Whole Dog Journal's Blog May 24, 2017

Thinking about the "Sit! Sit! SIT!" Syndrome

Posted at 03:51PM - Comments: (20)

There is a behavior that the vast majority of humans reliably demonstrate when meeting an unfamiliar dog or puppy: they will tell the dog to “Sit! Sit! SIT!” Even without any evidence whatsoever that the dog understands the word, people will repeat it again and again, and say it louder and more emphatically, seemingly certain that the dog was too distracted or just didn’t hear them. It never seems to cross their minds that the dog doesn’t fully understand what the word means.

It is a testament to our love for and comfort with dogs, I guess, that we so often assume they understand our language. But why do we so often expect a strange dog – or as an even better example, a young, untrained puppy – to understand “Sit!” I find it so aggravating!

Why do I even care? For two reasons:

1. People often get physically forceful when a dog doesn’t understand and comply with the “command.” They’ll snap their fingers to get the dog’s attention, and say it more firmly. “SIT.” And then they’ll often reach for the dog’s rear end and start pushing.

I can’t count the times that I’ve been with people in the “get acquainted” room, as a volunteer with my local shelter, introducing a dog or puppy to prospective adopters, when someone starts with the “Sit! Sit! SIT!” thing – almost always immediately followed by someone attempting to push the dog or puppy’s butt down onto the floor.

This is just not appropriate – and it’s a great way to hurt an older, arthritic dog, or frighten a scared dog into feeling like he has to defend himself with a growl or bite. It also abruptly changes the relationship between the person and the dog; with that single gesture, the person has aggressively made it clear that he or she is physically more powerful than the dog and completely uninhibited about using that physical force. Some dogs are completely okay with this; some might accept it from someone they know and trust; and some have no foundation of kindness from humans to understand and accept this calmly and without fear.

Whenever I see someone push a puppy’s or dog’s butt to the floor, I ask her how she would feel if I put my hands on her shoulders and firmly pressed her down into a chair. Would it matter if I were smiling and cooing at her when I did it?

2. Here’s the second reason I hate it when people repeat a word they mean to be a cue to an animal who clearly doesn’t know it, or can’t demonstrate at that moment that they understand – and this is a little out there, but follow me for a moment… It demonstrates an unexamined expectation that the dog should know this cue AND comply, no matter who uses the cue or when. If you think about it, it’s a completely racist – species-ist  – expectation. We humans EXPECT dogs – strange dogs, baby dogs, ALL dogs – to do this one thing when we say they should. But why? We wouldn’t dream of saying the same thing to a CAT we just met! And pushing its butt down when it didn’t sit! We don’t do this to chickens, or goats, or guinea pigs, or parrots.

Think about it: We don’t do this to ANY OTHER ANIMAL! Just dogs are singled out for this expectation – and many, many others. I think most people would immediately understand that they need to manage, train, and condition ANY other species of animal to go along with the things we routinely just expect dogs to do, including cooperate with baths, intimate grooming and touching, riding in cars, getting along with other dogs, and so on.

Anyway, I should also add that I DO often say “Sit!” to dogs I don’t know – but I do it for the same reason that I would say “Hello!” to a strange person: to get information, NOT to “order” him to do something.

I can usually tell from a person’s response to “Hello!” whether we speak the same language (or not), or whether the person is even willing to have any sort of communicative exchange with me. Similarly, I can usually tell from a dog’s response whether he has any interest in “speaking”’ with me, and if so, whether we might have any language in common. A dog who looks like he might know what “Sit!” means and is willing to comply is the equivalent of a person who responds to “Hello!” with “Hi, how are you?” To me, it means that we can start to have a conversation in the same language.

And if a dog responds to “Sit!” as if he has never heard the word before, then I know I have to behave in the same way I would with a person who speaks NO English, with a big smile and lots of gestures and making no assumptions whatsoever about what the person was getting out of the conversation. And a lot of letting him know how much I appreciate him for “speaking” with me.

