Teaching "Wait" at door or gate

This article will describe three methods of teaching a dog the habit of waiting at an open door or open gate until permission to move through is given. This is not intended to let you leave the door open all day, but just to create a safety margin so the dog does not bolt out into possible danger. Additionally I strongly recomend that an "airlock" situation be created for doors or gates likely to be left open by accident. This training may save your dog's life !!
UPDATED 6/20/07 to reflect my later experiences using and modifying these methods, and adding a section "which is the best method?"

Teaching "Wait" at door or gate

by Pam Green , © 2003 , 2007

This article will describe three methods of teaching a dog the habit of waiting at an open door or open gate until permission to move through is given. This is not intended to let you leave the door open all day, but just to create a safety margin so the dog does not bolt out into possible danger, eg running into the street to be crippled or killed by a car. Additionally I strongly recomend that an "airlock" situation be created for doors or gates likely to be left open by accident, as might happen if there are young children in the home or a grandparent with Altzheimers.

I originally wrote the first section , leash plus obedience command, as a guide to reforming and re-training the dog who already has the bad habit or inclination to rush or bolt out the door. For such a dog, the corrections will probably have to be a lot more impressive than those needed in teaching a dog who does not already have such a bad habit or inclination. You have to use good judgement here and have a good feel for your dog's temperament and good observiation of his reactions and state of mind. Do remember that going out an open door or gate or car-door (or open car window) can get your dog crippled or killed.

The obvious method : leash plus command

The goal is for the dog to be trained so that he does not feel free to go through a door or gate without permission. In this first method, the most obvious one, standard obedience commands are used together with leash corrections. Every time a door is about to be opened, before the door is opened , the dog must be put on a "sit-stay" or "down-stay" or "wait" or "get back" command, and then that command must be enforced by appropriate corrections (usually leash jerks of appropriate severity) while the door is open and people move back and forth. Then either (a) the door is closed again and the dog is released , eg by "OK" (whatever word you normally use to tell the dog that he is released from command), or else (b) the owner takes the dog through the door on a "heel" command or else (c) the owner walks through first and then calls the dog to "come" and then to sit in front or at heel (as preferred by owner) until released or given further instructions. These different outcomes all must be practiced, rotating amoung them in more or less random order.

By the way , once you have this training underway, you can and should add the situation of someone coming to the door from the outside and knocking or ringing. Before opening the door, use your command to "sit" or "down" or "wait" or "get back" and your leash to require controlled behavior from the dog while you greet the person and invite him to come in or on occassion greet him and have him leave without entering (eg delivery person or mail person). This is one more situation in which it is highly desirable that the dog get into the habit of controlling himself and looking to his person for directions on what to do next. Unruly behavior, including obnoxiously exhuberantly friendly behavior (eg jumping up) towards a visitor or delivery person is just as undesirable as bolting out the door, because it can result in serious injury for the visitor (eg, a fall and a broken hip for a vistor with poor balance and osteoporosis) and a serious lawsuit and bankrupcy for you. In the case of a visitor invited into the home, use obedience commands as needed while you escort your visitor to a chair or sofa or into the backyard (or wherever you and visitor will be interacting) and any further commands needed to continue doggie good manners throughout the visit and again on the visitor's exit. Your earliest lessons in visitor greeting ideally would be performed with some of your dog training buddies as the guests invited especially for the purpose of training. Suggest to obedience classmates that such favors be performed reciprocally for one another.

These commands must be used every time a door or gate is about to be opened , and through consistant use, a habit will be formed in both the dog and the person. These habits must be formed and enforced for all doors, gates, including the car door, especially when exiting from the car (as the dog could easily bolt into the street). The habit of waiting for permission to pass through must be made rock solid and must become standard opperating proceedure, with or without a preliminary "stay", "wait", etc.

After some weeks or months of telling the dog to halt/wait before the open door, the next step is to omit this command but to correct the dog forcefully if he makes any move to pass through without his word of permission : for this a longer leash, drag-line , or check-cord is nescessary. The dog must be tested on this many many times over several months with the check-cord attached, before he can be trusted without it.

