To Sit or Not to Sit: It Depends
Is it always a good idea to ask your dog to Sit? I say Yes when it’s about getting a polite behavior before granting access to something he wants. However, if your dog’s behavior is spiraling out of control and you’re thinking that a Sit is going to calm him down, then No.
Your dog’s mental state is the key to being able to (1) hear you and (2) comply. Asking—or better, waiting—for a Sit is very likely to work when your dog is fairly relaxed and able to focus on you or split his attention. With consistency, dogs can quickly learn that Sit means Please. And this understanding is empowering—a very good thing—because knowing how to ask for what they want prevents frustration and tantrums.
Every day is full of opportunities to help our dogs practice good manners by reinforcing Sits with treats and real-life rewards. The earlier and more often this happens, the better they become at controlling any impulse to rush in, jump up, snatch, paw, nip, whine, or bark to get something desirable—including meals, attention, play, walks, and freedom. And when we also make sure that poor manners never succeed (from the dog’s perspective), we quickly see Sit being offered, and no longer have to ask for it.
On the Other Hand
In other circumstances, if you have a dog whose (mis)behavior is seriously ramping up, he may not be able to comply. When a dog is highly aroused or frightened (which may look like aggression), failing to respond to a cue should never be viewed as disobedience.
In that state of mind, physiology is preparing the body for action by tensing and fueling the muscles. So when a dog is feeling overwhelmed, fearful, or anxious, folding into a Sit becomes physically very difficult. At the same time, strong emotions literally block the ability to think. It works the same way in humans! Now consider what it feels like to be upset AND tightly restrained and told to “Sit, Sit, SIT!,” perhaps while gasping for breath and being pressed on the hindquarters, well . . . does that make sense if you want calmness?
I once visited the home of someone who was standing outside, holding their highly reactive dog on leash. While the dog was barking, spinning, and lunging wildly towards this stranger (me) in his territory, his person was jerking on the leash and shouting, “Sit! Stay! Down! Leave It!” over and over. Later, they asked why the dog “would not obey” in that situation since he could do so in the house.
I know it’s embarrassing to have an “unruly” pet. Unfortunately, we cannot force or command calmness. And trying to control a dog by holding tightly usually makes things worse by increasing his stress. Movement relieves stress, and so does increasing distance from trigger(s). We cannot and should not even attempt to teach anything to a dog in this state of mind.
Contain, Don’t Restrain
Here’s a better way to contain by the collar: Stick your thumb downwards through the front part and rest your palm against the chest. Now you have containment without collar pressure on the throat, allowing breathing, a little movement, and decreasing stress. Try it both ways with your dog and notice the difference in his demeanor.
And a better way to contain with the leash, especially if it’s attached to the collar (but I strongly recommend a well-designed harness instead): Standing beside the dog, with one hand holding the loop, use your second hand to grasp the leash about a foot from the clip, so you’re holding the leash in both hands. Then drop the leash over the head, so it’s draped across the chest. Now if the dog moves forward, the pressure will be on his chest, not his throat.
When undesirable emotional behavior happens (or can be anticipated), we must first use management. For example, if the problem is caused by being on leash near someone/something that’s worrying, scary, or exciting to your dog, the best options are: leave your dog in the house or car (if safe); move far enough away to get a shake-off and less body tension; or use some large object or your body as a visual barrier.
If it’s someone at the front door that causes problems, just put your dog behind a closed door, in his crate or pen, or use a leash to station him elsewhere before going to the door. How many times have I seen someone open the door, gripping their dog’s collar and repeating Sit, Sit, Sit while the dog is frantically trying to jump up on the visitor, peeing, or worse.
So give your dog a bit of room to move instead of trying to make him stand still or Sit. As the first step toward change, avoid putting your dog into situations he cannot cope with. In order for your dog to learn to behave appropriately, he must learn how to feel calmer in those contexts. A qualified positive professional trainer can help turn things around. Beware of trainers who prefer to use punishment.
I’m all for teaching dogs good manners, preferably when they’re young. But when it comes to unwanted behaviors driven by arousal and emotion, the best approach is to change the way the dog feels. Tellington TTouch® and behavior modification techniques have proven to be very effective in achieving dramatic changes in dogs of all ages and breeds.
Copyright Lisa Benshoff 2017