially if your dog fails to come reliably when called. Door darting can be an issue in any home, but it’s often challenging in homes with heavy foot traffic, especially when young children are present.
Door darting is an impulse-control problem. It’s also incredibly self-rewarding. Remedying the issue requires teaching the dog to exhibit self-control around an open door, while employing diligent management to prevent the rehearsal of unwanted behavior. The following tips can help.
Train a “Wait” and a “Get Back” Behavior
Teach your dog to patiently wait at a safe distance from the door. This is easiest to teach your dog in an environment that has an obvious threshold or change in flooring – the line where a carpeted living room intersects with a tile entryway. If an obvious line of demarcation isn’t present, a marker can be created with a throw rug or even a strip of painter’s tape.
As your dog follows you to the door, calmly say, “Wait!” and toss a treat behind him just before he reaches the “no-fly zone.” Be ready to toss another treat as soon as he finishes and turns around. Repeat several times before reaching for or opening the door. The goal is to use a high rate of reinforcement to make the area away from the door a wonderful place to wait.
Unlike a formal stay, when I teach “wait,” I don’t require a specific position, nor do I care if the dog changes position during the exercise. He can sit, stand, lie down, or move laterally, so long as he doesn’t drift past my line of demarcation. If he does, step into his path to block his forward movement, and then invite him back into his “safe zone” and reinforce him there. As soon as he’s in the desired area, praise calmly, remind him to “wait,” take a step or two backward to relieve the social pressure, and toss a cookie at the first sign of hesitation, which is the beginning of self-control.
The goal is to help your dog do the desired behavior (back up) so you can reinforce him for it, not to coerce, pressure, or frighten him. Use calm, controlled movements and adjust your technique as necessary, based on your dog’s overall temperament.
As your dog demonstrates a willingness to hover in the “safe zone,” thanks to your generous reinforcement history, slowly start working toward opening the door. Split the behavior into several small pieces, repeating each step three to five times – or more, depending on what your dog needs – and rewarding his patience every time. Steps might include reaching for (but not touching) the door knob; touching and turning the knob without opening the door; opening the door an inch or two and then closing it, etc.
If, at any point, your dog steps into the “no fly zone,” immediately block his path and invite him to “get back.” If your dog makes the same mistake twice, revisit the easier step.
As you progress to opening the door, put your dog on leash or use an exercise pen as a second line of containment to ensure his safety, should he unexpectedly make a break for the open door.
Train a Strong “Sit-Stay” Behavior
Another option is to teach a reliable sit- or down-stay away from the front door. This requires a very high level of impulse control since the main entryway to a home is a high-excitement area for most dogs. It’s important to increase the difficulty of this exercise slowly, and “pay” your dog well throughout the training process, in order for your dog to begin to believe it’s worth it to stay on his spot instead of rushing toward the open door.
Ideally, the finished behavior consists of three main parts: “go to your spot” (so you can “send” your dog to his spot as you move toward the door), a solid stay, and the ability to hold a sit-stay or down-stay around a high level of distractions.
My preference is a down-stay. I like to teach the basic down-stay first, practicing increasingly longer stays and stays in the face of small, and increasingly larger distractions, until the dog can confidently remain in position for about one minute, even as the handler walks around him or squeaks a toy.
Separately, I’ll teach the “go to your spot” behavior. Depending on the dog, I might use targeting, shaping, luring, or any combination of these to teach the dog to go to and lie down on a dog bed or mat.
Finally, the two behaviors come together and the dog is reminded to “stay” after he goes to his bed. From there, it’s all about slowly building the behavior such that it resists the myriad distractions associated with opening the front door.
Be sure to reward often. A Treat & Train or similar remote-operated treat dispenser is often helpful, as it allows you to reward the dog from a distance without needing to toss the treats. At the advanced level, you can even teach your dog to go to his “spot” on the cue of the doorbell!
Training is Critical for Dog Safety
Realistically, it’s difficult to actively train this behavior as actual guests are entering your home. Training is what happens when your focus is on your dog. Testing is what happens when you’re focused on visitors. As you work up to the distraction of receiving actual guests, recruit helpers to come knock on your door and play the role of visitors – guests who understand they aren’t there to socialize, but are playing an active role in your training program. Practice often!
Management is Just as Important
If you aren’t in the position to actively train the desired behavior, it’s important to use good management to keep the dog from practicing unwanted behavior. Some examples include:
“Feeding the chickens.”Teach your dog that good things happen away from the front door. Any time you approach the door, toss a small handful of kibble eight to 10 feet from the door, and encourage your dog to “Find it!” Finding kibble on the floor is incompatible with rushing the front door, and it gives humans a chance to enter or exit. Play this game often, not just when you or your guests actually need to pass through the open door.
This approach often also works well for dogs who suffer from what I call “Excessive Greeting Disorder” – over-the-top excited jumping on people. A scattering of kibble, followed by some additional rapid-fire tossing of single pieces, helps change the dog’s focal point, and the sniffing required to source the food bits even has a mild calming effect on some dogs. In homes with multiple dogs, be mindful of potential food-guarding issues.
Gate in the doorway. An inexpensive, pressure-mounted baby gate can be installed in the doorway to serve as an emergency barrier to prevent door darting. In many doorways, a gate will fit even with a screen door and will still allow the main door to close. A 24-inch gate is short enough for most adults to step over, making it realistic to keep this management strategy in place at all times in homes with accomplished door darters.
Exercise pen air lock.Use an exercise pen on your front porch to form an emergency corral just outside of the door. If your dog manages to slip past you, he’s safely contained on the porch and can’t embark on a neighborhood joy ride. This doesn’t solve the root problem – the door darting – but it’s especially helpful in high-traffic homes where many people might be opening the door and not everyone is as committed to active training.
Tether station. Another valuable management tool is a simple tether. You can use a spare leash or make a simple chew-proof tether with a length of vinyl-coated cable, cable clamps, and a couple of snaps.
Attach the leash or tether to a heavy piece of furniture (or an eyebolt screwed securely into something solid) near the main entryway to your home. As your dog follows you to the door, make it a habit to quickly tether him before opening the door. A sticky note on the door is a great reminder for everyone in the family. This works well when receiving visitors, or bringing the groceries into the house from the car, but it’s not safe to leave him there, unsupervised, when you leave the house.
Last, but not least…
Train a reliable recall. While the end goal is to give your dog rewarding alternatives to door darting, mistakes sometimes happen. Should your dog unexpectedly get loose, it’s important you be able to quickly call him back to you. Investing the time to train your dog to reliably come when called – even when distracted – is vitally important. A solid recall is a potentially life-saving behavior. It takes committed practice (training versus testing!) and ongoing maintenance. Fortunately, there are many fun training games designed to improve a dog’s recall. For a review, see past WDJ articles:
“Rocket Recall,” Sept 2015.
“Games for Building Reliable Recall Behavior for Your Dog,” Sept 2014.
“Training Your Dog to Execute an Extremely Fast Recall,” Sept 2012.
Stephanie Colman is a writer and dog trainer in Southern California.