At the same time that all the door-way training is going on, the dog's obedience to the recall command, "come", must be worked on and improved and made fail-proof. This must be worked on both inside the house and outside the house, with recalls from one inside place to another, from one outside place to another, from inside to outside, and most importantly from outside to inside. This training begins on leash, then progresses to a longer leash, drag-line, or check-cord.

Any competent obedience instructor can teach you how to teach and solidify and make fail proof, the underlying obedience excercises of sit, down, stay, heel, and come, and likewise can teach you how to give adequate corrections with leash and with drag-line or check-cord.

Now throughout this training period and untill you are certain that the dog is so reliable that his life can depend on it, if there is ever a time (eg a party with many visitors) when your door or gate is going to be getting opened but you will not be able to supervise the dog, you must completely eliminate the possiblity of a bolt by confining the dog securely : eg put the dog in a room with locked/latched door or put him in his crate.


UPDATE (6/20/07) :

I originally wrote this back in the days when slip-collars (so called "choke chain") were the standard training tool. For the past few years I have more and more gone over to using halters, either the "Halti" brand (which I prefer) or the "Gentle Leader" brand. Thus the correction becomes the milder and more informative one of using the halter to lift the dog's head and neck upwards into what might be called "Howling Coyote" position, ie at about a 45 degree angle. With the head in this position, almost any dog will sit to make himself more comfortable. (Get down on your hands and knees and try it yourself.) I use the mildest pressure that gets the job done, and the pressure ceases and leash is loose the instant the dog's butt hits the ground. Later when the dog knows the routein an alternate correction is just to flip the leash lightly so the snap flips into the underside of the dog's chin. This is a bit more of a rebuke and less of an information as to the right answer. At the same time that one corrects the dog, one can shut the door, and after the dog sits , one can re-open the door. That assumes that you can manipulate both leash and door togehter smootly.

Notice that the real aversive for the dog in not sitting or in getting up without permission is that he does not get to go out the door. The real reward for holding his sit is that permission is given to go out the door and start the walk ; or in the case of a visitor the reward is that the visitor now enters and makes nice with the dog.

Pat McConnell's "body block" method

In her fabulous book "The Other End of the Leash", a book which is a MUST READ for every dog person, Patricia McConnell describes using "body blocks" to teach the dog good manners at the doorway. The basic concept of using "body blocks" is described early in the book on pages 26 to 28 in a section entitled "Taking Space" and continued on subsequent pages. The application to teaching "wait" at the door is described in a section entitled (logically) "Mind Your manners at the Door" on pages 170 to 174 and the use of this method to discourage jumping up on people is described on pages 174 to 176 under the heading "Oh, He's Just so Friendly!" In addition to teaching some kind of "wait" at the door for reason of preventing the dog from dashing out into danger, she gives the additional reasons of not wanting the dog to knock someone down while dashing throughthe doorway plus the reason that dogs in an excited state at a door are prone to starting fights with each other. I certainly agree with these additional reasons, having experienced both bad outcomes myself !

The basic method is that you step your own body foreward and sideways right into the space the dog is about to move into and you do so before the dog can do it. All really great herding trainers are masters at doing this, but most of the rest of us have not the faintest awareness of the concept. (McConnell is also a herding enthusiast.) McConnell's advise is to tuck your hands and arms against your body (ie to deliberately override your human instinct to try to push the dog away with your hands) and instead move as if you were about to push or slam into the dog's space with your shoulder and hip. You move into the space the dog intended to move into before he can move into it. Then as the dog steps back, you "release pressure" on the dog by leaning away slightly or actually stepping back slightly. As you and the dog become more and more tuned into each other, just a slight shift of your body into or out of the space to be controlled will suffice to communicate whether you are claiming or relinquishing that space.

So if you can develop this skill , you can use command "wait" plus the body action of taking the space by a body block to make the dog halt or back up a bit. Then when you are giving permission for the dog to move foreward, you would step out of the space and open up a bit more space and give your release command. Or instead you could pick up the leash (mine hang on pegs by the back door) and invite the dog to come to have the leash snapped on so you can take him for his walk or his car ride --- a joyful reward to almost any dog !

Because the skills of body blocks are not easy for many people to learn and master, I would strongly urge that there be a second barrier outside the door to ensure the dog's safety. Ie practice in an "airlock" situation until your skills and the dog's habits are good enough that you can let his life depend on it. Obviously if the door leads into a well fenced front yard, you have a safe situation in which to learn and teach.


