There he goes again, (expletive deleted)!” Sounds like the unhappy human companion of a door-darter— a dog who slips through an open door every chance he gets. This is frustrating for the human and dangerous for the dog, who romps around having a marvelous time just beyond his owner’s reach, or worse, takes off at a dead run for parts unknown.
Why would a well-loved dog who has ample food, water, toys and human attention choose to escape? Because it’s fun. The outside world can be endlessly reinforcing for a dog. If you have an “investigate-and-sniff-everything-onwalks” kind of dog, you know that from experience. The door-darter has also learned that dashing outside is a great way to get his couch-potato human to play with him — which is also very reinforcing. Finally, if you’ve ever made the mistake of being angry at your dog when you finally got your hands on him, you’ve taught him that being captured makes good stuff go away (he doesn’t get to play anymore) and makes bad stuff happen (you yell at him).
Making good stuff go away is the definition of “negative punishment” and making bad stuff happen is “positive punishment.” Basically, he’s punished twice, and neither punishment is associated with the act of dashing out the door! Rather, both are connected with you catching him, which will make it even harder to retrieve him the next time he gets loose.
So, what do you do if you live with a door-darter?
First, get him back. Easier said than done, you may say. An accomplished door-darter is often an accomplished keep-away player as well. Don’t chase him; you’ll just be playing his game. Play a different game. Grab a squeaky toy, take it outside and squeak. It may be counterintuitive, but when he looks, run away from him, still squeaking. If he chases you, let him grab one end of the toy. Play tug, trade him for a treat, then squeak and play some more. Let him follow you, playing tug-thesqueaky, into your fenced yard, then close the gate (or into your garage or house, if you don’t have a fence). Play more squeaky with him.
If he loves car rides, run to your car and say, “Wanna go for a ride?” Open the door and when he jumps in, take him for a ride! Chasing tennis balls or flying discs? Fetching sticks? Walkies? Whatever he loves, offer it.
Once you’ve corralled your cavorting canine, the part about punishment bears repeating: no matter how upset you are, don’t yell at him! Don’t even reprimand him calmly. And don’t take him back inside immediately — that’s punishment, too. Stay outside and play a while. I promise, if you punish him or march him sternly back into the house, he’ll be harder to catch the next time. Instead, happily and genuinely reinforce him with whatever he loves best.
Don’t let it happen. Management is vital for dog-keeping generally and successful behavior modification specifically. It keeps your door-darter safe and you sane. If you can’t fence in your entire yard, perhaps you can fence a small area outside the door(s). If you can’t put up a physical fence, install a barrier outside the door(s) — a small area with a self-closing gate, so that if he dashes out, he’s still contained. Don’t even think “underground shock fence”— determined dogs will run through those as easily as through open doors.
Baby gates or exercise pens inside can block your dog’s access to escape. Insist that everyone — family and guests alike — makes sure he’s behind the barrier before they go out the door or greet a visitor.
Increasing your dog’s level of aerobic exercise is another way to reduce the darting. If you keep your canine pal busy and tired, he’ll be less inclined to look for opportunities to make a break for it.
Train, train, train. Teach your dog to wait at doors until he’s given the release cue. With your dog sitting beside you at a door that opens outward, tell him to “Wait.” Reach toward the doorknob. If he doesn’t move, click your clicker or use a verbal marker and give him a tasty treat. Repeat, moving your hand closer toward the doorknob in small increments, clicking and treating each time he remains seated.
If he gets up, say “Oops!” have him sit, then try again. If he gets up several times in a row, you’re asking too much of him; go back to moving your hand only a few inches toward the knob, and advance more slowly.
When he’ll stay sitting, touch the knob. Click/treat. Jiggle the knob. Click/treat. Repeat, clicking and treating each time, then open the door a crack. If your dog doesn’t move, click and treat. If he gets up, say “Oops!” and close the door. You’re teaching him that getting up closes the door; if he wants the opportunity to go out, he must wait.
Gradually open the door in one or two-inch increments. Any time he gets up, “Oops!”/close the door/try again. Do several repetitions at each step. When you can open the door all the way, take one step through, stop, turn around and face your dog. Wait a few seconds, click, then return and treat.
When he’s solid with you walking out the door, occasionally invite him to go out ahead of, with or after you, by using a release cue such as “free.” Other times, walk through the door and close it, leaving him inside. Once the door closes, he’s free to get up and move around. You can give your release cue through the closed door, or simply leave him to figure out it’s okay once you’re gone. He will figure it out.
Finally, teach everyone who interacts with him how to ask for the “Wait” at the door. The more consistent everyone is at reinforcing the sit-and-wait, the more reliable your dog will be at waiting, and the less likely he’ll be to dart out that door. Thus, the safer he’ll be and the more easily you’ll breathe. And that’s a winning combination.