For the 20 years that I’ve been working with dogs, two notions have continued to be commonly held amongst dog owners, even though the model from which they came was discarded by science long ago. They are, that people need to eat before dogs do and people must always proceed through doorways first.
These are routinely practiced with the belief that they clearly establish the human as ‘pack leader’. Knowing that the pack model is incorrect and has been replaced, should be reason enough to drop these tactics. Similar to using an earth-centered model to interpret and understand our world, our attitude and approach to our dogs will be off base when we follow this outdated theory. We now know that naturally occurring canid groups don’t follow these rules, so what’s the point of us doing it? To an onlooker, the act of eating a cracker before feeding the dog somehow translating into supremacy in the household, probably seems pretty silly. Or the mere act of going through a door before your dog verifying your authority… Really?
The simple addition of some structure or routine will often change the way a dog ‘behaves’. Just as with kids, routines reduce stress because of the predictability they afford. They also allow expectations to remain consistent. These are both good things. And one canʼt deny that having some order around doorways and during feeding times is beneficial. What if we focus on “how” rather than on “who”? 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 the picture to the right, the person isnʼt really focused on what the dog is doing.
- 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 picture below, 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 ʻOK to goʼ. Not only is this a much safer protocol, it also develops some great behaviours. AND the leash isnʼt doing the work, the dog is.
Getting started at the doorway:
There are a few steps involved in teaching your dog to wait patiently at an open door. This is 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 behavior you like.
Before you start, decide what behavior will ʻworkʼ for your dog to open the door. If they get excited easily and find it difficult to settle, you may want to start with just some quiet and four-on-the-floor. 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. He may try a variety of behaviours, such as jumping, barking or pawing. Remain quiet until he offers the behavior you want.
As soon as he does, Voila! – the door opens and you can release him to go through – “Letʼs go!”
So youʼve probably already guessed that, as with the doorways, 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 does. I ask him to sit before every meal”. Thatʼs a great start, but thereʼs an important part missing. 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 him be in a calmer, less reactive state
- he will develop some impulse control – a vital skill
- heʼll make choices and offer behaviour to get what he 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 – the need to nag your dog will be greatly reduced too!
Want to give it a try? Hereʼs how:
Decide what you would like your dog to do at mealtimes – being quiet and fouron-the-floor, for example.
Begin your normal routine of preparing dinner, paying attention to your dog through each step. We want to show him that calm and polite behavior works right from the beginning, not just when you’re about to put the food dish on the floor.
As long as he remains calm you can continue.
If he begins barking or jumping at any point, calmly without saying anything, cease preparation and pause until he calms down again. You may even need to leave the area to help him settle. As soon as he settles, begin again.
In the early stages, you will most likely have to stop and start a number of times. That’s OK. Your dog is having to work through the challenge of figuring out how to make you continue, along with dealing with some frustration. He’ll also be developing some impulse control, so it’s worth your time.
Once you make it to actually having food in the dish and are ready to give it to your dog, pause and WAIT for him to sit. If you’ve been asking for it at mealtimes already, it might not take long before he chooses to do it on his own. Either way, it’s important that you let him figure it out. When he does, quickly put the food down and tell him how great he is.
You can take solace in the fact that one client took 42 minutes to give their dog dinner the first time they tried this. Breakfast the next morning took 90 seconds. Your patience will pay off. Remember that the value of this lies in the dog needing to think about what to do and offering it, rather than just being told what to do.
So it’s time to dump those out-of-date habits. You can eat last, allow your dog through doorways first and still have a great relationship and a well-mannered dog.
Originally published in Pet Connection Magazine