Comments (20)

Most people here point their finger at a dog and say "sit . . . sit . . . sit . . . . . . " until the dog finally sits and then smile triumphantly because the thin their dog knows the mean in "sit" and obeys. :-)
It is people who have gone the the old fashioned Obedience Clubs who try to push the dog's rump down. That is what they were 'taught' by the instructor. Generally these are the people who do learn another, better way to teach a dog to sit.
The bleaters tend to continue bleating -- just like Mothers in the supermarket who bleat at their oblivious kids :-(

Posted by: Jenny H | May 31, 2017 12:44 AM    Report this comment

Great article! Another reason why I hate to see dogs pushed into position is because that doesn't teach a dog how to learn. All dogs know how to sit. In teaching sit, we aren't teaching a dog how to sit, but rather, we're teaching the cue for "sit." If the cue is physically touching or luring the dog, how do you do that from across the room? It does seem like rescues should instruct visitors with less invasive greeting behaviors!

Posted by: Yasijenny | May 29, 2017 8:16 PM    Report this comment

Call it what you want; but dogs can be "stubborn, manipulating and challenge your commands at some point in time!

Posted by: SlyBrandy | May 29, 2017 2:06 PM    Report this comment

"Vast majority of humans"? Really? I know you have a great deal of experience with all of this, but I am astounded that the people surrounding you behave this way. I thought the "vast majority of humans" upon approaching a dog they didn't know did things to try to prove themselves worthy of the dog's approval, not the other way around. And in the "get acquainted" room? That's where you would first encounter a confused, likely traumatized dog. Is there something / someone in that environment suggesting to adopters that they need to prove themselves as trainers? I cannot fathom this utterly inappropriate behavior.

Posted by: dccarter | May 29, 2017 1:37 PM    Report this comment

Another question? What do you recommend as treats for service dog training? As a service dog learns each step to a new "trick", he will be receiving a lot of them. I currently make the treats my Pom pack receive.
Thank you!
Doggy Gramma

Posted by: Doggy Gramma | May 28, 2017 10:24 PM    Report this comment

Thank you, ALL for your advice. Is there a particular site or individual who would be willing to help me "free" or very low cost, as I live on a fixed income, in regard to training my service animal. The most important services for now, prob more in two years, are bracing me when I lose my balance so I don't fall, hopefully the pick of the litter is a BIG male. I am not blind. Sometimes my Range of Motion, or picking up things, especially dropped on the floor, is very hard.

I would think one of the first things I have to teach is to disregard my Pom pack. Start by teaching him the simple "parlor tricks" isolated in a room. Then when he gets good, I put him in a common room and expect the same obedience.

FYI...and a giggle....I was given the nickname "Doggy Gramma" when my gran'kids were young. Both of their grammas were named "Diana". Completely understood. I am Alpha. Not "the spoiler". I know German Shepherds are happiest working so I will be training him in lots of ways...too bad I can't teach him to find my misplaced cup of coffee. My Poms find pills when I drop them.

Doggy Gramma

Posted by: Doggy Gramma | May 28, 2017 10:19 PM    Report this comment

For the folks saying a dog cannot be stubborn or manipulative, please, that is simply NOT true. I have plenty of amusing stories on the manipulative part. Saying dogs canmot be manipulative is like saying they can't have feelings. That being said, yes, a lot of people mistake those terms with "not trained enough and not generalized enough."

Posted by: nevertuesday | May 28, 2017 11:06 AM    Report this comment

Diane Baumann asks students who are addicted to "Sit! Sit! Sit!", "How many dogs are you training?
I was taught to get down on my knees, cuddle the dog against me and gently press in on his/her hind legs so that he/she more or less sits on my arm. I gently remove the arm so the dog is sitting on the floor, and praise extravagantly. It has always worked for me.
Does this come under the author's heading of using superior force?