UPDATE (6/20/07) : not much to add, except that again the real correction for not holding the Wait is that the thing the dog really wants to do, ie go out, is denied and the real reward for holding the Wait is that the thing the dog wants to do is now permitted. I find myself using body blocks and other body space manipulations more and more for more and more purposes. Actually I always did use some body space blocking, eg the knee and thigh block when a dog is trying to get out a barely opened door, but until I read McConnell I did not have a name or theory for what I had been doing. Having a theory or concept tends to open up new ways of applying variations on a technique one may already have been using serendipitously.

Pam's herding crook method

I came into this serendipitously a few days after reading McConnell's book. I had just bought a beautiful walking stick , something I didn't need but couldn't resist because it was so beautiful (and modestly priced), and I had it in my hand to take on my walk. As usual , there was a herd of excited dogs , ie my three plus current foster dogs (two or three of these), eager to go on our walk. (I should add that I live out in the country over a mile from the road, so the need for tight control at doors is not what it would be in the city.) Now my own dogs all have good basic obediance training and two of them have good herding training and know how to respect a slight flick of a herding crook as a "get out" or "get back" signal; the two herding dogs are also the two who are the most eager to be the first to exit the door because they both want first shot at any squirrel who is stupid enough to remain on the ground and they both want first shot at gobbling up any apples that have dropped from the green apple tree.

The "Eureka !" momment :

Suddenly with the walking stick in my hand it hit me in a bolt of inspriation that I could use the herding crook "get back" to "take space" in the same manner as a "body block". Indeed the reason why a properly used flick of a herding crook can be used to teach a dog to move out away from it is much the same as the "body block". The cane flicks into the space the dog was about to move into. As the dog moves out from the cane, the "pressure" on the dog is relieved by returning the cane to its normal inactive position, ie the position of being simply a walking stick. This is how skilled herding trainers use a stick during the early stages of herding training .

(Herding Note : Later on when the dog is at more distance from handler and stock , if the dog starts to crowd in and if the dog does not obey the verbal "get out" or "get back" command, something comes flying towards the dog's body; the something may well be the cane or it may be an empty plastic bottle or it may be a lump of dirt. The less clued in herding beginners will too often instead make the mistake of interposing the cane as a barrier that they keep in between dog and stock. This does not teach the dog to control himself or to move out futher. It just teaches the dog to want to dive into the stock even more and to do so the momment the cane is no longer in the way. Thus it becomes impossible for the handler to have any real control over the dog as soon as the hander is no longer right next to the stock. A baaad mistake, but one that many beginners cannot be convinced to exchange for a better technique.)

So my "new" method, which combines cane flicks and body blocks , is before I open the door from kitchen to utility room, I tell the dogs to "get back" and I reach through the door to pick up the cane hanging next to the door and give one tap of the cane to the floor, which usually is enough to send my dogs into their "wait"/"get back" mode. With the cane in my hand, if there are any new dogs in the group (new foster dogs) who don't yet understand the cane, I will usually step into them with a body block, while if need be making a cane flick towards any of the other dogs who think this might be a good time to take advantage and slip past. If need be , to convince the new dog to step back, I may actually have to bump into him with my knee bumping his chest front. Or I flick the cane to tap against his chest front. Or for some dogs it is better understood if the cane taps against the front leg or taps up under the chin. I do what the individual dog will respond to best. Now by TAP , I DO mean just a tap : a tap is anywhere between barely strong enough to knock a fly off the surface of the dog's skin (for sensitive dogs) and strong enough to actually kill that fly (for insensitive dogs). It is a bit startling and very mildly unpleasant. It does NOT scare or hurt the dog. Similarly the knee bump is just enough to cause the dog to move off it; that is pretty soft -- and remember that I don't want to wham my knee into anything because that tends to be painful for me. So a knee bump is probably about hard enough to kill a fly. If the same dog comes foreward again, I might tap or bump a slight bit harder; most likely I just use more assertive body language and tone of voice to go with the tap or bump. Just enough to get the dog to respond by yielding space, and as soon as he yields then I yield by shifting my body slightly backwards.

