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Ask a Trainer: Is My Dog Trying to Dominate by Going Out the Door First?

Dogster resident trainer Annie Phenix explains why the dominance theory is bunk and gives tips for using the "sit" command to teach good doorway manners.

Annie Phenix, CPDT-KA  |  Sep 8th 2015


Here’s a question I recently received from a reader:

I have a new, very large German Shepherd I recently adopted. He’s great in every way, but he does rush out the door in front of me. I have read that this is a sign of dominance. Is that true? How do I get him to stop doing this?

– Robert D.

Dear Robert,

I love German Shepherds! I have shared my life with seven of them (so far). What I don’t love is the misguided, outdated, irresponsible, harmful, inadequate, demoralizing, and scientifically refuted concept called dominance theory. Thank you, Bob, for asking me about it, so I have the opportunity to clarify why it does not exist.

Here I am working with a German Shepherd who is a client. (Photo by Tica Clarke Photography)

Here I am working with a German Shepherd who is a client. (Photo by Tica Clarke Photography)

In brief: A Swiss scientist studied captive wolf behavior in the 1930s and concluded that wolves in packs fight for dominance. That belief was then used to describe wild wolf behavior. More scientists piled on their observations that captive, unrelated wolves fight for dominance.

Stop the presses right there, folks. Fighting for dominance is NOT normal wolf behavior. Wild wolves form families. Studying captive wolf behavior and then hollering from an ivory tower that it is the same as wild wolf behavior is inadequate at best. “This is analogous to trying to draw inferences about human family dynamics by studying humans in refugee camps,” said David Mech, a bright scientist who studied wild wolves. “The concept of the alpha wolf as a ‘top dog,’ ruling a group of similar-aged compatriots, is particularly misleading.”

One other thing to note here. Dogs are not wolves in the same way that humans are not chimps. Are you a chimp, Bob? I don’t think that you are. And your German Shepherd is neither a wild nor a captive wolf. He is not trying to dominate you as he rushes out the door. He is excited to go outside! It’s fun out there and, oh, the smells he can detect! Also he has two extra legs than you do, and he can hustle a lot faster than we non-chimp humans can. Make sense?

If you have any doubts — and it would be natural to doubt what I am saying, as dominance theory still struggles to hang on as a real thing, even though it is as real as unicorns – you can Google “dominance theory debunked” to learn more about the enormous amount of scientific debunking that exists. Remember back in the bad old days when we thought the Earth was flat? People swore it was. Maybe back then I, too, would have been a Flat Earther, but today I am sure it is round. I do not doubt for a second its roundness.

This is a wolf, not a dog. (Wolf by Shutterstock)

This is a wolf, not a dog. (Wolf by Shutterstock)

I stand with the vast majority of scientists, researchers, dog trainers, veterinarians, and animal behaviorists who are certain that dogs are not wolves and who say on record that dominance theory is incorrect. Please read this statement from the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior. You might take note that the AVSAB “recommends that veterinarians not refer clients to trainers who coach and advocate dominance hierarchy theory.”

Now, Bob, to stop this undesired behavior in your new housemate, I often look for ways to train incompatible behavior. I love “sit.” It solves a lot of problems for owners as a dog cannot both sit and bolt out the front door. Heck, I don’t think even a chimp or a wild wolf can both sit and bolt at the same time.

Because going outside represents IMMENSE FUN for dogs, we need to motivate your dog to be patient and walk instead of run to that great outdoor playground. So, please put him on leash and have truly motivational meat or cheese training treats on you. Dry, boring dog biscuits ain’t all that motivating.

Ask your big guy to sit at the door. Reinforce the behavior that you like, and that’s the sit. Praise and treat! Slowly, every so slowly, put a hand on the doorknob, and with your other hand (you can step on the leash to go hands free), reinforce that pretty sit. If your dog gets out of the sit, say nothing but remove your hand from the doorknob. Lure him with a treat back into a sit and give him that treat once he sits, and then start again with your other hand on the door.

Who's a good boy!? (German Shepherd by Shutterstock)

Who’s a good boy!? (German Shepherd by Shutterstock)

Continue this process until you can open the door and your dog stays in a sit until you release him with a release word such as “okay” or “free.” You can step in front of him should he get up as you move to the door, or you can lure him back into the sit each time he does that. I always look for things the dog is doing that I like to reinforce, and we all like dogs who sit by doors and wait for the cue to go out. You can also close the door when he gets out of the sit. We do this until the dog understands that his forward movement — and his taking his concentration off you and your delicious meat reinforcers — makes the door shut.

So you see, dear Bob, it doesn’t matter in the big scheme of things if your dog goes out of a doorway in front of you. That has nothing to do with dominance — that is complete bunk. If you as his owner don’t want him to be in front of you, then it falls on the human to teach the dog a more preferred entry and exit behavior. You can teach your big guy this. I know you can because we have the bigger brains and the gift of language, so step into the role of a teacher here and instruct with kindness and fairness … and have the wisdom to not believe in outdated theories that end up harming dogs.

One final note: After reading this column in Dogster print magazine, reader Eileen Anderson made a video showing how she used the methods I describe to teach her dogs good doorway manners. Check it out:

Read more by Annie Phenix, CPDT-KA, on Dogster:

About the author: Annie Phenix, CPDT-KA, is a force-free professional dog trainer enjoying her mountain-filled life in Colorado. She is a member of the Pet Professional Guild and the National Association of Canine Scent Work. She takes her highly trained dogs with them everywhere dogs are welcome because of their exceptionally good manners. Join Annie on her dog-training Facebook page.