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Pawing often begins in puppyhood; pups learn through their own experience or from watching other dogs that pawing the door is the key to getting out — or in. In a puppy, the problem may seem less problematic and not worth addressing. As the puppy grows, though, the pawing can become a concern as bigger size and greater strength mean increased capacity for damage and annoyance.
You can teach your dog to stop pawing at the door. Before you start working on changing your dog’s behavior, though, it’s important to rule out any underlying issues that may be contributing to the problem. Make sure your dog is getting outside as often as he needs to and that he's not being left outside for too long. And if you suspect that your dog’s scratching is motivated by fear or anxiety, start by talking to your veterinarian about possible strategies and solutions.
To put a stop to unwelcome pawing, you will need to teach your dog a different, more acceptable way to ask to be let out. Ideally, this will be a signal that’s easy for your dog to give and for the family to notice. One good option is a bell your dog can ring when he needs to go out or wants to come back inside.
Potty bells come in two basic types: an actual bell, which is mounted on a hook or suspended from a leather strap attached to the door, or a battery-operated system that mimics a doorbell, with a button that the dog pushes to sound the bell noise. Depending on your preference, either can be used to replace scratching as a sign that your dog is asking to go out or come back in.
Bells that mount or hang on the door should be installed so that your dog can reach them comfortably with his head or muzzle while standing on all fours. Teaching him to ring the bell with his muzzle steers him away from using his paws on the door, which is a lot like scratching. A second option is a ground-mounted bell signal that your dog activates with his paw. This type of system reduces the temptation to paw the door.
Use a food lure to encourage your dog to approach and touch the bell. For bells that hang from a hook or doorknob, a small dab of spreadable cheese, dog-safe peanut butter or some other soft treat can be spread on the bell to encourage your dog to approach the bell and touch it with his muzzle. Mark any movement toward the bell with a word or click and reward with additional treats. Alternatively, you can hold a treat in your hand and use that to lure your dog to touch the bell with his muzzle. Once your dog gets comfortable with the bell, hold the lure off to one side or behind the bell, rather than right next to it. Wait until your dog touches the bell with his muzzle before you give him the treat.
If you opt for a system that requires your dog to ring the bell with his paws (like a conventional doorbell), you can lure your dog with treats placed around the button or held in your hand. Once your dog is comfortable with the doorbell mechanism, use the treat lure to teach him to step on the button and trigger the alarm. Start by rewarding him just for getting close to the button and progress to rewarding him only after he rings the bell.
No matter which type of bell you choose, once your dog makes the connection between ringing the bell and receiving a treat, you can begin to fade the food lure and teach your dog to associate the ringing of the bell with the door opening. To do this, open the door each time he rings the bell; reward him once he’s inside (or outside, if he started in the house). Slowly fade the food reward by offering it only infrequently, like every fourth or fifth time he rings the bell and goes through the door. Eventually he will learn that the reward for sounding the bell is going outside — or coming back in.
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