Dogs and Doorways, Part 1

Myth: When a Dog Goes Through the Door First It Means He “Thinks He’s Alpha”

"It's the UPS Guy!"

If your dog gets overly excited when you come home or when guests or the UPS guy comes over—barking, jumping up, spinning around in crazy circles, even accidentally urinating—what is the best way to solve the problem?

Simple. Teach her that every time you or someone else comes through the door, her job is to grab a toy and bring it to them so that person can throw it for her to chase. That’s it, that’s the answer. When you teach a dog that one, simple thing it almost always eliminates all unwanted greeting behaviors.

But why would bringing a toy to the door accomplish that goal?

To understand that, you have to first understand a bit about your dog’s genetic history, and her relationship to the wolf.

Dogs and Wolves, Doorways and Thresholds

Sadly, many of the myths about wolf behavior seem to have a long shelf life; they keep misleading and confusing dog owners years after they’ve been de-bunked by scientists. In the now de-bunked list of 10 signs that your dog is dominant, one of them was that a dog who goes through a door ahead of you “thinks he’s alpha.”

This never made sense to me, even when I believed in the alpha theory. As far as I could tell most dogs went through a door quickly because they were excited about going for a walk. This was borne out by the fact that when you come home, they usually aren’t quite as interested in going through the door ahead of you.

So, just for laughs, let’s say that wild do wolves make a fuss over who gets to go through a doorway first. Why would it be necessary for evolution to have influenced the wolf to turn this simple behavior into an issue of rank-and-status about who is and isn’t “alpha?”

One explanation is that the alpha wolf has to enforce his authority at all times or else chaos will ensue and everybody will just do whatever they want. The trouble is, it’s now known that the so-called alpha wolf doesn’t enforce his authority at all times. He’ll let a subordinate wolf keep a bone. Also, the alpha wolf doesn’t always eat first. All wolves share in the spoils together, at the same time, with little or no social friction. Sometimes an adolescent wolf might try to scare his brother or sister away from his meal, but his parents let him know that’s not acceptable. And, in some cases, the pack leader is too worn out to partake in the feast right away; he has to let the others eat first while he catches his breath.

So what does the den door really signify to wolves and, by extension, dogs?

One very real possibility is that, in the wild, the den door is the dividing line between safety and danger. This could be why dogs often bark at strange noises coming from outside “the den door,” or growl when a stranger enters. It would even explain “submissive” urination—an exaggerated fear response—even when someone safe and friendly comes through the door.

If the den door is about safety vs. danger then it might make sense that an alpha wolf—who presumably would be equipped with more strength and tenacity than the rest of the pack—would usually go first. If the other wolves are capable of recognizing his superior strength and intelligence, then they might also be able to recognize his superior ability in dealing with whatever might lie on the other side of that threshold. However, the folklore is that they all want to go first, and that the alpha has to enforce his authority or chaos will ensue.

So where did this rule come from? What specific behaviors—not abstract, after-the-fact explanations—were researchers seeing in captive wolves that made them think there was a conflict worth mentioning?

The simplest explanation is usually the best. And since all so-called dominant behaviors are really about social friction, and since such displays often involve a wolf baring its teeth, and since even a subordinate wolf will exhibit a “submissive grin” when he rolls over on his back, it may be that this simple, reflexive behavior holds the answer to why captive wolves seem to make an issue out of who goes through an opening or crossing a threshold first. This may be why the researchers who catalogued these behaviors in captive wolves thought that when the wolves flashed their teeth at each other when they crossed a threshold they were trying to establish who was most dominant.

Why Dogs and Wolves “Bare Their Teeth”

“Teeth baring” is often described as a way for a dog or wolf to communicate his aggressive “intent” to others. Yet I’ve seen aggressive dogs, who may bark and lunge at another dog, but wait until that dog’s back is turned before baring their teeth. If teeth-baring is done to communicate, why do these dogs wait until the other dog can’t see them?

I’ve also known many dogs who “bare their teeth” then you give them a toy or a bone to chew. Are they communicating their aggressive intent to an inanimate object?

I think this is a simple involuntary reflex, designed by nature to get the dog’s soft flesh out of the way of his teeth when he has a strong urge to bite something or someone. My conjecture was borne out by a pit bull I knew named Augie Doggie, who lacked this autonomic reflex, and as a result couldn’t be given things to chew on because he would unintentionally bite a hole through his own lips.

So let’s just look at this business of canines “baring their teeth” whenever there’s movement around the “den door,” because it might explain why having your dog bring a toy to the door can eliminate all unwanted greeting behaviors.

“Field Studies” in Manhattan and Brooklyn

Years ago I used to take a group of about 4 or 5 dogs to Central Park everyday for play time. One of them, a Welsh terrier named Guinness, usually got a little nippy with the other dog’s butts when we came home and entered the vestibule just inside the front door of my apartment building, which the other dogs did not appreciate. There were some days, however, when Guinness didn’t nip their hindsides.

I wondered if it could be related to excess oral tension, brought on by going through an opening. To test my hypothesis, on some days I played tug-of-war with Guinness in the park, always let him win, and praised him for winning. On other days we just walked together, or the dogs played chase-me games. It found that Guinness was never nippy after we played tug-of-war, but would often nip the other dogs' backsides when we didn’t.

Then there’s Mocha, a very excitable Pharaoh hound mix who lived in Brooklyn. Whenever Mocha’s mommy came home, Mocha would run to the door, jump up on her owner, and if told to get off, would start nipping happily and excitedly at her owner’s clothes.

The owner asked for my advice. I suggested she keep a tennis ball or toy with her at all times, or have one ready just inside the front door, so that when she came home, and Mocha began her jumping and nipping routine, the owner could show Mocha the tennis ball or toy, and throw it for her to chase. Within three days, Mocha had stopped jumping up on her owner and nipping her clothes, plus whenever her owner came home, she automatically appeared at the door with a tennis ball or toy in her mouth, happily wagging her tail.

This is why when you teach your dog to grab a toy and bring it to the door every time the bell rings, or whenever there’s a knock at the door, or even when she hears your keys in the lock, it eliminates the feelings of nervous tension, which in turn automatically eliminates all unwanted greeting behaviors.

You can either do this the way Mocha’s owner did, by having a tennis ball ready whenever you come home, or you can have someone be your helper, coming in and out of the door, while you teach the dog to briing a toy to them as a substitute for unwanted greeting behaviors the dog would ordinarily exhibit. If you have a multiple-dog household, this can be a bit more difficult to accomplish, but with a little patience it can be done.

This works because the toy acts as a kind of pacifier; it reduces the dog’s feelings of oral tension, especially the kind brought on by the reflexive need to bite whatever comes through the “den door.” That’s why teaching this one behavior will gradually eliminate all other unwanted greeting behaviors, including submissive urination!

LCK “Life Is an Adventure—Where Will Your Dog Take You?”

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© 2016 by Lee Charles Kelley.