For the 2 decades that I’ve been working with dogs, two notions have continued to be commonly held amongst dog owners. They are, that people need to eat before their dogs do and that people must always proceed through doorways first.
These are routinely practiced with the belief that they establish the human as ‘pack leader’. Knowing that the pack model has been debunked and replaced, should be reason enough to rethink these tactics. Why would we want to believe or follow something that we know is invalid or incorrect? It wouldn’t make sense. We now know that naturally occurring canid groups don’t follow these rules, so it makes even less sense that we should.
Even more importantly, our attitude and approach to our dogs are influenced by the belief system we follow. This outdated theory misinterprets our dog’s actions labelling many commonly occurring behaviours as an attempt to take over. It also encourages interactions with our dogs to be confrontational. Both of these are potentially dangerous if not inappropriate. To an onlooker or non-dog person, the act of eating a cracker before feeding the dog translating into supremacy in the household probably seems pretty silly. Or the mere act of going through a door before your dog verifies your authority… Really?
At the beginning of my dog career, I was mentored by a trainer who believed in pack theory and prong collars and alpha rolls. It always made me a bit squeamish. And as soon as the studies indicated the theory was incorrect, I was happy to move on. Unfortunately, for many, it has not been so easy. And so, the inaccurate ideas and misguided recommendations persevere.
Time to Change
It’s really not about being the boss in these situations. It’s about creating consistency and helping our dogs develop skills. The simple addition of some structure or routine will often change the way a dog behaves. Just like kids, routines reduce stress because of the predictability they create. They also allow expectations to remain consistent. Both good things. And one canʼt deny that having some order around doorways and during feeding times is beneficial. So what if we focus on “how” rather than on “who”? The real value is in the opportunity to build impulse control and provide things your dog really wants when they are willing to offer calm behaviour and work with you.
In this picture, the person isnʼt concerned about what the dog is doing. She’s just focused on going through the door first.
- Is the dog calm or excited?
- Is the dog responding to her and waiting, or is the handler (and the leash) doing all the work?
For the handler, itʼs all about taking that first step through the doorway. If she dropped the leash, there would be nothing stopping the dog from bolting through the door.
What if instead, we used the dogʼs interest in going through the door as a way to reinforce some attention and patience? In the next picture, the dog is calm and focusing on her handler. Will the dog get to go first? Or the handler? Perhaps theyʼll go through together. Whatʼs important is that the dog is waiting to get some direction and the OK to go. Not only is this a much safer protocol, but it also develops some great behaviours. AND the leash isnʼt doing the work, the dog is.
Getting started at the doorway:
Want to give it a try? Hereʼs how:
There are a few steps involved in teaching your dog to wait patiently at an open door. Here’s an easy way to begin the process. Remember that the point of this is to have the dog learn to wait without being prompted to. Instead, you’ll wait for the behaviour you like.
Before you start, decide what behaviour will ʻworkʼ for your dog to open the door. If she gets excited easily and finds it difficult to settle, you may want to start with just a moment of quiet and four-on-the-floor. Or you may be able to hold out for a sit the first time. This will depend on your dog.
- With your dog on leash stand in front of the closed door.
- Wait to see what your dog does.
- She may try a variety of behaviours, such as jumping, barking or pawing.
- Remain quiet until she offers the behaviour you want.
- As soon as she does, Voila! – praise her, open the door and release her to go through – “Letʼs go!”
It’s that simple! It may take some patience and a bit of time in the beginning. But remember to let your dog figure it out. If you just tell her what to do, a lot of the value will be lost. We want our dogs to be able to choose calm, polite behaviour, not rely on us telling them what to do when they want stuff.
So youʼve probably already guessed that Iʼm going to tell you to drop the “eat something firstʼ routine. Youʼre right! A better choice is once again to help your dog develop some impulse control and offer polite behavior for things they want. Perhaps youʼre thinking proudly “My dog already sits. I ask him to sit before every meal”. Thatʼs a great start, but thereʼs an important part missing. You’ve got it – the dog offering a polite sit.
The difference between physically restraining your dog using a leash and having him exhibit impulse control, is pretty apparent. You may be thinking, however, whatʼs the difference between asking for sits and waiting for your dog to offer them? By waiting for the dog to offer behaviour:
- your dog has to think about whatʼs happening
- this will help her to be in a calmer, less reactive state
- she will develop some impulse control – a vital skill
- sheʼll make choices and offer behaviour to get what she wants
This is completely different than a dog that is prompted or made to do something. You and your equipment shouldn’t be making all the effort. If that’s the case, there’s no need for your dog to develop impulse control or manners. Itʼs like having a 30-year-old child that still needs to be reminded to say ʻpleaseʼ and ʻthank youʼ. Thereʼs an added bonus – no need to nag your dog!
Want to give it a try? Hereʼs how:
Decide what you would like your dog to do at mealtimes. It’s up to you. Let’s say it’s sit.
With your dog’s feeder ready and in hand, pause without saying anything. Remember that you are waiting for her to choose to sit. If you’ve been asking for it at mealtimes already, it might not take long before she chooses to do it on her own. Either way, it’s important that you let her figure it out. When she does, praise her and quickly put the food down.
So it’s time to drop those out-of-date habits. Building better behaviour may take a little time to start, but in the long run, it will make for great behaviour that happens fast. So you CAN eat last and allow your dog through doorways first and still have a great relationship and a well-mannered dog.
Originally published in Pet Connection Magazine