OK, now at this point all the dogs have been blocked to wait behind the doorsill of the kitchen to back porch (utility room) open door. Now I step through onto the back porch and pick up my whistle , my sun hat, and as many leashes as there are dogs (leashes will be carried over my shoulder diagaonally for the trained dogs who can be walked off leash in our special environment or are snapped onto any dog who still needs to be on leash or long line). If any dog moves foreward, I tell that dog to "get back" or to "wait" and if need be I give a cane flick towards that dog and if need be tap it with the cane as described. Now I open the door from the back porch into the wonderful wide world. And again the dogs must hold themselves back. Then when I am ready to choose to allow them to exit, I take a big step back out of the path to the door and give the release words "OK". Alternatively I might walk out the door and clear their pathway before giving the "OK". They then boil out the door zestfully, and we start our walk.

For my situation of needing group control at a doorway that leads into an area that is safe for an exhuberant dog that is responsive to command, I find that the system of "wait" and "get back" enforced by body blocks and cane flicks works very well. It works better than insisting on everyone lying down, especially when the group contains new dogs. I don't think it is possible to give body blocks to more than one dog at the same time, but it is possible to flick a cane so as to inhibit two or more dogs at once. (And for dogs which I might later want to start in herding, it also pleases me to be able to instill responsiveness to the cane before the dog is taken out to be introduced to livestock.)


UPDATE (6/20/07) : the drawback to this method is that the dogs can remain very excited. The cane block does not seem to calm them down. The other two methods are more calming.

Creating an "airlock" for additional safety

In addition to doorway training the dog (whatever the method used), the owner would be well advised to consider possible structural changes to create an "airlock" situation, ie two doors in series such that the dog cannot escape unless both are open at once. The feasibility of doing this depends on the layout of the house and yard. In some homes, the front door has an area just inside the home that could be separated off by one or more "stretch gates" (folding gates sold to restrict children or dogs from passing through a door opening -- or to keep child from entering staircase). Or the area just outside the front door could be enclosed by a porch (with railing and gate outwards) or a small area (eg a walkway) that could be fenced with a gate. Or the entire front yard could be fenced. Once an airlock has been created, it will be nescessary to train all human members of the household that it is forbidden to ever have both gates open at once, ie the first must be shut before the second is opened. Even if an airlock is not an acceptable long term solution, a temporarly airlock may be used while the dog is recieving doorway training to ensure the dog's safety.

At my house, the kitchen back door opens into an enclosed back porch (utility room, "mud room") which has a door to the outside world. Thus the enclosed porch is my "airlock".

Which method is best ?

Exiting the house :

Currently (6/20/07) I am using a combination of halter corrections and body blocks , and all the dogs are on leash when we go to the door to leave for our walks. That is usually from 4 to 6 dogs. If anyone were to be especially pushy or eager, as a new foster dog often is at first, I also will re-shut the door if any dog breaks towards the open door. There are two doors to be negotiated , one from kitchen to back porch and the other from back porch to the wide world ; thus I have an airlock. If the new foster dog spent his first few days or longer in my kennel run, the early lessons on Sit-Wait to get me to enter the run and again to be allowed to exit the run have prepared the dog to learn to do the same at the house door.

The real reward for the dogs holding calmly until permission to exit is given is that they get to go on their walk. What Dr Ian Dunbar terms a "life reward", which is a very good vivid term. The dog does something he'd rather not do in order to be allowed to do something he very much wants to do.

Visitors :

I'd better confess that I don't practice what I preach for visitors. I get so few visitors (and they are always real dog people) and infrequent visitors means not enough oppertunity to practice often enough. So instead I may "thin down the crowd" a bit by putting the more exhuberant dogs in crates before I let visitors in , then wait to let them out until things have calmed down a bit. Sometimes I leave some dogs in crates so a visitor who has come to meet a foster dog with view to adopting that dog can concentrate attention on that dog, without being distracted by other charming dogs who are gluttons for attention. In other cases the visitors might include a young child or an elderly person with balancing challenges ; in these cases keeping the more active dogs out of the way for the entire visit makes good sense.

getting leashes on the dogs
putting leashes on
leashs on, minute of calm
waiting with leashes on
waiting at closed door
waiting at closed door
waiting at open door
waiting at open door


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site author Pam Green copyright 2003
created 7/12/03 revised 8/24/2010
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