Devils At the Door - Tips for taming your Door Dog Devil

By Susan Claire, CPDT-KA

To many dogs the front door is one of the most exciting places on earth. The rest of the world lies just outside that door. Car rides, stray cats, birds, ducks and squirrels! Great things happen at the door: People come to visit, daily walks, the family returns home. Sometimes the excitement of the front door turns a mild-mannered pooch into a Door Devil! When our dogs act like devils, it can be embarrassing and frustrating, causing us to label them, "dominant," "stubborn," or "out of control." We yell out commands, but nothing changes. Exasperated, we complain "He doesn't listen!" Canine cooperation comes when we understand our dogs' true motivations, and change our behavior accordingly. Let's take a look at two Devil Dogs, and see what their humans can do differently.

The People-Loving Door Devil
My name is Harley, a.k.a. the Door Devil. I'm a rambunctious adolescent Labrador retriever and I need a lot of love and attention. I get so excited when humans come through the front door, I can barely control myself. I jump all over everyone begging for attention. It usually works well-- people talk to me and pet me while they say, "No jumping, Harley." Sometimes I get really carried away and put my mouth on people. Last week I made Mom drop her packages and I tore her new sweater. She was really mad and yelled "No jumping, Harley!" I'm so confused.

It's time Harley learned the truth: we humans don't like when dogs put their feet and teeth on us. We only pay attention to get them to stop jumping and biting! But, contrary to popular belief, dogs are not born with the "English Vocabulary App." So barking out things like "No jumping Harley!" over and over will not teach Harley what we want. Until we demonstrate what our words mean, it's all just gibberish to dogs! And actions speak louder than words. In this case, saying "No jumping Harley," while petting him, draws attention to the wrong behavior. Just as with human youngsters, negative attention is attention nonetheless. If Harley gets attention when he does something "wrong," then he learns to misbehave to get attention. Think, humans, what behavior would you rather Harley do than jump and mouth? Teaching him to sit instead, then paying him the attention he craves is a win/win. We get a well-mannered doggy, and Harley gets love and attention. Here's a quick, effective way to show Harley the behavior that will work to get him what he needs:

Teaching Sit for Attention
When greeting people at the door, we'll be prepared and have Harley on a leash. Stepping on the leash limits his options and makes "No jumping Harley," superfluous. Now we'll teach him the "Sit," command. Think of it as teaching a foreign language, because that's truly what it is to a dog. Since Harley doesn't know English, we'll show him the behavior first, and introduce the command second. We do this by holding a small treat above his nose and slowly luring his head backward, until his butt is on the floor. Then we name it "Sit," and give him the treat. The treat lets him know he did what we wanted and makes a very positive association with the desirable behavior. After several repetitions, let's try saying the verbal cue, "Sit," first and wait to see if it registers. If Harley sits right away, we'll praise him using the new word, "Good Sit!" and give him a treat. If not, we'll simply go back to the lure technique until he gets it. Anytime, anywhere Harley jumps up or mouths, instead of talking and touching to get him to stop, we'll ask him to sit instead. Then we'll pet him immediately and praise him profusely. Bingo! Sitting works! Attention is a valued resource???now Harley knows how to earn it.

The Door-Dashing Devil
My name is Stella. I'm a two-year-old mixed breed and I was born to run. When the front door opens, I see my chance for freedom. As I run out of the house, I hear my human Mom yelling my name over and over- I think she's cheering me on. Then that word, "No!" she's always using- I wonder what it means? Anyway, I have a blast running the neighborhood, getting my exercise, chasing ducks, and visiting my friends. Before long, my entire family joins in the fun and runs after me, yelling my name and playing chase. I have to admit, last time I was a little scared when the car screeched on its brakes real loud. For some reason, when I finally ran back to the house, Mom got really mad at me for coming home. But all in all, I had a great time and I can't wait to do it again!

That's the problem with dangerous habits- they feel so good while you're doing them. Stella's habit of running out of the house without permission is not only dangerous, it's very rude canine behavior. But, how would Stella know that if she's not been taught otherwise? Stella's Mom was at a loss for words, because she was in a panic that Stella would get hurt. Although she was angry, she should have praised Stella when she finally returned home. The fun Stella had makes for a powerful incentive to do it again. Her family will have a hard time convincing her this is not in her best interest. They'd be wise to prevent her access to the front door, until they can show her why it's worth her while to stay at home.

Working on the Bond
A strong bond between Stella and her family is what's needed. Long walks together will help attain that bond, while giving Stella the physical and mental stimulation she is seeking. Before leaving the house, Stella must wait for permission to go through the door. The more things they do together, the more bonded they will become. If Stella thinks Mom is the most exciting and interesting thing in her world, then she will choose to stay close, rather than dash out the door. Here's how Mom can up her canine appeal: Anytime Stella makes eye contact or follows her, Mom will smile and praise her in a happy voice. Initiating play unexpectedly, by whipping a brand new toy out of nowhere makes humans more exciting than the environment. She can do this in short intervals throughout the day, at home, on walks, in the park. Being unpredictably fun teaches Stella to stick close and keep her eyes on Mom- and when she does, Mom makes it worth her while.

Teaching Come
Stella should also learn the "Come" command, so her family doesn't have to chase her, inadvertently adding to her fun. Back to that gibberish thing: Mom shouldn't waste her breath yelling out the word "Come," until she's shown Stella the relevant behavior. Just as "Sit" means her back end is on the floor, "Come," will mean she responds immediately by running to and sitting in front of her owner. To teach her this, we'll let her wander to the end of the leash and then call her as we run backwards, "Stella, Come!" reeling her in toward us. Stella gets praised all the way in "Good Come!" Ask for a sit, and then reward BIG: leftover pieces of chicken or steak, cut into tiny pieces, a special toy, a quick game of fetch or a 5-second massage. Use a little creativity with those rewards, and watch Stella come flying.