The Power of “Sit” to Open — and Shut — Doors!

It seems like every day now, Barnum is making progress in one area and showing holes in training (or backsliding) in another. It’s a challenge for me to mentally keep track of what to focus on, as well as to physically put in the work involved. It’s as if Barnum read the bouvier des Flandres handbook and learned that at two years of age, he becomes more an adult, and less a puppy, and has started — for better and for worse — to grow into those traits for which the breed is known.

On one hand, he is learning faster, is thinking more independently, has more energy and drive to work. These are some of my favorite traits of the breed, and why I gravitated toward bouviers and have continued to stick with them as service dogs. Unfortunately, I have not been well enough to provide as much physical and mental stimulation as he needs. I’ve also felt frustrated that I cannot capitalize on his new-found drive and enthusiasm to train as much as I’d like.

On the other hand, when I am able to work him, we can work long sessions, and varied skills, and he is very much “in the game,” to quote Sue Ailsby (aka Sue Eh?). Not only is he in the game, but his “little grey cells”* seem to have multiplied or plumped up or something, so that the “light bulb moments” are coming more often. As a trainer, and especially as a partner-trainer of a successor SDiT slogging a long, hard road, these light bulb moments are what I live for! I feel indescribably elated when they occur.

We have had some literal light bulb moments, such as Barnum learning to nudge the light switch down (in addition to up) and beginning to learn to generalize this skill to other locations than the one with which he is most familiar (my bathroom). However, the most exciting new skills are our advances in opening and shutting doors. Barnum has been shutting my bathroom and bedroom door for quite some time. However, there was a period when we lost ground on the bedroom door because somehow — I still don’t know how it happened — the door bopped him in the butt right as I gave the cue to shut the door, and he developed a fear of shutting my bedroom door and particularly of the cue. (The cue was poisoned.)

We worked our way past that by removing obstacles, literally. I’d move my powerchair, oxygen tank, trash can, and other things away from the door during training sessions so he could regain his confidence. Then he was very confident and enthusiastic shutting the door if I was in my chair, but not in my bed. (The butt-bopping incident occurred when I was in bed.) Over the last several weeks, I’ve been reshaping him to shut the door when I’m in bed, and he is now about 80 to 90 percent solid on that.

Meanwhile, I have done occasional shaping sessions with him to teach him to grab the door pull on my bedroom door and pull it down and back, which — when done just right — opens the door.

A door with a metal door lever with a red nylon webbing pull attached. It has a knot in the bottom. Next to the door is a cupboard, with a cabinet door and three drawers. Thin, turquoise nylon pulls hang from the cabinet doorknob and the knob of one of the drawers.

My bathroom door pull and two cupboard pulls.

I have not been in a hurry to train this skill because, even though it’s an extremely useful skill for me, I was waiting on two things:

  1. I wanted Barnum to have a better grasp (no pun intended) on “take” and “hold,” which he was learning from our retrieve training. Cueing him to “take” the pull would make generalizing the skill to other doors easier — especially when he comes up against doors where the handle must be pulled down and then pushed in, a much more challenging combination than pull down and back.
  2. I wanted to have some sort of control in place for when Barnum realized he had The Power to Open Doors.

Now, I have been pretty frank in this blog about Barnum not being the smartest dog on the planet. However, he’s no dummy. If you teach a dog to open a door on their own, at some point, if there is a reason for them to want to be on the other side of that door, all but the meekest or slowest of pups is going to realize that they can let themselves out.** Gadget let himself out of the house a couple of times before I caught him in the act and communicated that that was not how things were to be done.

The first time that Barnum did open my bedroom door in a training session, he didn’t realize he’d opened it. He was turned away from the door, snorking up his treats. By the time he turned back to the door to discover it was ever-so-slowly swinging open, he was like, “Huh! The door’s open. Cool,” and he wandered out to see what was happening elsewhere in the house. During the same session, he opened the door again, and the same thing happened. I ended the session, deciding that I would have to think of a way to condition him to believe that whenever he opened that door, the really Excellent Stuff for Dogs was taking place inside my room.

We had plenty else to work on, so I just let the issue float down to the bottom of my consciousness to collect dust — gold dust, as it has turned out, I think. Apparently, after a month of severely poor functioning for me, including cognitive function, my little grey cells have come to life, too!

