Wednesday, December 11, 2013

What Is So Special About A Sit Anyway?

Humans find it tremendously important that a dog sits. There is a shock collar franchise named Sit Means Sit, and one of my friends, a committed positive reinforcement only clicker trainer, co-founded a training facility named Sit Happens. 
A dog that sits is serious stuff and everyone, other than some show breeders, trains it – and trust me: “Everyone” in dog circles doesn’t happen a whole lot. 

One does not need to ponder long why that fixation. A dog that sits can’t jump, lunge or otherwise get himself into trouble at the same time. The other attraction is that it is easy to teach. Every trainer, layperson or shelter volunteer can do it. 
An incompatible behavior to the ones we loathe, and easily trained? There couldn’t possibly be anything wrong with that? Right? 
Wrong! Well, somewhat wrong. I argue that sit is not only irrationally overrated, but can backfire. Let me explain.

I’ve been professionally involved with dogs for almost two decades, and increasingly see more and more dogs who mechanically sit when I enter the home, but latest after they sniffed that I am treat-equipped. That’d be okay if it were a loose-bodied, settled sit. But mostly it is not. Mostly it is a stiff like a statue sit, the dog boring a hole in my head, tensely demanding the treat he excepts should follow the action of putting his butt on the ground. 
When I don’t respond right away, the behavior changes quickly: The dog shifts around, whines or barks in frustration: “I am sitting. Hand it over!” and if still nothing happens he typically self-releases, and often jumps or is otherwise pushy, in frustration. 
With some dogs, you could insert a chosen foul word between “it” and “over”. I am not kidding. I met a few where frustration escalated to anger and aggression, with one dog biting me, drawing blood. Thankfully it was a Pomeranian and the damage to my hand not as bad as it could have been with a larger dog.

How did a good behavior go south? Here is my theory: We get what we train for. 
Sit before the door opens, sit to get your collar on, sit before the leash comes off, sit to get in the car, sit for the toy, sit for a bone and chewy, sit before you cross the road, sit before the walk begins, sit for affection, sit to greet, sit before you can play. 
Sit for your food in the bowl, or worse, sit for every kibble that’s hand fed: Sitclickkibble-sitclickkibble-sitclickkibblesitclick… Sit! Sit! Sit! 
The human obsession with sit becomes the dog’s; he offers it constantly for everything he wants, and because most people fail to put the behavior under stimulus control, he gets reinforced instantly and learns to expect it, and becomes confused and frustrated when what he expects doesn’t manifest. 

There are other drawbacks. In my work, there are a number of behaviors I know will help my clients, and many require the dog to start from a standing position, for example beep-beep = back up. When I want to teach it, what I commonly get is the dog firmly planting himself when I gently move into his space, and I have to teach stand before I can proceed to what I am after. 
Not that big of a deal but still annoying is when the long leash entangles between the dog’s legs and I tell him to halt to untangle it, and he sits on it, and I end up luring or lifting him. Ditto when he has a twig or a poop leftover stuck to butt hair, and I also don’t want an automatic sit in a puddle or slush. With a Newf-size and longhaired dog, that is a real mess. 
More of a concern is if sitting is uncomfortable or painful because of age or arthritis. Yet, the dog still sits, because he knows that nothing good happens unless he does. 

There was a time when I, too, thought that a dog addicted to a specific behavior because I externally reinforced it was a goal worth aiming for, because, by extension, she would also be addicted to me. 
Not anymore. I changed my mind because, as any person troubled with an addiction will tell you, it is not a healthy way to live or have a relationship; it is emotionally arousing and draining. 
I also changed my mind because a mechanical automatic sit, although sometimes hailed as such, is not a foolproof way to solve problematic behaviors, because often the underlying reason(s) isn’t explored and addressed. 
An anxious or excited dog who sits because he learned that nothing else produces what he wants, or because then the shock doesn’t happen, might display that level of impulse control but won’t feel any differently about the stimulus that prompted the jumping, barking, lunging, nipping, growling, or whatever. A sitting dog can still be intensely internally stressed and aroused, and the unwanted expressions quelled with pressure often resurface with a different handler, or in a different home, or shortly after the pooch is back at home if he was, sadly, sent to a board-and-train facility.

And even when jumping is attention seeking, teaching a dog to sit instead also doesn’t always work. 
I recently had a client whose dog used to be an excessive attention-getting jumper, and at 100+ pounds, she got it. A dog that size is rarely ignored when she bounces against you. The previous trainer taught down as the incompatible behavior – wisely understanding that a lie down is often the more comfortable position for a giant breed dog – which she nicely offered me several times throughout our session, albeit with same “gimme” look I talked about earlier. However, the core issue, her rescue dog insecurity and increased need for reassurance was not dealt with, and she began to spin and lick herself, which she also got attention for because it is hard to ignore, and it has become compulsive. 
The lesson here is that outcomes in real life aren’t as predictable than what is determined in a lab, and the behavior you teach and reinforce might not always be the one the dog chooses. 

I am not suggesting, not at all, that a dog shouldn’t be taught to sit and lie on cue. Sitting is good, just not a mechanical automatic sit not under stimulus control. 
Also, understand that attention, connection, manners and impulse control are not position specific. A dog can have impulse control while standing and moving. In fact, many behaviors I want involve motion: Back away, come, left, right, follow, move ahead or over, walk with me, search for something, even leave-it.
So, go ahead and teach your dog to sit, and acknowledge when he offers it. Have fun playing sit games. But don’t create a dog who expects that each time he sits what he wants will manifest. 
Don’t make everything the dog needs contingent on a sit. 
And don’t forget to teach polite manners in any position, and every activity. Once a dog has them, in day-to-day life, it doesn’t matter if he sits, lies, stands or moves. I let mine choose.

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