Confessions from a Dog Trainer – Sit Fido Sit!

08.12.2021

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It never fails. Every new class session, every new private lesson, and every time I go to dog owners’ homes, I generally hear the same thing. Frantic owners saying “Sit! Sit Fido Sit!!!” and “I promise Fido knows how to sit!” I am not entirely sure what is going on in the owner’s heads, maybe you can confirm in the comments, but I imagine its something like:

“OMG, my dog is being so embarrassing! This dog trainer thinks I’m a terrible dog owner because my dog doesn’t know how to sit! Every dog knows how to sit! Why won’t Fido sit right now? Please just sit, stop embarrassing me, and make me look like a decent dog owner.

I like to think another thought process on the owner’s part, is that you’re trying to get your dog to calm down or not jump on the guest/new person. This is admirable, but it is actually backfiring. I’ll explain this in more detail later on.

In case you are wondering what is going through my mind during this panic is:

“Please stop trying to make your dog do something he or she is clearly struggling with at this moment!”

There have been a few times where I even say that out loud. You have gotten in contact with me to help you and your dog. I am here to help your dog learn how to deal with his or her emotions and exuberance, I do not expect Fido to be able to sit when he’s so jazzed up! My job is not to judge you and I will never judge a dog owner for trying to do better by their dog.

When a dog comes to class for the first time or I make a house call, I assume the dog is in such an excited state, he or she is physically and emotionally unable to listen to their owner’s cues. This is why I typically just “chat” for the first few minutes of my arrival or your arrival. The thing I HATE the most is when an owner will grab the dog by the collar and push down on the dog’s hips, while still frantically saying “sit! sit!” Many dogs will instinctively push against the pressure on their hips, which in turn, makes the owner push down harder. Here are a few reasons why I hate physical manipulation to force a dog into a position:

  • The dog may have undiagnosed hip/knee issues (such as: hip dysplasia, luxating patella, etc.) which is causing pain
    • Dog’s generally do not like to do things that cause pain and will often resist against the pain
  • Oppositional reflex tells the dog to not give into that pressure
    • More pressure exerted by the owner increases the risk of hurting the dog
  • Aversive methods are known to decrease compliance with cued behavior

Here’s the confession…

I never ask my dogs to sit when guests come over!

I like to consider my dogs to be well-trained, but when people come to my house, I literally say “ignore the little one” (in reference to Kiely, my Staffordshire Bull Terrier, who has terrible greeting manners) and let my dogs calm down from there. My dogs are not circus animals, I don’t feel like I have to show off “what they know” to people who come over to my house. I don’t take for granted the things I have taught my dogs, so I generally don’t use those behaviors if I don’t need them. That’s not to say I allow my dogs to be feral, monsters around new people, but I also don’t make them act like angels (because they’re not).

The less I “control” my dogs around guests or new people, the faster they learn how to control themselves around new people/guests. For those of you who have taken my Canine Life Skills class this will sound very familiar. When an external factor is trying to control my dog’s behavior I am creating drive. This means, by asking my dogs to sit when they’re not physically and emotionally ready to do it, and I “force” it upon them somehow, it will cause them a bit more crazy/excited when new people show up.

External Factor (cue, holding back with a leash or by collar) = Builds Drive

By ignoring the crazy behavior, I am not rewarding the crazy behavior. Do I like being jumped up on by a 85 lbs dog? Not really. But the best way to teach a dog to “sit” for greetings, is to only pet the dog when the dog decides to sit. Pulling a dog down, asking the dog to sit, physically manipulating a dog into a sit, holding a dog back, etc. are all giving the dog some type of attention. Even unpleasant attention is attention and worthy of continuing the behavior (jumping up and being crazy) in the dog’s mind. If I completely ignore this behavior and wait for the dog to sit (or at least calm down), I can then reward the behavior I do want. When I reward the behavior I do want, that means the behavior is most likely to be repeated by the dog. By making it the dog’s responsibility to control his or her behavior will build impulse control.

Internal Factor (dog makes the decision to be calm) = Builds Impulse Control

TL;DR

The short of the story is…it is unfair to our dogs to expect them to sit when they have not been properly trained to handle their emotional exuberance! Each interaction with your dog is a training session. Train them how they should act when you come home from work, school, the store, etc. I generally recommend ignoring your dog until he or she has calmed down. Once he or she has calmed down calmly pet your dog. If your dog gets jazzed again, simply ignore the dog again until he or she calms back down. If there is a long learning history of exuberance, then it will take longer to get a calm response down pat!

Also, I’m not judging you because of your dog’s behavior!

Photo Credit: Oscar by Sumer Hughes

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