Updated: Nov 7
I do not teach my dogs to “sit” and in fact this cue/command is a hot button for me. Here’s why:
My problem isn’t with the behavior, necessarily, but with why and how it is usually asked for or ordered. Let’s start with what is always my primary consideration in training, which is the perception of the dog.
I want my LGDs to feel powerful ownership of the fields they live in. Telling a dog to sit can conflict with that. The following is a true story that might illustrate my point.
My neighbor has a pair of dogs that were born here. These folks had never been dog owners. They really wanted to do a good job with their dogs. I worked closely with them until the youngest dog was about six months old, at which point everything became easy and they didn’t need me anymore. Then a few months later I looked after their little property while they went on vacation. Imagine my surprise when I walked into the field to greet my dogs; the young dog dropped to a sit immediately upon me coming through the gate and became completely obsequious. The last time I saw him he was a bold and happy dog! What happened!?
Well, Toni wanted a mannerly dog, and to that end taught Odie to sit when he entered the field. I absolutely know that he asked this of Odie sweetly because he is a kind man. The problem is Odie’s perception of what Toni was saying to him. To Odie, being told to sit meant Toni was in charge while he was in the field, so in essence asking for sit took his power away. That isn’t what Toni meant to say to Odie, and he didn’t notice the subtle change in Odie over time, but to me it was huge. It took me at least a week to convince Odie to walk off across the field proudly and ahead of me when I was in the field with him.
The other problem I have with sit is why and how people ask for it. Many people use it as a way of controlling the dog, or see it as a way of “dominating” the dog, such as telling the dog to sit before the food bowl is offered. It is also often used to stop a dog from jumping up on people or just being rambunctious. For these dogs very often the request for the behavior isn’t a cue, it’s a command.
A cue is an invitation to offer a behavior; if the behavior is offered the dog is rewarded. A command is an order; do it, or there will be trouble. Why oh why would a dog want to partner up with an owner who communicates what he wants in this way?
Asking a dog for the absence of a behavior is tough for them to understand, such as don’t put your feet on me. Having a dog sit instead might work if the dog was cued, rather than commanded, but it is still a problem because if the dog is excited and active it will be difficult for him to give you a non-moving behavior. When I ask my dogs for things I like to tip the odds in my favor. If I have an active dog that I need to redirect I ask him for a different active behavior instead, such as Touch - put your nose in my palm.
I do teach my dogs to mand. To the casual observer, manding might look a lot like sit; it is not. Asking a dog to sit, either by cue or command, is prompted by the handler. Manding is freely offered.
Young puppies have a lot to learn. They are busy figuring out how to communicate with each other. This involves a lot of body contact. They put their feet on each other and they bite each other. They have no way of knowing that this type of communication will not be welcomed by the humans in their lives. Puppies like their humans and ask for attention. It is such a gift to them to let them know how to ask.
Any animal appreciates feeling that they have some control over their environment. In most cases I think of knowledge as power; this is certainly true for puppies. I don’t need to teach my dogs to sit on cue because they often choose to sit when they approach me because they have learned that I will always give them my attention if they do.