Your Dog Doesn’t Know Sit

Test 1: Tell your dog to sit. Right now. In a calm non-threatening voice without pretending to have a treat in your fingers. Well?

Sit… the ultimate display of basic intelligence. But are we intelligent enough to teach it properly.

Sit… the ultimate display of basic intelligence. But are we intelligent enough to teach it properly.

70% of you won’t get a response. Not because your dog is not dumb or stubborn. You’re just not a very good teacher. (And now 50% of you with hurt egos will now close this tab.) What I’m getting at is that we equate “sit” with basic obedience and intelligence. If a dog can’t sit there is something wrong with them. Except there isn’t. Sit isn’t the doggie equivalent of 2+2. Sit is a complicated cue that has tons of tiny contextual elements that owners are generally clueless about.

Test 2: If your dog did sit in the last test, lie down on your floor facing the ceiling. Now cue sit. 90% of dogs won’t sit. For those of you who did not get a sit in Test 1, put your thumb, middle, and pointer fingers together and rotate them in a motion that points them towards the ceiling and say “sit”. At least 50% of the dogs who failed to sit in Test 1 will now sit.

For the owners of the dogs who sat for the hand gesture, we call that “cookie fingers”. This tells us your dog knows the gesture, not the words you are saying. The gesture comes from how you “looked” when you taught them - with a treat in your hand. This is NORMAL but when we fail to recognize what your dog is actually cuing off of, we can’t get mad at them for not complying. They can and do comply when we remember what the correct cue is for the behavior we are asking for. If we literally “say” one thing and mean another and then get mad when they don’t read our minds, we’re bad teachers.

For the dogs that did not respond to your cue while you were lying on the floor, this is also contextual. Your dog knows that “sit” means plop their butt on the floor BUT only in the context of you standing or sitting, usually in specific locations. This is why your dog is so much better are performing at dog school than in real life. Context!

Cookie Fingers! Trust me, cookie fingers means “sit” to most dogs.

Cookie Fingers! Trust me, cookie fingers means “sit” to most dogs.

Context tells all of us when we will be asked to do something, what it entails and what the outcome will be. If you gave your dog treats for 100% of sits at dog school, they are going to understand the cue and sit. If they got treats 50% of the time in your kitchen with you standing, they are going to sit sometimes in that context but not all the time. If you ask when you’re sitting at the table eating, you’ve changed the context, given no guidance, and likely also removed the reinforcement so all you’re going to get is frustrated. The same goes for the sidewalk. If you don’t teach your dog to sit patiently while you chat with your neighbor, you’re not going to get it.

We say that dogs (and humans) are crappy generalizers and there is something to this but in most cases it’s not generalization that is to blame. That idea puts blame in the individual learner. In reality, in most cases we fail to teach the application of the behavior. We think it’s just a tool activated by some word programmed in the dogs brain, but in reality it is more like an event where the stars align. If the proper elements of the situation that surround and include the cue are not present the behavior will also be absent. The sound that comes from us is only a faction of the cue for the behavior and when we bellow it over and over again we are just overwhelming the dog and making ourselves look stupid.

Pro tip: In the history of language, never has saying something over and over again, louder and slower, helped the listener understand, learn, or respond. You just sound obnoxious.

So the next time your dog does not comply, DO NOT REPEAT YOURSELF! Stop, look at what YOU are doing? How are you moving, standing, gesturing, bending over, etc. Where are you? Is there something more captivating that has your dog's attention? Then start again with teaching. Because your dog doesn’t know sit.