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How to Thwart a Canine Escape Artist

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

dog door darting

Story at-a-glance -

  • Some dogs are door darters who escape out the door as soon as it’s opened; this is not only an undesirable behavior, but also a dangerous one
  • Some canine escape artists are simply under-exercised or undertrained, while others are selectively bred for their independent or adventurous natures
  • The first step with a door darting dog is to retrieve him by offering him an alternative enjoyable activity; it’s also important to ensure your pet has at least one form of up-to-date identification at all times
  • There are many ways to train your dog not to bolt out an open door using positive reinforcement behavior training

Many of you who have dogs or have friends or family with dogs are familiar with the phrase “door darting.” Door darting is what happens when an unrestrained, untrained dog spies an open door and dashes through it to parts unknown.

The frustrated owners of these dogs are uniformly desperate to get the situation under control. Not only is door darting dangerous, it can also be embarrassing when there’s a visitor at your door who witnesses your furry family member making his wild-eyed escape.

So why does your extravagantly well-kept canine companion, who wants for absolutely nothing, launch himself out open doors like he’s leading a prison break? In the words of certified dog behavior consultant and dog trainer Pat Miller, because it’s fun!

“The outside world can be endlessly reinforcing for a dog,” Miller writes in Bark magazine. “If you have an ‘investigate-and-sniff-everything-on-walks’ 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.”1

Profile of a Door Darter

Many canine escape artists are first and foremost in dire need of more physical exercise and mental stimulation. Often, they are high-energy breeds, or dogs who spend all day inside by themselves. Generally speaking, dogs who aren’t given sufficient opportunities to exercise and explore are much more likely to seek out those opportunities for themselves.

A dog who is well-exercised through structured activities (walking, running, hiking, playing fetch, trips to the dog park, etc.) is typically more relaxed and compliant than an under-exercised dog.

Another consideration is your dog’s breed and temperament. Some breeds naturally prefer to stick close to home and their humans, while others are more inclined to be adventurers. For example, certain dogs, including some terriers, were bred to work independently and at a distance from humans. Those dogs are more likely to feel the urge to dash out the door than dogs bred for companionship.

Breeds whose nature is to track and hunt wildlife (e.g., scenthounds and sighthounds) are also more likely to run out an open door to pursue an enticing smell or a small animal.

Dangers of Door Dashing

The dangers for a dog running free through the neighborhood are countless. They include being hit by a moving vehicle, encountering an aggressive dog or wild animal, or getting lost, stolen, or picked up by animal control. There’s also the possibility a dog running wild could knock over a small child or an elderly person or run through a neighbor’s open door or backyard gate and cause a problem.

Unfortunately, most door darters, even after being scared or hurt during an escape, aren’t able to associate the act of running loose with the consequence of fear or pain. As soon as there’s another opportunity to bolt through an open door, these dogs are in the wind once again.

The thrill the dog gets by running loose and having the opportunity to chase other animals (or people) provides instant reinforcement and self-reward for the behavior.

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Taking Action: First, Get Your Dog Back

Just as preventing your dog from darting out the door is easier said than done, so is retrieving him in many cases.

“An accomplished door-darter is often an accomplished keep-away player as well,” writes Miller. “Don’t chase your dog; you’ll just be playing his game. Play a different game. Grab a squeaky toy, take it outside and squeak. It may be counter-intuitive, but when your dog looks, run away from him, still squeaking.

If the dog 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-the-squeaky, 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 your dog happens to love trips in the car, Miller suggests asking him if he wants to go for a ride. Open the door, wait for him to jump in, and take him for short ride. If he loves taking walks or visits to the dog park, offer them instead. The idea is to propose an alternate activity he enjoys so you can get him back under your control.

Once you have him back, no matter how upset you are, do not punish him. Don’t yell, don’t even calmly read him the riot act. And don’t take him back inside immediately, Miller advises, because that’s punishment, too. Stay outside and play with him 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,” she writes. “Instead, happily and genuinely reinforce him with whatever he loves best.”

