The importance of Doorways…

By Nick Jones

Well I’m sure that most of you know this one, but for those in a student role this is a must on every visit as far as I’m concerned. Looking at the behaviour in the dog's home, the hub of its life is essential to have the benefits in the outside world.
The benefits of ensuring that the owner goes before the dog at doorways are three-fold.
Firstly, it shows and reinforces good leadership; secondly it keeps the dog calm as it may be leaving for a walk and lastly, it helps to develop ‘good manners’.
At the end I would like to share with you the method I use with all my clients.
Let’s look at each of these points one at a time:
Enforcing good leadership.
Leaders go first right? I do think this appeals to the more primeval side of the dog, and is very symbolic. I will often get very good feed back on this technique from the client, as it keeps the dog nice and calm as they leave the house for example. It can transform the experience the client has at doorways in general, leading to a much quieter experience once outside.
I also see a number of ‘calming signals’ at this point, especially when the dog is finally getting the message and decides to stand back and allow the owner through. Licking of the lips, standing back, circling, sitting or lying down are a few that readily come to mind.
Keeping the dog calm.
Coming closer to the point of regular calm behaviour for a dog will make a genuine difference both in the home and outside, and it is then that other more subtle changes can take place. Other behaviours that simply come from an excitable state of mind will often fade of their own accord.
For example, I went to see a lady recently with a very worked up collie bitch at 17 months of age with essentially nervous-aggressive tendencies. To get from the lounge to the gate out of the garden there were five doorways/gates. These included a regular internal door, two UPVC style doors, the garden door, and the gate at the top of the garden.
What had been happening is that the lead was going on in the house, and she was being pulled in no uncertain terms through all of these doors with the dog jumping and barging along the way. It was a mess. The dog was having its head, but also getting more and more excitable (like an escalation up the scale) and then of course stressed along the way. The lady was being shown repeatedly who was leading the walk, and then she was confused as to the dog’s reactive behaviour once outside!
Working on good manners.
Would she allow a member of the family to barge in front of her as she approached a door I asked? Of course not, so why allow your dog?
Changing this situation would get the dog to slow down, think about the process and be conscious that the owner is on the other end of the lead. This alone will create a shift in the dog and create calm. Calm is good! Excitability leads to stress, stress leads to bad behaviour, and potentially health issues longer term as the stress is ‘discharged’ so to speak.
Ok, so what’s the solution?

Ok, where to start. Well, assuming the lead isn’t even on yet; I get the owner to bring the lead out of the drawer or off its hook.
This is where the dog will often go loopy and show it’s general attitude to what’s about to follow. In fairness, a few dogs remain pretty calm and relaxed, but most will get going at this point.
I insist that the dog is not going anywhere until it is sitting nice and calmly. Any jumping up or barging then the lead gets slapped on the counter, and we cross our arms and look away as if to say ‘suit yourself…I can wait’.
Once calm is restored (patience and a good sense of humour in large doses can often be very useful here!) the lead is lifted once again, and we give it another go.

Remember that we’re looking for calm, so it’s important to remain relaxed, avoiding eye contact with the dog too to prevent subtle conflict and stress. I encourage people to slow everything right down to enable them to think about what is happening, rather than to just do it in autopilot mode. Also bare in mind that the owner is not destined to this routine forever more, it is a case of retraining the dog into understanding that calm will work, excitement won’t.
Sometimes it may take quite a number of tries to lift the lead before the dog settles, but most will after two or three attempts if they’re excitable. Once the lead is on you may be in to a pulling situation straight away, so remain fixed and bring the dog back in until it understands you’re now in control.
The next step also requires a great deal of patience with some dogs, but with a few you can get out in thirty seconds or less.
A few prerequisites at this stage then:

  1. The lead remains slack at all times unless the dog bolts outside.
  2. No commands are to be given. (They often get in the way).
  3. Avoid eye contact, and remain calm and patient.

Depending on which way the door opens etc. place one hand through the lead’s end, and the other hand on the handle. Open the door just an inch or two, the dog will either try and claw at it and squeeze it’s nose out, or they might get a bit worked up and whine etc. The dog may leap up at the handle too, so a brief check on the lead will help here.
The idea follows that over a period of time (the longest I ever remained at this stage may have been ten minutes) the door can be opened more and more until you feel that you are able to slowly make an exit. Each time the dog goes to slip out first, the door is shut again. The dog will often do a full circle behind me and I quietly turn with it ready for another go. I should make the point that we are not trying to give the dog’s nose a bash here! I may apply light pressure if the dog really holds the nose there preventing me from shutting the door, but this would be applied very slowly giving the dog every opportunity to remove the offending part of his body. Most dogs pull the head back very swiftly when they see the door closing anyway!

Eventually, it gets to the point where there is enough space for you to move outside. This is also the trickiest part as the temptation for the dog to go on ahead is pretty high. The lead will come into play here if the dog makes a run for it, as closing the door at this point is hard to do given the distance to travel. However assuming the dog does go before you, lift it back in with the lead and close the door yet again. Wait a moment for calm to return and start again. Keep any verbal to an absolute minimum if anything.
This all sounds rather long winded seeing it on the screen, but in actual fact it all goes very quickly. Placing the lead on, and opening and closing the door is where the time is used.
Once you decide to go on ahead, I actually falsely move a foot ahead as if to show I’m leaving to test the dog. If all is well, I will then carry on leaving over the threshold almost in slow motion so as not to excite the dog into following me. Also at this point, I find it much better to swivel to face the dog closing any space with your body position to prevent rushing to follow you. So in essence you are both turning to face your dog and slowly exiting at the same time.
If done slowly enough you should be able to get outside, stand on the step and look back at the dog as it is by now waiting for the word to follow.
Count to five in silence to create a small wait, then call the dog on with a quiet but encouraging voice.
Some dogs will come and stand next to you calmly, others will shoot out like a greyhound out of the opening gates so be prepared either way with a good stance! Most will come outside calmly to impressed quiet gasps of amazement and delight from the owners…very satisfying!
Now the dog is mentally ready to face the walk, or sometimes I may suggest they do this all again a few times each day for practice and to break down the old habits.

The other way to approach such a scenario would be to tell the dog to sit and wait or stay as you leave, but the dog is not learning much in comparison. Doing it the way I describe will get the dog to think for itself, and come to its own conclusion about what is happening…making it something that is far more likely to stick and work well into the future.

Internal doorways are much the same if you find the dog is hot on your heels as you go from room to room. For this situation, I simply move to block the dog as I exit the room, and maybe hold a flat hand out as if to say ‘hang back…let me through’.
Conclusion.
Who would have thought you could write so much about going through a doorway? Well, it just goes to show how important it is, and as previously mentioned, the positive comments that get fed back are very encouraging.
A calm dog is a happy dog that’s much less likely to pull, and show other undesirable behaviour.
 
Nick Jones
Alpha Dog Behaviour.
Nick Jones MCFBA
Dog Behaviour Specialist and Trainer
01299 404356
nickjones@alphadogbehaviour.co.uk
Nick Jones, a full time Dog Behavioural Specialist and Trainer wrote this article. You can visit his website atwww.alphadogbehaviour.co.uk for more articles and training information. You may freely distribute this article or save to any electronic media as long as it is left intact, including this copyright box. Please let Nick know out of courtesy where and when you publish. Email will suffice. Thank you