Dogs and Doorway Etiquette

Today I made a quick trip across the street to get a delicious cafe con leche from Despana, the lovely little shop with delicacies from Spain. As I went up the two steps to enter a gentleman was on his way out with his hands full, a tray of coffees in one hand and a bag in the other. I pushed the door in and prepared to step aside and hold it open for him to pass. But, before I knew it he had placed his purchases on the table next to the door and was holding the door for me! My surprised words of thanks were followed by a gracious response in Spanish from the man. I had come across a true gentleman from Spain! This simple gesture of doorway etiquette has carried me through the day with a little smile on my face. Clearly, such a small act of politeness can make quite an impact. The same is true for our dogs. Teaching them to be as polite as the gentleman I encountered is a worthy goal.

Teaching your dog to wait at doorways until given an “OK” is not only a wise way to help ensure your dog’s safety (i.e. to prevent charging out the doorway), but also to set a positive, calm tone for walks, to help cement overall impulse and self control, and last, but certainly not least, to make your life calmer and easier.

Dogs are very specific learners. That is, they are superb at learning things in specific environments and contexts. However, it takes loads of repetitions in many environments and with many distractions for a dog to be able to generalize a behavior and be mannerly in general. For example, a dog may learn to do a prompt and reliable sit in the living room, but may not so easily outside on the street around loads of distractions. So, each opportunity we give our dogs to practice a behavior makes it easier for them to generalize. In this case, each time your dog stops and waits at a doorway (a place that for most dogs is a very exciting place to be, as it is where they exit for fun walks and where exciting visitors enter) you are helping them to gain better self control which will ultimately be generalized to more and more situations. If your dog can control itself in what is presumably an excitable state at doorways then he or she is better equipped to control itself in general.

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In addition to impulse and self control, teaching your dog to wait at doorways until given permission to walk through is a wonderful way to cement your dog’s understanding of the give and take of the canine/human bond. You are essentially making it clear to your dog that you have the ability to give them access to something they want (i.e. going through the door) if they give you something you want (i.e. standing or sitting still and waiting for your cue to go forward). It can not be overstated how important it is to find as many small opportunities throughout the day to help your dog understand this concept. It really is the foundation of a safe, healthy and happy canine/human relationship.

Great doggie doorway manners start with your dog on leash beside you. The leash is not meant to be used to punish your dog, rather as a safety tool (to prevent potential pushing out the door) and to manage your dog to help set them up for success. As you walk towards the door with treats in your hand or in a treat pouch on your hip, get ready to mark the moment your dog stops at the door. A marker is a sound which signifies to your dog that what they did at the exact moment they heard the sound is what will get them a reward. By saying “yes” or using a clicker and pairing it 10-20 times with a treat (i.e. make the sound when the dog does something you like and then give the treat) your dog will start to understand the significance of this sound.

You may need to wait a moment or two for your dog to be still, so be patient and calm. Once your dog has stopped at the door you can choose to wait for an automatic sit at the door as well. Marking and rewarding this behavior too. Now is the time to begin the all important process of loads of repetitions to build your dog’s learning muscle for this behavior of waiting at the door. Walk away from the door and circle back to try again. With each repetition your dog is likely to more promptly and enthusiastically offer you the behavior you have previously reinforced (i.e. a stand or sit and wait).

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During 3-5 minute sessions each dog/owner team will progress at a different rate. Be sure to focus on rewarding even tiny steps of improvement and consider that for many dogs, remaining calm and still at doorways is a lot to ask. Especially is they have been permitted to rush at and through doorways in the past. When you are able to put your hand on the door knob and your dog remains still, you can try turning the knob and then opening the door a bit. Odds are this will stimulate your dog to get up, in which case simply close the door, wait a moment for your dog to be still (either standing or sitting, whichever you have chosen as your standard) and try again. Gradually work towards fully opening the door and when you are ready to go forward let your super polite dog know they can proceed by saying the release word (mine is “OK!).

Lots of brief periods of repetition throughout the day will not only result in doorway etiquette success, but also offer you an opportunity to spend quality time with your dog. Something you both deserve.