Halloween can be a spooky time especially for nervous dogs. Many dog owners cringe at the thought of dozens of costumed children repeatedly ringing their doorbell while their pooches do their best to protect the house from intruders or hide in a corner to get away from the ghosts and goblins. However, Halloween doesn’t have to be a night of terrors with a bit of prep work beforehand. It can actually be a great training opportunity to get the behavior you want when guests come visisting.
Start by situating your dog’s favourite bed or a mat a comfortable distance away from the door. If your dog has a habit of bolting out open doors, you may want to install a baby gate in the doorway for extra safety and security. If you have not already established a strong reward history with the resting spot, begin by clicking and rewarding any time your dog looks at the bed, walks towards it, sits on it and final jackpot (five times normal amount of treats) if your dog downs on the spot.
If your dog is hesitant about offering you new behaviors, you can lure them onto the bed and into a down with a tasty treat in your hand. Make sure you do not give a command if you have food in your hand. This is considered bribery and often results in a dog that only listens when they can see their paycheque is available. Food is a preferable reward for this exercise because it tends to relax most dogs and we are looking for calm behavior here. You may have to experiment to find something special to motivate picky eaters – don’t be afraid to try “human food!” Help your dog to relax on the spot with some massage and relaxed patting. There is a great selection of canine massage books and DVDs at Dogwise including the popular “Energy Healing for Dogs”  by Nicole Wilde .

Once your dog eagerly goes to their spot and downs you can start delaying your click and reward so your pup will remain in the down for a longer period of time. Remember to always toss your treat directly on the spot to avoid having your dog jump up to get rewarded after you click. If your dog has a habit of doing so, simply wait until your dog is down on the spot again before tossing the treat. It may take a few moments of deep thought on your dog’s behalf if you have been in the habit of rewarding out of position so be patient for the results you want.

You should also work on a release cue to let your dog know when they are allowed to leave the mat. If they get up before they leave the mat, simply guide them back to where they were and don’t expect them to stay for quite as long on your next repetition. Try to make your release cue a word or action that you don’t say or do frequently to avoid confusing your dog. After you say your release cue (we like the word “break”) hold a treat out to your side a few feet away from your dog and click when they get up to come get the food. After a few repetitions you should be able to release the dog and reward with some verbal praise for coming towards you unless you have a dog that would prefer to rest and relax in which case you may have to spend more time motivating them to leave their mat.   

Once your pup can maintain a down stay on their mat for 15 seconds or so, begin breaking down the rest of the steps towards opening the door and having guests enter while you increase the length of time you expect your dog to stay. Remember to always build on success by taking baby steps to wards your end goal. You may want to invest in an interchangeable 9 foot leash length so you can keep your dog secure and your clicker on hand while you build your distance. Begin by rewarding after taking one step away from your dog. Don’t forget to practice turning your back on them as well. It is often useful to check over your shoulder when doing so to make sure your dog doesn’t leave the mat. Click when you are far away and go back into where your dog is laying down to reward. Remember, if your dog gets up after you click it is often beneficial to wait for them to down again before tossing the treat on the mat.

You will want to take small steps in the door opening process as well. Click and reward as soon as you put your hand on the door, then for turning the doorknob, then for opening the door a little bit etc. until you can open the door all the way and your dog will remain on his mat. Remember, a baby gate will help keep your dog safe at this stage of the game.

Once your dog can handle the door being opened and shut without moving, you can start labelling the behavior of going to and staying on the mat. Instead of using a command like “go to your mat” you may want to make the door bell or knocking the cue to go lie down and stay. Begin by ringing the door bell yourself or recruit a close friend or family member to help. As soon as the knock or doorbell occurs walk with your dog toward the mat until they lay down on their spot. As soon as they do, click and jackpot with up to five times the amount of reward they had been receiving.

With each repetition of the doorbell or knocking try not to walk quite as close your dog’s spot so they will actually start to travel further away from you to get to there. If your dog hesitates, let them think without speaking so as not to interrupt their thought process. Try looking at the mat instead of your dog so they will know what they should be interacting with. If your dog becomes disengaged with you or gives up, take a break but don’t make the break rewarding and when you go back to it, start at your last successful stage. Remember to always keep your training sessions short and your dog wanting more by ending the game first. Your dog will learn faster with short, fun sessions. If you hear a voice in your head say “just one more,” quit while you are ahead!

Your final step to having a relaxing Halloween or any time you have to answer the door, will be the most challenging for many dogs. When you have people enter the house, it is best to work with a team mate who can make sure your dog is rewarded for staying on the mat and not jumping all over your guests as they enter. You should practice this with a close friend who does not mind taking orders from you before the real guests arrive if you do not have a team mate. It will be important that your guests understand not to pat or pay attention to your dog unless they are down on the mat. You may also want to provide your visitors with a treat to reward your dog as they get closer to the mat and your dog stays down. Once your guests are in the house and comfortable or if you have some trick or treaters who would like to meet your dog, you can release them from their mat and reward for keeping four on he floor. For some great tips on how to accomplish this check out the second runner up of the 2009 Canis Film Festival.

Hopefully this Halloween will provide you with a chance to practice the skills that will pay off over the approaching holiday season! Remember out of every frustration comes a great learning opportunity!

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