By Mandie Sweetnam
We’ve all been there or seen it. A dog owner – maybe it’s you or maybe it was someone you saw at the dog park – asking their dog to sit. It starts out innocent enough. Very composed, they say “Fifi, sit.” Then, wait for it…nothing. “Fifi…please sit.” Because the word please makes all of the difference in the world to Fifi. Soon, your volume increases just a bit and you feel your cheeks flushing. Louder, you say “Fifi, SIT!” but Fifi is still looking at you, perplexed by what you are asking her to do. So you decide to go into rapid fire. “sit, SIT, sit, SIT, FIFI, SIT!”
After coaxing with a treat and a subconscious hand cue that you didn’t even realize that you were doing, Fifi sits. But now you’re frustrated because it took too long for her to sit. Well, I can guarantee you, Fifi is even more frustrated. The problem is that Fifi probably doesn’t know what “sit” means. It might be because your cues aren’t clear, or because your rate of reinforcement wasn’t high enough when teaching the command, or you’re giving physical cues that you don’t know about, but whatever the reason is, yelling and repeating yourself does not help.
For example: Let’s say I’m taking a Spanish class. On the first day, my teacher walks in and says “Hola. ¿Cómo te llamas? My response is a blank stare. I have not studied this language before, I’m waiting for him to translate or tell me something I understand. But he just repeats himself, “Hola. ¿Cómo te llamas?” Only this time, it’s a little louder. I must admit, I’m a little threatened by his tone of voice and the fact that he’s still repeating the same phrase and expecting me to do something.
Then, he yells it “HOLA! ¿CÓMO TE LLAMAS?” I still don’t understand it and I won’t until he teaches it to me in a way that I can understand. I am officially tuned out and am not planning on tuning back in to this guy. Learning has stopped and now I’m just fidgeting and replying with nonsense to make him back off. I eventually say “Me llamo Mandie” because that’s a fairly common introductory phrase that I haven’t tried and he smiles and gives me a gold star. “He’s crazy” Is all I can think to myself.
Please, don’t do this to your dog. Instead of raising your voice and repeating yourself, go back to square one. It takes skill to teach a dog a command, but it takes patience to admit that you need to start from the beginning. Our dogs don’t have the luxury of getting an English to Dog dictionary or ‘google’ing it on their smartphones.
We are their Google. When we’re teaching them a new language, we need to keep that in mind. It’s also our job to refresh their memories from time to time. If you’re convinced your dog knows a command, but is just “holding out” for some reason, try giving them another cue. Did they give you the behavior? If they did, then chances are ‘spite’ is not the reason Fifi won’t sit.
Fifi has proven to you that she can lie down, stay and spin when asked. What could she possibly have against sit? Fifi has proven that she will give you a behavior return for a reward, therefore why wouldn’t she want to sit? What else could be stopping her? Always count the possibility that there could be a medical reason that your pet doesn’t want to do a requested behavior.
If you want them to sit, but they are reluctant, maybe they have a pulled muscle or something else? Don’t force it. If you suspect an injury, you should consult your veterinarian immediately.
Give an example of a time when you thought your dog knew a cue but actually didn’t. What did you do? Where do you think it went wrong? Did you start over?