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Trick-or-Treat! ClickerExpo Faculty Member Laura Baugh Shares Tips for Proper Door Greetings

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Editor’s Note: At ClickerExpo 2018 in SoCal and St. Louis, Laura VanArendonk Baugh will be discussing one of her favorite topics, behavior chains. Many of the behaviors dogs are trained to do are really behavior chains. One example of a behavior chain, and one of the most useful behaviors, particularly during the holidays, is sitting politely when the doorbell rings. Here, Laura explains steps you can take to teach your dog how to greet trick-or-treaters politely:  


If your house receives many trick-or-treaters, Halloween is a great opportunity to practice greeting behavior.

Start with the basics. Many frustrated owners complain that their dogs don't sit to meet guests when they are excited. A dog that has learned to sit facing you in the kitchen may not realize that you mean the same thing when he's facing away from you (toward a stranger) in the front hall! You'll need to practice the sit behavior in a variety of places.

Start at a completely neutral door with no history of visitors—how about a pantry or closet door?

  • Cue "sit," knock once on the pantry door, click/treat.

Letting the dog watch you make the sound, and taking the training completely out of the front door context, focuses on the single criteria of holding the sit during the trigger noise, and avoids placing several potential triggers together.

  • Cue "sit," knock twice on the pantry door, click/treat.
  • Build up to vigorous knocking on the pantry door. By this point, the dog should be entirely relaxed and happily expectant when you knock.
  • Cue "sit," grasp the pantry doorknob, click/treat.
  • Cue "sit," turn the knob, click/treat.
  • Cue "sit," pop the pantry door latch, click/treat.
  • Cue "sit," open the pantry door an inch, click/treat.
  • Cue "sit," open the pantry door as if for access, click/treat.

All of these steps can be broken down into even smaller steps if necessary. Remember to click only the solid, reliable sit you want to keep; if the dog is shuffling or excited, drop to a lower level of distraction and review. Kathy Sdao describes suction cups on the dogs' paws as a metaphoric goal. "Tap-dancing" in place is a sure sign of arousal and impending failure.

Remember to take frequent breaks (5-10 reps at a time is usually plenty) and be sure that your treats or other reinforcers are valuable to the dog. The "paycheck" should make self-control worthwhile in the face of exciting visitors.

When the dog's behavior is solid with an unimportant door, that's a good start toward desensitizing other doors, including the front door and its visitors. The practice is also teaching that knocking or the doorbell provides an opportunity for the dog to earn reinforcement, and is not a cue for a whirlwind of arousal. Next up is to extend the training to the entry door. Remember to review previous criteria as you introduce this new criterion, the front door.

  • Cue "sit" in the front hall, click/treat.
  • Cue "sit" in the front hall, reach toward the door, click/treat.
  • Cue "sit" in the front hall, touch the doorknob with one finger, click/treat.
  • Cue "sit" in the front hall, grasp the doorknob, click/treat.
  • Add knocking, the doorbell, a family member outside, a neutral stranger outside, a cheery stranger outside, etc. Add each element one tiny step at a time.

After consistent reinforcement for the behavior you want, your dog will find it's not worth his time to bark or jump—he can get attention and more for offering polite behavior instead! Your dog will have learned to recognize old triggers as new opportunities. Because you trained for the behavior you want, broken into small steps, the dog believes he can be successful.

Add some tempting savory smells to your criteria, and you'll be ready for Thanksgiving. By Christmas, your dog will be greeting your guests with a stocking in his mouth!

Want to learn more about behavior chains, including all the ways to use them to create more reliable behavior or to disrupt unwanted behavior? Join Laura at ClickerExpo 2018 in SoCal or St. Louis for her two-part Lab Train That Chain: Behavior Chains. We hope you will join us in SoCal or St. Louis!