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Dogs and Doors - Dominance – or respect? Who Goes First and does it matter?

A lot has been written recently concerning who goes through a door first, you or your dog – and does it matter?

Is it merely a human control trick – unnecessary and irrelevant, as seems to be the latest general consensus of opinion in some areas of the dog world, or does it have a purpose?

Before I put my head above the parapet and suffer the slings and arrows etc. (because I firmly believe it DOES have a purpose – a very good purpose), think on this.

What is your relationship with your dog?  I believe it should be one of mutual respect – but with the human making the important decisions when in a "human” situation that a dog cannot possibly be expected to understand.

When you were a child, or if you have children, who makes the important decisions – you or your child?

Hopefully you will be – or had – the kind of parent who gave you a voice, who gave you the guidance and nurturing to make good decisions for yourself – appropriate to your age and level of maturity.
However there would be times when they told you to do something without argument, and expected you to comply.   Even then, if there was no urgency, you would be given the opportunity to discuss, and perhaps find a compromise on which you both agreed, but if there was a fraught situation, you would be expected to do as you were told immediately and without question.

Why?  Because a good parent will inspire respect and trust in their child, they will not use their authority to become control freaks and make unreasonable rules, but when push comes to shove they expect their children to follow their instructions without argument.

Again, why?

Because the reality is that the parents have the life experience, and confidence, to tackle situations which, as yet, their children are not equipped to deal with.  Both parent and children know this, and where mutual trust and respect have been established, there should be no conflict.  This guidance and nurturing will see the children able to cope admirably in their mature life – they no longer need (but often seek when they are unsure) this degree of help.

Dogs, even at an age where in a natural environment they would be taking care of themselves – and doing it very well - depend on us to guide and help them through the more puzzling and dangerous aspects of the human world, pretty much forever.  We take away their ability to live as nature intended,  in almost all the important areas – food, reaction to danger, free will, in fact in pretty much every aspect of a life living with humans they have to be guided – something which would be totally unnecessary if they had been born in their natural world.

Historically dogs were expected to adapt to human ways, very little thought was given to trying to understand how THEY thought, how to make life less confusing for them, until fairly recent times.

Now, many of us have tried to learn the canine signals that dogs exchange in order to understand more about the way they react to situations, how they interact with each other, in short what it takes to make life less stressful for them, and by proxy build a better relationship between dog and human.

Dogs know we are not dogs, they know we behave in often incomprehensible ways – sometimes in a diametrically opposite way to THEIR natural reactions to situations, but they adapt to fit in with us.  Giving (however clumsily) our interpretation of canine signals to them just makes their life a little easier – and I’m sure they appreciate our efforts.

So, why should we go through doors first?  Because it is what dogs do for each other to show respect!

I am so sure of this because I have seen it played out times without number with my own dogs.

When we had four dogs – mum, dad, and the two kids (brother and sister) – the puppies had the usual "puppy licence” for the first few months.  They could pretty much get away with murder, unless they crossed an (invisible to us) boundary, then the parental (usually mum) reprisals were swift and uncompromising, serving to bring the puppy up short – and teaching him or her a valuable lesson in manners.

When they reached adolescence, the pecking order started to emerge.  The order (from the top) was mum, brother, then interchangeably sister and dad.  This last two were happy-go-lucky, totally uninterested in power games, anything for a quiet life, cheery souls.

When they came in from the garden, whoever came to the door first, the order of entry never varied – it was mum first, then brother, then either sister or dad (they didn’t care who went first).  The same order applied when going out into the garden – in both situations it was "dogs only”, no humans involved.

Feeding times were tranquil – everyone respected the other’s right to eat, but if a random piece of food dropped on the ground there was no question of who got it – it was always mum.  No conflict, just complete tacit acceptance of her right.

Then came maturity for the puppies.

One day a piece of food dropped to the floor when I was preparing dinner.  Mum immediately moved to pick it up, but this time the son moved between her and the food, stood like a rock (not looking at her) and simply lifted a lip and emmmited a small growl – nothing else.

The effect on mum was both funny and sad.   She looked to me with a look of pure astonishment on her face, did an agonised tap dance with her front paws, whined a bit – but gave way.

The son picked up the food and ate it.

It was a bloodless coup.  The dynamics of the family group had changed, and everyone accepted that the son was now top dog. 

There were many small indicators that the balance of power had shifted – not least that mum in future deferred to her son and curried favour in a way which my human psyche found just wrong – "He is your son – don’t creep to him!” was my human reaction, but of course I did not interfere.  They all looked to me as the ultimate decision maker, so the pecking order within their group had to be left up to them, unless conflict raised its head - and it never did.

The point of all this waffle is that the most important change came in the "Who enters/exits first?” situation.   This changed from the moment of the food episode, and never reverted back.  From that point on the son entered and exited first – always.  No angst, no excitement, just a tacit acknowledgement that the pecking order had changed.

Much discussion has taken place about why we should (or shouldn’t) go out a door first, and the reasons why a dog will barge past us.

Is it because your dog takes responsibility for the "pack”, because you have shown yourself to be an unconvincing decision maker – he needs to address any potential danger because he does not think you are capable?  Is it simply because he has no manners, is a bit of a (likeable usually) hooligan who just thinks "Whoo hoo!  What’s out there?  I want to see – get out the way here I go!”.

I think the second is more likely, and there are more theories than you can shake a stick at – but who knows really?

What is certain is that whatever the reason, your dog is not showing you the respect he would naturally give to another dog considered above him in the pecking order.

We strive to replicate the signals dogs give to each other, so why don’t we observe the natural behaviour of dogs and replicate it in this particular situation?

There is no need to show "dominance or "control-freakery” when we introduce the concept of going before our dogs when we are entering a situation where an important decision may have to be made, (the exercise when done properly is gentle and non-confrontational, and all dogs in my experience "get it” and react favourably,  with amazing speed, to the signals given) and I could not give a tinker’s cuss who goes first when we are wandering around our home in a relaxed way, but when I am leaving the home with my dogs, or in any situation where I NEED for safety’s sake to go first, I do not want to have my legs taken from me by a barging dog which may be flying out into a dangerous situation, neither do I want to have to sidle through a door with one leg sticking out trying to keep a slavering and hysterical dog from following (as I have seen many people do), I want to enter and renter the home in a calm and non-flurried way.

If my dogs do not respect me enough to respect my right to make decisions for them in situations where I know they may come to harm – and I have given them the upbringing which allows them the freedom to choose to make choices for themselves in anything other than potentially dangerous situations – I would not feel relaxed in their company.

I use what I have observed from canine interaction to help me to make life harmonious for us all – and going through doors first figures in this.

I want respect from my dogs – I do not seek to subjugate or dominate them.

APRIL 22ND, 2015 @ 13:54:45 BST


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