Dog at door

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Our dog paws at the door when he wants to go inside or outside. The door is all scratched up and the pawing is driving us crazy. Is it possible to teach him to stop scratching?

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. 

Replace Paws With Bells

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.

Teach Your Dog to Ring the Doorbell

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.

Make it a Habit

To reinforce your dog’s new behavior and turn it into a habit, have your dog ring the bell every time he goes in or out of the house. Be consistent: All members of the family and caretakers need to encourage the new signal, all the time. It is also important that you gradually  stop responding to scratching at the door as a signal to go out. Door guards, plastic door protectors or barriers such as gates can be useful during training stages to discourage scratching and protect the door. Once your dog is reliably ringing the bell instead of scratching at the door, these barriers may be removed.

If your dog seems to be having a hard time remembering to ring the bell, you can try working on the signal in another doorway, like the one leading into a bathroom or bedroom, where he is not used to pawing at the door. Once he has reliably mastered ringing the bell, move it back to the outside door and try again. Keep in mind that it may take a while for your dog to master ringing the bell each time he needs to go in or out and that he may still forget and paw the door, especially if he needs to go out in a hurry. If that is the case, consider leaving the door guard up permanently to protect your door — and continue to reward and praise your pooch when he does remember to ring the bell.

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