Imagine a typical morning in the life of a professional dog handler. It’s 6am, you’ve just taken the first sips of your precious coffee. Still shaking off the grogginess of sleep, you enter the kennel to start letting dogs out for their first potty break in a yard. As you go to unlatch the gate for a puppy who is more than excited to see you - WHAM - the kennel door flies into your forehead causing surprise and instant pain. If this hasn’t happened to you personally, just ask one of your handlers and you will hear stories of headaches, bruises, and sometimes more serious injuries. If this unfortunate scenario has happened to you, then you already understand the importance of proper gate control.
Having worked in the dog industry for almost a decade I have seen many different styles of daycare and boarding facilities. One thing is the same in every dog care operation - gates, gates, and more gates! Gates are one of the most essential structural tools when caring for dogs, providing safety, security, and privacy for your guests. With the necessary abundance of gates and doors in dog care facilities, it is not surprising that they are also involved in many workplace injuries.
According to an article from the National Library of Medicine, Work-Related Injuries to Animal Care Workers , the second most reported injury for employees of non-veterinary animal care is being struck by or against a physical object. We take great care to train employees on how to prevent and avoid being bitten or scratched, the most commonly reported injury, but how much do we prepare our dog handlers to safely use and control the gates, doors, and barriers? Most staff are likely to learn through trial and error. However, we give our dog handlers a huge advantage by implementing a few simple tips and strategies to use for proper gate control.
The most frequent use of gates in a dog care facility is the scenario described above, simply letting a dog out of their kennel area for play or potty time. This is also the interaction most likely to cause injury from being stuck by the gate. The dog on the other side is excited, anticipating the fun they are about to have sniffing the yard and romping with friends. Many dogs are not trained to sit patiently while you unlatch the lock, and will jump up or try and push the gate open towards you. Patience and preparedness are the key to gate control in this situation. Placing your foot in front of the gate, and waiting until the dog has all four paws on the floor, will prevent the gate from flying open, allowing you to safely bring the dog out of their kennel, as demonstrated in this video from CATCH Canine Trainers Academy
In an open-style daycare or boarding facility dog handlers are expected to practice gate control with a group of several dogs who are all eager to push past and through the gate. This situation requires more skill and has even prompted an online competition to show who can demonstrate the most control over their gates. Creating a boundary around the gate using verbal commands and hand signals to determine which dogs can enter requires practice and consistency.
To establish this boundary, it can be helpful to walk the dog back until you have a clear area in front of the gate. This means walking toward the dog, prompting them to move backwards and away from the gate, where you can then tell them to “stay” or “wait”. If the dog immediately follows you towards the gate boundary, remain consistent and patient. Continue to walk the dog back using your body to block them from crowding the gate, making sure to give verbal praise and affirmation when they follow your direction. You can then individually call a dog through by saying their name and pointing towards them, keeping a careful eye on the rest of the group to see who might need to be walked back out of the boundary.
A clear area around the gate is especially useful when introducing new dogs into the play area. Whether the dogs are familiar friends, or are meeting for the first time, you need to make sure that the dog entering through the gate doesn’t feel bombarded by others upon entering the group. With proper gate control you can establish a comfortable environment for dogs to enter play groups, setting them up for a positive social experience. This is absolutely essential when working with social dogs who have barrier reactivity . The handler who is inside the play area supervising the group should call all dogs away from the gate before the new dog is allowed to enter. If verbal commands are not sufficient to provide a clear area around the gate, try using your body as a block to walk the dogs back and away.
Whether you work with dogs one-on-one or in larger play groups, maintaining gate control is essential to the safety of dogs and handlers alike. Whatever technique you decide to implement, be it verbal or physical, the most important thing is to be prepared and to be consistent. Set clear expectations for employees regarding how to safely use gate control in each situation they might encounter at your facility. You will ensure that the staff have a fun and rewarding experience with the dogs if you set them up with the tools they need to succeed.