Dog Waiting at the Door

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There’s nothing quite like the fear that grips a dog owner when she opens the front door and — bam! — before she knows it, her beloved dog has bolted past her.

I relate to the terror and frustration a pet parent experiences with a dog that habitually escapes, because my first dog, a Wire Fox Terrier named Scooter, was an escape enthusiast from puppyhood.

Every time Scooter burst through the door felt like it might be the last time I saw her. One time I even witnessed her running directly into the path of an oncoming car. I screamed what must have been a fear-gripped scream, because she turned her head to look at me midstride, and the car’s tire ran, at that exact moment, over the spot where Scooter’s head otherwise would have been.

Escape Hatch

Like Scooter, many dogs treat a door as if it were an escape hatch, rather than a boundary. For some canines, a door is only a door; for others, it’s an opening with access to freedom, whether it’s the car door or a fence gate. The behavior is extremely dangerous, as the dog can be injured, ingest harmful items, become lost, get stolen or worse.

Why do dogs bolt in the first place? In some cases, sex hormones — specifically, testosterone in intact male dogs — can be a factor. For this reason, neutering can help reduce roaming behavior in some dogs.

But not all dogs that dash are intact males, meaning there’s more to the equation than hormones for many pooches. The breed and personality of the dog also can account for the behavior. Innately, some dogs prefer to stay closer to people, while others are less inhibited about venturing farther away on their own. Dogs bred to be independent and work at a distance, such as some terriers and many hunting breeds, are often more likely to dash and run than dogs bred for closer contact with humans, such as those bred for companionship. Dogs bred to hunt and track, such as scenthounds and sighthounds, can have a propensity to bolt as they catch smells or sights that lure them to give chase, often over great distances.

Immediate Rewards

There are rewards in the environment for dogs that escape that are naturally reinforcing, such as immediate access to people, animals, food, garbage and smells — or just the pleasure of an uninhibited run. Adding to the complexity of the behavior, some dogs will dash out the door because of the attention and fun that occurs when their owners pursue them in what seems like a game of chase.

As a trainer, I’ve worked with various dogs who bolted and ran regularly from the home: a Dachshund who broke free to chase after wild turkeys on the property, a Labrador who escaped to socialize with neighborhood dogs, a Pomeranian who freed himself to get access to a neighbor’s compost pile and a Pit Bull who muscled himself through doorways to experience the sheer joy of running. Regardless of motivation, the best way to keep the dog safe is to use management and training strategies both to prevent escape and instill polite manners at exit points.

“Stop Sign” Strategies

Here are the top strategies I employ in teaching dogs, from puppies to senior pooches, to treat doorways as stop signs, rather than green lights:

  1. Use containment strategies to prevent escape. During training stages, one tactic I use for clever door dashers is attaching a dragline to a harness on the dog’s back that’s clipped on during times the door is likely to be opened. The dragline is slick enough to not catch on furniture, long enough to grab and attached to a harness to avoid a choking hazard. The dragline system allows for the dog to be controlled anytime the door opens. An alternative to the dragline is to attach a leash when the door opens. Keep leashes next to doors on hooks or in drawers with the protocol of always attaching one before the door opens. Pet gates and fencing around the exit are other alternatives to keep a dog from running through the door. Just keep in mind not all dogs are contained by such fencing, and some will vault over a fence like a Thoroughbred leaping over a jump. Most of these management tactics are needed only until the dog has been properly trained to be patient at doorways, but can continue through the dog’s life as an precaution if desired. 
  2. For many dogs, teaching a “wait” at the door is an ideal solution to put a stop to running out the entryway. Use the wait at all access points, including cage doors, sliding doors and car doors, to make waiting at exit points part of the dog’s regular routine.
  3. Mat training. Teach your pooch to move to a station by the door when the door opens. You can use a mat, bed, crate or other designated doggie area. Train the “go-to-mat” behavior first, and then practice opening the door while the dog stays in place using the wait training referenced above. Training a go-to-station behavior teaches the canine to target an area that can be placed far enough from the exit that the door could be shut before the canine could gain access if he broke position. Begin training by doing the go-to-mat behavior first, then adding in the wait behavior on the mat while the door opens, and finally moving the mat farther away from the door until it’s in the desired area. To reward your pet while he lies on his mat at a distance, consider using a remote feeder like the Train and Treat, which rewards the pet even from a distance with the use of a remote control.

Don’t forget to use proper identification on your pets to increase their chances of being returned should they ever become lost. Microchip and identification tags are essential safety nets for any dog and are especially important for dogs with a history of escape behavior.

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