Do they really need to sit?

I was at the vets with JJ this week for his 6 monthly medication check. It’s the first time we have been allowed to wait inside since the pandemic began so it was quite a challenge for JJ who finds the vets scary and doesn’t like some dogs in close proximity. After we had moved out of the way of the very barky dog, which JJ did fab not reacting too, we settled in a seat and JJ took up the ‘safe’ place under the seats so he could observe.

A lovely little black lab came in with her owner, she was very sweet and a little nervous about the environment. She wagged her tail at the receptionists and had a couple of quick peeks at JJ who was blatantly staring at her. Her owner though was repeatedly telling her to ‘Sit’ and when she didn’t respond immediately the demand got louder and more forceful, eventually resulting in the owner pushing the dog’s bum down forcing a sit. This worked momentarily until the little lab felt she needed to get a better look at what was happening behind her and the process started again, the owner clearly getting more and more annoyed that her dog had suddenly forgotten the most simple command!

Why was it so important to this owner that her dog sit in this situation? The dog was not pulling on the lead or getting in anybody’s way. She wasn’t trying to wander off or approach me or JJ, she was standing still, glancing around occasionally looking a little apprehensive.

Owners seem obsessed with getting their dog to sit in every situation, but why? To prove control?

In lots of situations our dogs may not feel comfortable sitting, they may feel that standing is a more prepared stance, particularly in an environment or situation that makes them anxious. If we are training a dog not to chase traffic or bark and lunge at other dogs is it necessary for them to sit? I would just be happy with them not chasing/barking/lunging, the sit might come later when they feel more relaxed, but it should not be our primary goal and should certainly not be forced.

On a training walk with a very nervous overseas rescue yesterday I asked him to sit at the road before we crossed. He happily did this at the first road near his house, but when we got to the main road with lots of noisy traffic the ‘Sit’ fell on deaf ears. As he watched each vehicle go by while I waited for a safe gap, I could see his anxiety increasing. Was it important at this point for him to sit? No! It was important for him to be able to cross the road and get to the park without feeling so anxious he wanted to go home like he had the previous week. We ran across the road as soon as we were able and he had a lovely sniffy walk around the park which had seemed completely out of reach a week earlier. Was his owner mad that I hadn’t made him sit at every road? Of course not, she was super proud of her boy for getting to the park 🙂

In puppy training ‘Sit’ is one of the first things that are taught and it seems to be a relatively easy one for puppies to manage, but owners soon start shouting ‘Sit’ at their puppy in all kinds of situations. Like when the puppy is jumping up, but this doesn’t really work. Just like the nervous little Labrador at the vets who was too frightened to listen to her owners demands, an excited puppy is having too much fun getting a reaction out of their owner to do something calm like sit. Sometimes we need to do nothing. If we don’t respond to the jumping up, the puppy will soon get bored and try something else to get the attention it desperately craves. Maybe they will briefly land with 4 paws on the floor and we could reward them for that. Expecting a sit at this point is a little ambitious, but if we start with our puppy greeting us with 4 paws on the floor a sit becomes a more realistic target.

So next time you are going to ask your dog to sit, ask yourself why. Is that really the behaviour you want or are you trying to stop a different behaviour? If so maybe a different training technique needs to be considered.

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