The Silent Treatment




The Silent Treatment

Want your dog to listen to you? Try saying nothing at all.

Rufus is a smart, pint-sized pup with a dangerous habit of escaping through doors.  He bolts past his owner, Virginia, and runs away as quick as his little legs can carry him.  Virginia fears for Rufus’ safety, so she asked for my help.  As I familiarized Rufus with the “wait at the door” cue, it quickly became apparent that my approach didn’t sit well with Virginia.  Frankly, she questioned how her pet’s bad habit could possibly improve with the seemingly ridiculous method I employed.  Luckily, Rufus knew better.


Start with a Sit

I began by asking Virginia to put her speed demon on a leash.  We took him over to the kitchen door, an egress to the backyard and Rufus’s favorite haunt.  His excitement was apparent at the prospect of a romp.


Thankfully, Rufus was already solid on the sit command, a vital prerequisite for Wait at the Door.  Therefore, we were primed to begin.  Virginia observed as I introduced Rufus to the concept that open doors no longer equal a mad dash.  I began by telling Rufus to sit, and upon doing so, he received a treat.  I repeated the sit-and-reward sequence a couple more times.  Next, I told Rufus to sit, and when he complied, I opened the door. 


There He Goes Again

Naturally, he rose from the sit and darted out, but he couldn’t go far since he was on a leash.  I closed the door behind him and allowed him to stand outside for a couple of seconds before inviting him to reenter.  Virginia watched as Rufus and I progressed through several repetitions of this procedure, and it was obvious her anxiety was mounting.  A few minutes later, she couldn’t stand it anymore.  The inevitable question finally surfaced.  Virginia quizzed me, “Aren’t you going to give him a command to wait?”


Not surprisingly, Virginia’s concern about the lack of a verbal cue had blinded her to what was happening right before her eyes.  Rufus and I were communicating through actions, not words, and he was beginning to make thoughtful decisions in response to my door-opening invitations.  I asked Virginia if she had noticed that Rufus was now hesitating when the door opened.  She hadn’t, but her interest was piqued, and she refocused.  After a few more minutes, Rufus’ hesitation rapidly led to him remaining in the sit when I pushed open the door, and he was amply rewarded with yummy treats for his good decision!


Imagine yourself in Rufus’ position.  Dogs learn by association, so they equate open doors to outdoor fun.  To further complicate matters, Rufus’ owner typically cranked up the excitement by chasing him around the yard when he ran off.  Guess what?  Dogs love to be chased!  Have you ever observed dogs at the dog park chase each other until they collapse?  Consequently, in Rufus’ mind, open doors had a huge reward payoff.


Door? What Door?

Next, visualize learning from Rufus’ perspective: how successful would the training have been if I had taken him to the door and started repeating the command “Wait, wait” and expected him to grasp the association between my words and the ridiculous idea that he should forego the fun of running out?  It would be like me telling a friend something nonsensical like “Fjoeirj, Fjoeirj!” and expecting her to understand and act on my intent.  She’d think I’d lost my mind!  However, if I were to invite my BFF to a café and order myself a green smoothie called Fjoeirj, and in doing so I reminded her of our conversation a week prior about getting healthy, she’d immediately understand and be more likely to follow suit and order a tall green one, too!  It’s a great example that underscores the old adage, “Actions speak louder than words,” and it’s especially pertinent to dogs who, contrary to popular belief, don’t speak English!


As for Rufus, when it was apparent he and I had forged an understanding, I turned over his leash to Virginia and asked her to repeat the sequence.  To her delight, Rufus quickly transferred his new knowledge and remained sitting when she opened the door.  He received lots of praise and treats, and it was only then that we introduced the “wait” command immediately prior to Virginia opening the door.  Now that Rufus had a baseline understanding of Virginia’s expectation, he was equipped to pin the concept to her spoken command because he had already successfully practiced it. 


Before I left, I counseled Virginia that Rufus’ training must progress to include all of the doors in the house including the front door, the side door, and the garage door.  Furthermore, he needed to generalize the command to include all family members who uttered it; finally, he needed a transitional period to wean off of the leash and become completely reliable.  A week later, Virginia proudly told me that her little prince was well on his way to being trusted at all the doors in the house.  It reminded me of another old adage:  SILENCE IS GOLDEN. 






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