Posted by: peppersmum | May 28, 2017 10:53 AM    Report this comment

I was taught just to take a treat and slowly move it from in front of their nose to the top of their head and they will automatically sit as they follow the treat. And then you reward them with it. Pretty simple to me! Appropriate?

Posted by: vboisen | May 28, 2017 10:50 AM    Report this comment

Great article, also pushing their butt down to do a sit also can cause the dog to hurt it's knees and hips. If you look at it, when a dog sits on their own, they tuck their legs, and squat into position; when you force them into it from a stand, you could splay their legs/knees out and they don't get a chance to tuck, this is what causes the damage, or you have a dog that you Always have to touch the butt, it becomes part of the cue, so having them sit a distance a way, is not going to work, you have to walk over to them and touch their butt.
Doggy Gramma first thing for this pup is to get it into a puppy class that takes them at 8-10 weeks old, with at least 1 set of puppy shots from your vet, make sure the place disinfects, and has owners show proof of shots before being allowed into the training area, and they promote use of treats and even, yes, clickers, which is a great way to train, as long as you know and understand the clicker is a marker, not a interrupter, or startle aid, it "marks" the behavior your pup is doing to tell them, "yes! you did that right, treat is earned". Go to avsab.org, and look at resources and position-statements from the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior scroll down to "puppy socialization position statement", there are other you might be interested to read to, about dominance and punishment based methods to NOT use on your pup, Leerburg uses a lot of it, so I don't recommend them. Just a simple class like at PetSmart, as long as the trainer cleans and disinfects before puppy class, has them as the first class of their schedule, uses treats and clicker. Not every trainer is the same, go and watch, talk to those when they come out of class what is their opinion? If they don't allow you to watch? go to another school. Are they having fun, laughing, or are they just sitting or standing around while the trainer shows with their dog all the time and uses no others? Is the trainer shouting or degrading those who are working? If you get a feeling this is not what you feel is good? walk away. Talk to the trainer, are they professional, well kept, sound like they know what they're talking about, do they use words like "Motivate", "reward behaviors", "set them up to succeed", "change the humans behavior to change the dogs"; or use words like "dominate", "Alpha", "no treat we don't Bribe our dogs", "clicker is useless", "push them or Guide them into position", the latter means they are not based in science, they are old school based, do not go to that class. We are in the 21st century now we should be better to our dogs, scientific research has proven, old school needs to go. Look at the APDT.com site to see what trainers are in your area, look for a certified trainer at CCPDT.org. German Shepherds need so much to be good dogs, easy socialization is the beginning, and the window starts to close at 12 weeks old, and mother nature slams it shut at 16 weeks old and makes them afraid of anything they have not seen, heard, or touched before that. Good Luck.

Posted by: Jamie CPDT-KA | May 26, 2017 1:03 PM    Report this comment

I would just like to add that saying sit over and over if the dog doesn't understand it is just wasting time. Also, repeating a command is like nagging; after a while they just don't hear it! It's so easy to teach sit if your dog is food motivated by using a food lure over their nose until they sit. Once they learn the command, you give it once in a conversational tone, and wait, and wait, and wait. If they don't sit, no treat! Of course you have to make sure you have their full attention before asking for the sit. As was mentioned above, it's never appropriate to push your dog into a position! This only makes them resentful and possibly fearful. Fear based training, while it may have some success, does not build a good relationship with your pet.

