Last night I think I finally figured out the key to fixing Lok's door-bolting habit. I was right about needing to train an alternate behavior, but I was wrong about the behavior I needed to train. He is in such a high state of arousal when sitting at the door that no training is able to get through to him, so what I really need to teach him is to relax.
Luckily we've been working on this skill in other areas already. Since Lok learned what "sit" and "down" mean, he's been unable to do these commands in the middle of a game of fetch or tug or anything fun. I had worked on it periodically for over a year with absolutely no progress. I tried ending the game (and he would always immediately lay down when he knew the game was over--talk about frustrating--it was just when there was a chance the game might continue that he wouldn't comply), waiting him out, giving multiple commands, giving one command, applying pressure, removing pressure. Nothing worked. And finally, thanks to Leslie McDevitt (who is close to being elevated from "hero" to "goddess") I realized that it's not that Lok won't sit or lay down during a game--it's that he can't. He is unable to think through his arousal and he simply can't comply.
So we started playing off-switch games and teaching relaxation. Lok loves to tug, so we would start tugging, then I'd ask him to drop his tug (which he has no problems with) and then we would start working on relaxation. I told him to "relax" in a soft, low tone of voice, and then started taking deep breaths and speaking softly to him. I waited for his tail to drop. When it did, I calmly told him "yes" (his marker word) and the game started again. Dropping his tail was just the first step. As we continued to play I would wait for his eyes to soften and for him to start panting (he holds his breath when he's over-excited, so panting is a sign of relaxation for him). I knew we were really getting somewhere when I told him to "relax" and he went to his water bowl and got a drink. Then he started just offering me downs. He still wasn't to a place where I could ask him for a down, but he was offering them on his own, laying down and panting with soft eyes and a relaxed jaw and a lowered tail. Strangely, the only commands he would not perform during a game were sit and down--other commands he had no problem with, but would do them in kind of a frantic manner--like hand touches. So when he was relaxed, since I still couldn't ask him for a down, we worked on controlled hand touches--just a light touch with his nose, with a closed mouth. He's come a really long way, to the point where we can now do obedience exercises with a tug as a reward, whereas previously the sight of the tug would cause him to lose his mind and he was unable to perform exercises with any control at all.
So getting back to last night, I had some time on my hands and I decided to try something. I decided to just try waiting Lok out until he was completely relaxed at the door before letting him out. This took approximately one and a half hours, but it was soooo worth it. The way my entry way is set up, I have a small landing of about 3'x3' and then two stairs up to the kitchen. Lok had gotten better about walking down the stairs nicely, but still bolted out the door. So we spent about 45 minutes getting him to relax on the stairs. I watched for his ears to droop a little, his jaw to relax, his breathing to become normal--a couple times he even went to get a drink of water. First, he just had to relax with the door closed, and me standing there. Then he had to relax while I touched the doorknob. Then while I opened a closed the door a crack. Then with the door open a little bit, until finally the door was all the way open.
When he was relaxed on the stairs I used his new cue word "nicely" (I used to use his release, "ok," but had to replace it, since it's turned into Lok-speak for "run as fast as you can") to ask him to step down to the landing. He did, but he was no longer relaxed. I had anticipated that and we started over with the relaxation exercises. I even got his mat and had him lay down on his mat for awhile. We repeated the relaxation protocol here--hand on the storm door handle, opening the door a little ways, opening the door a little more, opening the door all the way. At each step we did some simple obedience exercises: eye contact, sits, downs, stands, hand touches--until he was relaxed and focused at each stage.
When he was laying relaxed on his mat on the landing with the door all the way open and me outside, I wasn't sure where to go from there. I was pretty sure if I released him, he would bolt. So I decided to stand just across the threshold and call him to "front." He complied and I waited for him to relax again and we did a couple sits and downs. He was now halfway out the door, and relaxed. So I backed up a little bit and called him to front again. We repeated these steps until he was about three feet beyond the threshold and facing the house, sitting at front on the deck, relaxed, focused, and responsive. At that point, I again wasn't sure what to do. So, I just decided to try something. Rather than release him with an "ok" I said "all done" (the word I use to end a game) in a soft, low voice in kind of a disappointed "no more fun for now" voice. And then, the miraculous happened! He gave me a questioning look for a second and then trotted off into the yard. Yes, I said TROTTED! He didn't run, he didn't bolt, he didn't gallop! He calmly trotted away!! Incredible!
We played outside for a bit and then repeated the whole process a little later that night--and this time it only took half an hour. In my enthusiasm, I rushed it a bit and he did try to bolt, but I caught him with no emotion at all positive or negative and we started again. And again, it worked! And again, he trotted into the yard completely relaxed.
So, I figure, if I can stay consistent with this for a few weeks, I should be able to completely eliminate the bolting. It's just a matter of not taking shortcuts and getting lazy. But I have to say, I was pretty impressed with myself and the patience I displayed while training my dog for an hour and a half!! I was 100% positive and relaxed myself the entire time, and I think that made all the difference. Plus, I knew going into it that it may take a couple hours the first time, but that it would probably take half that the second time, and exponentially less each time after that. It's like the Super Nanny method--I should add her to my list of heros! Clear rules, clear consequences, and 100% consistency. No force necessary.
Really, dogs don't want to live in conflict with us. If Lok could speak human language and I could tell him "I really would prefer if you walked nicely out the door rather than bolting" I'm positive that he would say "oh, ok! sure!" But since he can't it's my job to find a way to communicate my silly, arbitrary human rules to him in a way he can understand. I've found that once my dogs understand a rule they are more than happy to follow it. Sometimes it just takes a little creativity and patience to get to that point of communication.
7/22/09 - Spent about 45 minutes getting Lok to relax at the door. He tried to get up and go out the door without permission. Didn't have time to start over, so he stayed in. Later that night, spent about 1/2 hour and was successful again!
7/24/09 - Went through the whole process in about 10 minutes, but probably should have gone slower.