Needless to say, all dogs, and especially escape artists, should wear an up-to-date ID collar or tag at all times. If your dog is microchipped, make sure to keep his registration current in the microchip company’s database. Other methods for identifying pets include GPS tracking devices and permanent tattoos.

If you have a dog that is a genuine Houdini, I recommend you also safeguard him with a multitude of restraints. I always recommend that pets have a standard up-to-date ID collar or tag in addition to whatever other ID method you choose, since the easiest, fastest way for someone who has found your pet to find you, is to take a quick look at the contact info contained on his tag or collar.

9 Tips for Curbing Door Dashing

There are many different ways to train dogs to perform desirable behaviors. The steps listed below are among several that can be used to successfully teach your dog not to dash out open doors.

The most effective and humane training method, and the one I always recommend, involves setting your dog up for success, using positive reinforcement to train the behaviors you want to see more of, and ignoring (not punishing) undesirable behaviors.

With a door darting dog, the first order of business is to put an immediate and permanent stop to her ability to scoot out the door. This means gaining the cooperation of everyone in the household, and all visitors to your home.

1. Doorknob rule — A technique many people use is the dog-doorknob rule. Everyone living in and visiting your home should be trained not to turn the doorknob until they know where the dog is and ensure she can’t get loose and get to the door. The door should never be opened until the dog is secure, which means confined in another room, on a leash someone is holding, or reliably following a verbal command to “stay” or “wait.”

2. Secure the yard — If you have a fence around your yard or a driveway gate, make sure to close and even lock any access points so that in the event someone breaks the doorknob rule, you’ve got a second opportunity to recapture your escapee before she disappears down the street.

3. Leash rule — Until your dog is trained not to run out the door, keep a leash on her at all times throughout the day when someone is due to enter or leave your home. If there tends to be constant activity at your door, it means your dog will be on leash most of the time in the beginning. Yes, this is a pain, but remember the goal is to put an immediate and permanent stop to her ability to bolt out the door.

4. Before training sessions, take your dog out to relieve herself — Before attempting any at-the-door training, make sure your dog has an opportunity to relieve herself. If she really needs to go, she might wind up confused about what you want from her, since she’s accustomed to charging out the door to go pee or poop — an activity you normally encourage.

5. Teach a “back” command at the door — While inside your home, grab some training treats and go to the door with your dog. As you open the door, tell her “back.” As you give the command, shuffle your feet forward toward her, which should cause her to back up to avoid being crowded.

When she backs up, immediately give her a treat. Repeat this exercise as often as necessary until she automatically backs up whenever the door starts to open.

6. Teach a “wait” command at the door — Again, grab some treats, go to the door with your dog, and tell her to sit. Hold a treat close to her nose with one hand, tell her to “wait,” and open the door with the other hand. If she stays still, give her the treat and lots of praise. If she dives for the door, close it, tell her to sit again, and repeat the exercise. Continue training the “wait” command until she sits and waits at the door reliably.

7. Teach “back” and “wait” at every door — Don’t assume once your dog is consistently following “back” and “wait” commands at one door that she’ll do the same at another door. Habituate her to the behavior at all entrances to your home by practicing at each door a couple of times a day.

8. Introduce distractions — Once your dog is reliably obeying your commands at each door, clip on her leash, grab some treats, and begin introducing distractions so that you can teach her to pay attention to you in a distracting environment.

For example, have people arrive at the door to greet you while she waits beside you. Bring her to the door for package or mail deliveries. Ask a neighbor or friend with a dog to stand on the sidewalk or curbside in front of your house and open the door so your dog can see them.

9. Never let your guard down — Preventing escapes and training your dog to behave properly at the door should extinguish most door-dashing behavior. However, it’s impossible to extinguish your pet’s natural curiosity, nor would you want to. So, it’s important to never let your guard down when it comes to your adventurous canine companion and open doors.