How to Teach ‘Close the Door’

Teaching your dog to close a door is a fun trick that builds confidence. It is something service dogs are often taught to aid their new owners. In this tutorial we are looking at how to teach it using a nose touch, rather than a paw touch (though the principals are the same). The video tutorial features Cadbury, the chocolate Labrador.

Step 1. Learning to Target

Step 1: Teaching the dog to understand what a target is.

We are going to use a target to teach our dog to push the door closed. A target is any object that the dog responds to by either touching with the nose or paw. In this case it is a piece of paper and I recommend sticking with a paper target during this trick for reasons that will become clear later on.

When you first show the dog the target, any movement towards it is rewarded. Either use a clicker to mark the movement, or a verbal cue ‘yes’. The dog will slowly grasp the idea that looking or moving towards the target object gets a reward. Once they have this, you withhold the reward until they make a stronger movement towards the target. In this case we want them touching it with their nose. So we would encourage stronger head movements in that direction until the dog is actually touching the target.

If your dog is not reaching this stage, you can help them by placing a treat on the target and rewarding the instant they bend down to eat it. Do this a couple of times, then pretend to put the treat on the target but actually keep it in your hand, as they go down expecting to find the treat mark the behaviour and reward. Paper is useful as it absorbs smell and the dog will smell the treat even when it isn’t there and be tempted to bend down. Use this tip too if your dog tries to paw the target rather than nose touch it.

Step 2: Proofing the Behaviour

Step 2: The target is briefly removed before being returned to proof the behaviour

Before you move on, you need to be certain that your dog understands what the target is by ‘proofing’ the behaviour. The next time he goes to check out the target, mark the behaviour and then throw the treat behind him. While he is turned pick up the target and move it. Now wait and see what he does. If he goes straight to the target and touches it again, he has grasped the idea of what to do. If he looks to you and isn’t certain you can point out the target and see if that works. If not, you may need to go back a stage to help him understand.

At this stage we also want to make sure that the dog understands he has to touch the target properly, not just look at it, to earn the reward. Only reward solid touches to the paper. You can determine this by if the paper moves when he nudges it. The more crumpled and soggy the paper gets the better, as that indicates the dog is properly pressing his nose down!

Step 3: Transferring to a door

Step 3: The target is moved to a closed door

I like to transfer the target mid-session, rather than when a dog is starting a session and is coming at it ‘cold’. It gives the dog a chance to build up a rhythm and understand what is required from him before the target moves. Stick the target to a closed door, making sure it is a dog’s nose height or just below. Now encourage your dog to touch it. He might be uncertain at first, but as long as you have proofed the behaviour he should quickly grasp that his target has just moved and he can still touch it.

If your dog is uncertain, you can begin by rewarding just a head turn to the target, but move the behaviour along quickly, asking the dog for more and more until he is making solid nose touches on the target.

At this stage add in your command. Mine is ‘door’. Practice this for a couple of sessions before moving on.

Step 4: Removing the Target

Step 4: When the dog is confidently touching the target it is removed

The next part of the process is losing the target altogether. This can take different periods of time in different dogs. For Cadbury, I started by halving the piece of paper, so it was considerably smaller. I could see that though he was still aiming for the target he was not fixated on it, so I removed the target in the middle of the session. As he already had the idea in his head of what he was doing, it didn’t matter that the target had gone. He heard the command and nose touched the door anyway.

If your dog struggles with the removal of the target, make it easier by gradually reducing the size of the target. This is why paper works well as you can keep cutting it down to make it smaller. Each session halve the target, until it is hardly there at all. At this point you should be able to remove it without the dog worrying. Remember to remove the target after the dog has successfully touched the door several times, so the dog is thinking about nudging the door.

Step 5: Opening the Door

Step 5: The door is now open, so the dog has to close it

You can now start to open the door a little and have your dog nudge it closed. Some dogs are very sensitive to noise and may not like the door slamming, so only open it a very slight way to begin with, or use a door that closes quietly. Each time your dog successfully closes the door around five times, open it wider, building up the distance the dog has to push it to close it.

If your dog doesn’t push the door fully closed on the first try, repeat the command and only reward when the door fully shuts. He will soon grasp that it is not just touching the door that counts, but making it close.

Now the fun part! Try out your command on other doors in the house. Can your dog transfer the action to different rooms/doors? With practice, he should be able to close any door you ask him to!

IMPORTANT: With all training patience is the key. Do not rush your dog or get frustrated if they are struggling with a new trick. All dogs learn at different speeds and there is no hurry. Keep sessions short (about 5-10 minutes) and always end with a successful try, even if that means going back to a previous stage your dog was happier with. And above all else, have fun with your dog!


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