Kathy Santo, author of Dog Sense, has trained dogs for both home and competition. She sees more than 100 clogs each week at her obedience school.
Reprinted with permission from AKC Family Dog, September/October 2006. To subscribe: http://www.akc.org
Everywhere in America the scene is the same: Dog owners waking up from a good night's rest and beginning the ritual that is "walking the dog." Whether you own a fenced in yard and simply have to open the door to let your trusty companion out for his morning constitutional, or you have to hook; him up to a leash and take him for a walk, the one thing that every owner faces is what I call the "mad door rush"
You know this one. It's when you put your hand on the door handle and your dog is manically leaping against the door, or pawing at the door, or jumping on you in an attempt to get you to hurry up and open the door. The minute the door opens a track-your dog attempts to cram himself into the opening, nose first, using his body as a wedge to force the portal open and be on his merry way. The owners of these dogs have either accepted their fate and cheerlessly enable the behavior by opening the door, or they encourage in a barrage of verbal harshness that does nothing to help the situation and, in actuality, amps the dog up into a greater state of frenzy After that insanity, who needs a cup of coffee to wake up?
Now I can hear some of you saying "But they have to go to the bathroom!" and I'll concede that point for dogs who fall into the categories of infirm or geriatric. But puppies who are small enough can be carried outside, thereby avoiding the door mania, and those who can't he picked up can handle this ritual with Zenlike calm.
From their first days of puppy-hood, dogs learn that doors are something to be rushed through. Think of all the times you caught your once-puppy in the act of peeing in the house. I'll bet your response was to pick him up and run him outside to the place where he was supposed to go, as that is Housebreaking 101. But that is also when puppies learn that the speed one should use going through doors is Warp 3. Now moving on to adolescence, dogs learn that the wilder they get at the door the quicker it opens.
The fact is that if you can train (inadvertently, of course) your dog to behave like a lunatic. near doors, you can retrain him not to. The key to this is patience, treats, and the ability to change your behavior.
STEP ONE: STAY CALM
Start by going to the door that you use the most. Act normal! Say the same things you always say and when you get to the door, put your hand on the knob. Now just wait. No matter what level of gyrations and hysterics your dog attempts, stay calm and do nothing. Don't look at him, don't acknowledge the behavior. After a few minutes, your dog is going to either stop and look at you as if you are crazy (because of your lack of participation-ironic, no?) or just stop the behavior and look at the door. This is when you immediately say "Good" in a calm voice as you simultaneously give him a treat.
Do you open the door at this point? No. You go sit down on the couch, pretend to read a book or talk on the phone for a few minutes, and then repeat exactly what you just did. You'll probably get the same initial amping up, but your dog should chill out a lot quicker this time (especially if you're using great treats). Once you can get to the door with a calm dog at your move on to:
STEP TWO: A DOOR OPENS
Approach the door as in Step One, and if you have a successful "approach," open the door one inch. If your dog rushes up to it or attempts to open it wider, close the door. When your dog is calm, try again. Every time there is a failure to remain calm, the door closes all the way and you start over with one inch. For those of you who own "Turbo Dogs," this is where the leash comes in handy. You can hold the end of the leash, or step on it, and if your dog makes a break for it you can prevent him from getting free (while reinforcing the idea that faster is not better). Once your dog calmly waits at the door when it's fully opened, then your last step is to master:
STEP THREE: CROSSING THE THRESHOLD
Approach and open the door as in Steps One and Two and then step back. If your dog gives the correct response, walk toward the door (holding the leash) and praise the dog for waiting. Make sure you take one step at a time-don't go too far too fast!-and if he stays, walk back to him, close the door, reward him with food, and release. If he attempts to rush out the door, give him an unemotional "Ah-ah" the minute he moves toward it, and close the door. Then try again, starting with Step Two. Eventually, you'll be able to progress to walking through the door while he waits on the other side. Nine out of 10 times, go back to the dog, and praise, reward, and release him for waiting. One out of every 10 times say "OK" and allow him to calmly walk out the door.
When my students are teaching new commands, I make it very clear that if they want things to change they can't allow the old behavior to happen anymore. In a perfect world, you wouldn't allow your dog to go through any doors until he had mastered the above three steps. Obviously, we can't put that criterion on this command because if we did, you'd wind up with a new behavior problem (namely, using the house as a bathroom). In this case a little damage control is what's needed, so when you do approach the door, hold on to the leash, remain calm, and do your very best to keep him focused on a treat or toy rather than on cannon-balling through the door!
After your dog has become proficient at the command at your main door, be sure to teach him this at all the doors in your life: cars, elevators, buildings, your parents' front door, and garage doors. In addition to creating a safer environment for him, you'll both have a more Zenlike experience the next time you and dog walk out the door.