Follow the leader?

One of the things a lot of trainers used to insist owners taught their dogs was to make sure they – the owner – went through doorways first. It was believed that it supported the owner’s position as ‘pack leader’ and showed the dog who was in charge by leading the way. Like much advice associated with outdated ideas about how to deal with ‘dominant’ dogs, it has fallen out of favour and doesn’t seem to be taught much these days.  But is that wise or sensible? I say not.

However much I’ve tweaked and adapted my class content over the years ‘dog following owner though doorways’ has always stayed in there, somewhere. And I teach it to every dog I own. Yes, really. For many people it conjures up pictures of ‘pack leaders’.  Dogs being subservient to the human in charge. But in my book it’s just plain sensible for the dog to learn to tuck itself behind the owner, and let them deal with whatever may be out there first. It is also an excellent way for a dog to learn self-control.

Many years ago I used to teach classes in a hall which had a stage where people sat waiting for their class to start. An owner with a large RottieX arrived, dog out ahead of him at the end of the lead. The dog went through the door onto the stage – but something made the door swing shut on the lead. So the owner was one side – dog the other. What the owner couldn’t see, and didn’t, was there was a child on the stage just the other side of that door. As the dog bounced though the door, he jumped at the child and grabbed his arm. Fortunately, playfully, and without doing any damage. But by the time the owner had opened the door, the dog had let go, and the owner was blissfully unaware what had happened until he was told. Disaster was averted – but only just.

What I took from seeing that near miss was that from a safety point of view, the dog mustn’t be the one to discover what is on the other side of any door first. It’s simply too late, and potentially dangerous, to let the dog go through and then discover there’s a hazard on the other side. He will have already kicked off at the dog that is just outside, or started to chase the cat sitting on the step or grabbed the child waving its arms about excitedly. The harm will have been done. Shutting stable doors and all that.  

In the context of reactive dogs it is even more important.   Nothing puts more dread in my heart than seeing an over-aroused dog appear in a doorway before the owner is visible! Seeing them drag their owners ahead at stiles, doorways and gates, around blind corners – especially front doors or into a dog training hall – you just know it won’t take much to send that dog spiraling upwards and kicking off before the owner is even aware there is another dog around.  

It’s not a ‘teach the dog a sit stay and then give him permission to charge through ahead of you’ obedience exercise (although it can be helpful to teach the dog go though ahead on some kind of cue), it’s an exercise where the dog, as a default, learns to drop back behind the owner in order to negotiate narrow spaces. Where someone – either the dog or the handler – has to go first. And if needs be, pausing in that doorway first, so the environment can be checked out first. That it’s safe to proceed. No lurking cats, passing dogs or children. Nothing to do with being a ‘pack leader’, just plain sensible.

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