Baby Gate Training

What would it take for your dog to escape your backyard fence? How about a baby gate? It’s not the physical barrier that’s keeping him in. What keeps him in is his choice to stay where you put him, rather than conquer that barrier to gain access to the wonderful world beyond.

Why do dogs stay behind fences and baby gates?

You’ve heard of dogs who “can’t be kept inside a fence”.  You may have seen a dog scale a fence.  Plenty of dogs can easily jump over a shorter fence.  Some dogs repeatedly dig under fences, and others climb like cats.  Sometimes I hear from people who just got a new dog or a new foster dog who say, “We put up a baby gate, but he jumped right over it.” Or, “We left our new dog behind a baby gate and he pushed it over and destroyed our couch.” It’s easy to see that dogs can figure out how to get past a barrier. That’s why it’s important to prepare your dog with the necessary skills to manage any new situation. Yet, many dogs stay inside just about any enclosure they are placed in, even when it would be easy to escape.  Why?  Because of behavior principles and learning, just like any other skill set. 

Dogs learn to stay inside boundaries

Dogs can learn that staying inside a fence or baby gate is more valuable than leaving it. In fact, animals can learn to stay behind boundaries that are not physical at all – ones they could just as easily walk across. A boundary can be as simple as an open doorway or a terrain change, like the edge of a sidewalk. You can teach your pet to leave a room by going through a doorway into another room, or to stop at the edge of your grass when he’s off-leash in the front yard with you. The same process is used to teach animals to stay behind a fence or baby gate.

Note: Safety comes first. I would never advocate leaving pets outside alone, depending on boundary training to keep them safe without a physical barrier. Physical barriers provide safety from other animals that can come in from the outside. They also protect pets when something tempts them to run out past a boundary and they just can’t resist. You will also not find me advocating for “invisible fences”. We can use positive reinforcement to effectively teach dogs to stay inside boundaries, without shocking them.

Don’t let dogs learn things you don’t want them to know

I often talk about not allowing animals to learn things we don’t want them to know.  This is part of preparing dogs for a harmonious and peaceful life in a human-centered world. For example, when a dog puts his front paws on the kitchen counter, he can often get big pieces of yummy meat.  We don’t want our dogs to learn that! Similarly, there is a wonderful world of fun on the other side of the fence. If you’re a dog, that glorious outcome is usually well worth the effort needed to figure this out. After all, on the other side, he’ll get to run, explore, meet people and animals, hunt, and more! It is probably also fun for dogs to work through the problem and maybe even to do the physical activity required to get past that fence.  We don’t want our dogs to learn that.

Prepare your dog for staying behind a baby gate

It’s the same with baby gates.  Dogs can learn that it’s awesome to be inside the gate.  We don’t want them to learn how easy it is to get out. We don’t want it to be more reinforcing to get out of the gate than to stay behind it. It is our job to teach them what we want them to do.

Most dogs learn about the backyard fence through a natural progression of associating their homes with good things.  Their guardians and friends are at home, along with their meals and toys. Home is where lots of fun activities go down, both indoors and out.  Many experiences combine to build a broad repertoire of behaviors reinforced by “really good stuff”, teaching dogs that staying home is cool.  We can do the same with baby gates. Don’t just install one and hope your new dog doesn’t push it down or jump over it.  As you might imagine, treats are really helpful in setting up training exercises for this purpose!

Dogs can learn that boundaries are important to them

You can start teaching your dog about boundaries by playing a simple game.  I usually use the verbal cue, “Wait,” with this behavior, but the cue word is not the key.  First, you must teach your pet where the “line” is that forms the boundary.  Doorways are helpful for keeping yourself consistent as to what you’re asking of your pet.  Outdoor boundaries that help make it easy for you and your pet include gates as well as terrain changes.  The border between grass and a sidewalk or a decorative border around a flower bed is a good example.  This exercise helps teach your pet to make good choices. Practicing in a variety of locations will help your dog build the skill of recognizing potential boundaries and pausing to consider them, rather than just barreling right through.

It’s likely that dogs don’t consider the general boundaries we humans do, unless they’ve been taught to notice them. This game does just that, and also teaches them a behavior to do when they come upon a potential boundary. When your dog moves away from a boundary, it may just give you time to respond to keep him safe.

You can play this “Wait” game with your dog behind a baby gate, too.  Try it with your dog behind the gate in your backyard. Playing the game at different points along the fence helps build value for moving away from the fence. Your goal is to develop your dog’s tendency to consider all the activities he can do inside the fence, rather than start considering the fact that he might be able to get past it.

Playing this game is just like telling your dog, “Don’t go past the baby gate.”

Accompany this exercise by simply practicing various training exercises with your dog on the opposite side of a baby gate from you.  The short video below includes just a few.  Try any behaviors your dog knows – from tricks to positions! 

Dogs need to learn to remain where you put them

Once your dog understands these games, you can add another one to build his ability to stay in an enclosure for longer periods of time. Put your dog behind the baby gate and give him something to do. A stuffed Kong to work on or another type of food puzzle would be a good choice.  Set him up with a soft bed as far away from the baby gate as possible. Leave him, but don’t go far – and don’t stay away for too long.  This is not a test, it’s a way to create a wonderful experience that you can build on later.  Disappear for 10 – 20 minutes and come back.  Make sure your dog is calm and relaxed when you release him from the enclosure.  Repeat this exercise regularly, building the length of time he’s inside the baby gate on a variable schedule.

Training requires planning

It’s important to not unintentionally attach a predictable time limit to your dog’s calm behavior behind the baby gate.  Vary how long you are out of sight as you carefully extend the amount of time you leave him.  Make it unpredictable.  For example, after a few sessions of staying calmly behind the gate for 10 to 20 minutes, do an 8-minute session before increasing to 30 minutes.  Bounce the times around as you practice; your dog is constantly learning whether he can predict your return.  He is learning to associate being behind the baby gate with the internal, emotional response of being calm and relaxed. You don’t want him to begin feeling pressure to explore how to get out and look for something better to do. This can happen when you extend the time too much, too quickly. It’s a teaching process; help your dog learn.

Short, sweet training sessions

An example timing structure for these training sessions might be:  5 minutes – 10 minutes – 8 minutes – 15 minutes – 17 minutes – 10 minutes – 15 minutes – 8 minutes – etc.  The objective is to avoid continually asking more and more from your pet.  Imagine if you were learning a new skill. If you performed well, you wouldn’t want someone to just keep pushing you for more until you fail.  That’s not good for learning and it would not leave you motivated to try again.  It’s the same for your dog or cat.  Support them in progressing a little, then give them a break. A break can consist of either ending the training session or giving them a shorter time requirement.  Progress will follow, as long as your learner remains engaged. Keep training sessions short. Don’t get into the “one more time” zone.

Baby gates and boundaries

Begin with the details to teach your pet to focus on all the good things within the boundaries you create for him. Practice training exercises that ensure great things happen away from the boundary, so there’s no reason to move closer to it. Coming close to boundaries leads to exploring them and putting paws up on them, and that’s a perfect first step toward crossing them. We have the power to provide positive reinforcement for moving away from a barrier and for hanging out far from the boundary. Relaxing on a bed, chewing a bone, and taking a nap away from the boundary allow your pet to build associations between those calm activities and being inside the enclosed area provided by a baby gate.

A crate is just another set of barriers and boundaries! The same teaching process described here can be used to train pets to relax in their crates, providing a variety of options for peaceful and harmonious households.

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