Teaching boundaries to your dog

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teach your dog boundaries
Beagle puppy running in the grass.

Want to ensure your dog stays put when freedom beckons? Here’s how to teach him some boundaries.

What would your dog do if the front door blew open, or someone left the backyard gate ajar? If he’s like most dogs, he probably wouldn’t be able to resist the temptation to bolt down the street to visit the neighbours. It’s a common problem that often results in dogs getting injured, lost, or worse. Teaching him boundaries can help ensure he stays safe.

Boundary training is one of the most important things you can teach your dog. The great thing about it is that once a dog “gets” the idea of a boundary, you can teach him new ones very quickly. When we moved to a new house and I needed to teach my dogs their new boundaries, I was delighted to see them stop at every doorway as I exited. They had been so well trained at our old home that teaching the boundaries in the new home was a breeze and only took a couple of reminders.

Before you start

First decide which doors or exits you want your dog to associate with a boundary. These can include your front and back doors, outside gates, or even entrances into certain rooms or areas of your home. I highly recommend focusing on the doors or gates that could be dangerous for your dog to exit on his own.

Once you’ve decided where to train, you need to mark the actual boundary. It is important to choose something that is simple for your dog to understand, like a change in flooring, a raised floor, a front door rug or masking tape. You want your dog to stay at least as far back as the distance the door swings so you don’t have to push him back to open the door.

The unspoken rule

Whichever doors or gates you choose as boundaries, you need to immediately establish and enforce the rule that your dog will never make the decision to exit them on his own. I call this “The Unspoken Rule.” It’s unspoken because you want the dog to know that, no matter what, he doesn’t go out that door or gate uninvited. So, if someone accidentally leaves it open and there is no one around to tell the dog to stay, he will not go out. Likewise, if the kids are running in and out, your dog will know not to follow unless invited. Set this rule now and be consistent in training.

The training process

1. Using a 15’ to 20’ leash, tie your dog to something that doesn’t move, just so he can get to the door, but not out.

2. Make sure the boundary is a clear visual for your dog.

3. Start with your dog behind you, so that if he follows you over the boundary, you can be in front to send him back.

4. Walk towards the closed door calmly but not hesitantly, or your dog will wonder what the heck is going on.

5. If your dog follows, turn around abruptly and walk right at him, being careful not to step on his toes. Use your legs; do not use commands and do not reach down and pull him by the collar. When you use your legs, the message is instant. Once he has gone back over the boundary, stop and turn around and walk toward the door again.

6. Try again. Once you get to the door without your dog following, immediately toss him a small treat. Make sure to throw the treat back past him so he does not come over the boundary to get it. You want him to think that staying back away from the door is great.

7. Now, using the same method, work at getting to the door and opening it, inch by inch. Remember to reward your dog for every success.

8. Once you can get to the door and open it, move forward as if you are going out. Take a step out and back in. Reward when your dog stays put.

9. You want your dog to be rock solid on “the unspoken rule”, so you need to make it progressively harder for him to stay behind the boundary. The next step is to go outside and pretend to talk to someone. Be careful, as this always breaks the boundary. I don’t think I’ve ever said “Hey, Bob!” when a dog did not come unglued and try a bolt.

10. Once your dog is very solid on this, move out of his sight. For this you need a spotter, someone to watch and tell you if the dog is moving. If he tries to follow you, calmly but abruptly turn and walk right at him until he goes back across the boundary, then go out  again immediately while watching out of the corner of your eye.

Use body language

It is very important to watch your body language. Make sure the good returns are calm and relaxed. The bad returns, when you have to scoot him back past the boundary, should be upright, stiff and look as if you’re on a mission. You want to make it clear that bolting is the wrong thing to do, so you have to do a very good serious act. You do not want to scare your dog or have him cower, but you do want him to know that going out the door or across the boundary is a big mistake while staying in is great. Act according to your dog’s temperament, and be careful with sensitive dogs.

Remember to stay calm when rewarding and discouraging behaviours. Do not stop and hesitate, as this can be confusing to the dog. Do not wave your arms or talk constantly. You can use a few words of praise, but be careful, as talking can bring him over the boundary. You may have to wait until he is more solid before you use verbal praise.

The best way to achieve success is to commit to practice and never allow for an accidental bolt. With time, patience, and consistency, your dog will soon know to stay put whenever those tempting doors or gates swing open.