Along with our more advanced skills, which Barnum and I either had learned from doing Sue’s Original Levels or from service skill training I’d figured out on my own with Gadget, Barnum and I have been very slowly working our way through Sue’s new book, Training Levels: Steps to Success. The idea is for us to fill in any gaps in our foundation skills that I may not be aware of (and some that I am) and then progress to the higher levels that we have not yet achieved.

Well, it just so happens that one of the steps we have been working on is Sit, Level 1, Step 4, which is “The dog sits by an open door.” The idea is that the dog learns to sit any time before he goes through a door — the open door becomes a sit cue, and thus you have a default sit for any open doors. This can later help prevent dogs rushing outdoors. Barnum actually has excellent door manners, but there is always something to be learned from any clicker training exercise (especially a Sue Eh?) exercise, so we have been doing our door sits.

One day I was thinking about how I could get Barnum to stay in the room every time he opened the door, and it occurred to me that I could make the default behavior after opening a door to sit and look at me! Eureka! And we were already halfway there because Barnum was already learning to sit at open doors!

So, I was ready with this plan in place, but I hadn’t counted on how excited and enthusiastic Barnum would become about opening doors. Once he really understood the purpose of all this tugging on the strap, it was thrilling to him to open the door and win a click and treat, and then to run behind the door and slam it shut — and win another click and treat! Since I was now teaching him the cue for opening the door, which requires repetition — and since he was so excited it was hard to interrupt him — I let him carry on with opening and shutting the door in true bouvier style. (Very! Loud!!)

“At least,” I thought, “if he is obsessed with shutting the door after opening it, he is not running out the open door. So, we can bring control into the equation once he’s learned the cues a bit better.”

And that’s what we’ve done. I used a helper to toss treats because that allowed me to focus on timing my clicks and not exhaust myself with throwing. However, the bonus of this was that Barnum naturally oriented to the helper to get his reward after opening the door. Once I was able to reliably cue him to open the door, I took over the treats and he had to reorient himself to look at me. From there, I used whatever I had in my arsenal (zen, “Watch me,” and/or “sit”) to get him to face me, sit, and wait for his next cue (with clicks and treats for every behavior he completed, until I could go for twofers and use the second cue in the chain as a reinforcer for the previous behavior).

Thus, what we ended up with (when things went perfectly) was

  • Sharon (lying in bed) cues Barnum to open door;
  • Barnum opens door;
  • Barnum whirls toward Sharon;
  • Barnum sits and awaits further instructions;
  • Sharon cues Barnum to close door
  • Barnum closes door, turns to Sharon and sits again.

Then, it got even more exciting than that. Here’s a hint: We added elements from the Come Game and Retrieve! But I’ll leave that for another post when I might even have video of the behavior chain.

– Sharon, the muse of Gadget, and Barnum, SDiT-well-on-his-way!

*Bouviers des Flandres are a Dutch/Belgian breed, so it seems appropriate to quote Hercule Poirot here, a brainy Belgian (though a fictional one).

**Interestingly, I know some people who worry about teaching their dog to open the refrigerator. This has not (yet) been a concern of mine. No matter how hungry Gadget was, it never occurred to him to want to open the fridge, and I doubt very much that Barnum will do it either. I think the thrill of freedom — the run of the house or the outdoors — and the lure of attention and society while I am boringly asleep is much more of an enticement to my bouvs than food. Also, so far Barnum is still startled any time he opens the refrigerator door. He finds the movement of the door aversive, so I am shaping that skill with very high rate of reinforcement and a very low-key emotional environment. Hopefully he will eventually get past this startle response, but for now, I don’t see him trotting off happily to open the fridge on his own.

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2 Responses to “The Power of “Sit” to Open — and Shut — Doors!”


  1. 1 brilliantmindbrokenbody January 16, 2012 at 8:48 pm

    I don’t think Hudson would ever think to open the fridge for himself, either. It’s difficult and makes lots of noises and sometimes re-closes itself on its own, all things to make the boy more than happy to stay clear of it.

  2. 2 Sharon January 17, 2012 at 8:48 pm

    Yeah, Barnum has zero interest in opening the fridge door unless he thinks it’ll win him clicks and treats. He much prefers to shut it.

    He IS, however, starting to get the idea that he can open the other doors himself. Today we had our first incident of him realizing, “Hey! I can let myself out!?” Fortunately, he was still toying with the idea, not committed, and batted the door pull, and I told him to leave it and got him interested in other activities. I think if I’m vigilant, and with the “sit” safeguards I’ve set up, I can prevent the “too smart for his own good” syndrome. We shall see….


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