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Posted by: stephan | May 26, 2017 4:33 AM    Report this comment

Pacific Sun wrote: "Ignoring a command can also be due to stubbornness and manipulation" Flydogz wrote " - "not so, there is no such thing as a stubborn or manipulative dog".
I used to go along with this (sort-of) until I got myself a Speagle!!(Beagle/Cocker Spaniel cross). Believe me dogs CAN be manipulative and stubborn. And bossy, and wilful. :-( Mad Millie has many, many good points -- all of the sorts of things my German Shepherds and Kelpies lacked (like tolerance of other dogs and turning away other dogs' wrath). But she also lacks the good points my Shepherd and Kelpies have. Like willing obedience, not running away, waiting patiently for bone time, not insisting on going in and out of the house at their leisure and not digging their crate-mats to shreds :-(

Posted by: Jenny H | May 25, 2017 10:15 PM    Report this comment

Pacific Sun wrote: "Ignoring a command can also be due to stubbornness and manipulation" - not so, there is no such thing as a stubborn or manipulative dog - that's crediting them with cognitive ability beyond their capabilities. Ignoring a command is due to a) not being given sufficient motivation, b) not being sufficiently trained in the behaviour to match the environment and distractions. Both options are due to human handler error, not the dogs.

Posted by: Flydogz | May 25, 2017 6:36 PM    Report this comment

To "Doggy Gramma"
First, you are not going to be the dog's grandmother, parent, or buddy. Those are cute ideas. But don't serve the dog. Instead you're it's owner and responsible for fostering a relationship of trust. A service dog (in particular) needs to start with "family training" commands. And needs to understand pack structure in the home. Abusive training is obsolete. Marker training (which is about focus, and offered behaviors that YOU confirm) is the modern mode of training. Especially for a GSD (extremely smart, loyal breed) I recommend Leerburg.Com. They don't just teach training, but the core principles behind it. ( I don't profit from the affiliation or any other dog product or service ). But I've their education and support system, which works!

Posted by: Pacific Sun | May 25, 2017 3:29 PM    Report this comment

There's another way to look at the situation too. Dogs are a LOT smarter than given credit for. Ignoring a command can also be due to stubbornness and manipulation. A dog (feeling ignored, or just self-centered) can do ANYTHING for attention. Which includes the owner repeating an instruction. Meaning, the owner is focused on the dog, which is exactly the desire. Instead, a command should be said once. And marked with a high value treat. Over and over and over. And then marked intermittently, but enough to keep the doge expecting the affirmation. Praise, petting, something fun (a walk, whatever) can also count. But that dog WANTS attention no matter what. Never punish a dog for ignoring either, because that's also another form of attention. Commands should always be for good things. And bad behavior, ignored (which in the eyes of a dog, is the worst thing that can happen). Really bad behavior earns a timeout, to allow the dog to settle, without escalating or triggering a worse reaction (anger, fear, tension, aggression). You dog always needs to be able to TRUST you.

Posted by: Pacific Sun | May 25, 2017 1:08 PM    Report this comment

My favorite is people who, upon meeting my dogs for the first time, lean over them and say "can you sit?" :)

Posted by: svmom | May 25, 2017 12:45 PM    Report this comment

Wonderful post! I love that it's funny (witty) and educational at the same time, and in my experience that is the way to get through to those who normally wouldn't take advice..especially positive training advice. Thanks!

Posted by: PawsOfChange | May 25, 2017 11:51 AM    Report this comment

Good grief.

Posted by: trainerron | May 25, 2017 9:34 AM    Report this comment

This summer I plan to git a German Shepherd puppy which I intend to start training as a Service and Emotional Support dog.

My puppy will be out of an extremely smart, not trained, bitch owned by my son. I am gathering as much info as I can over the internet. I will start training the puppy with parlor tricks so that he might become used to clicker training.

Never having done clicker training before, I am going to start teaching my older dogs parlor tricks...sit, stay, lie down, etc. They are senior Pomeranians from seven to seventeen years old. I am a strong believer in gentle behavior teaches gentle behavior. I have taught parlor tricks to a Pom puppy using just food rewards. He remembered his tricks all of his life no matter how much time, even years, between "performance" times. The "tricks" my Poms do now are simply "living with a human".

Any and all advice will be greatly appreciated.

Doggy Gramma

Posted by: Doggy Gramma | May 25, 2017 9:11 AM    Report this comment

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