Sit Means Sit?

Sit Means A Lot Of Other Stuff, Too

I am going to tell you one of the most important lessons I’ve learned about dog training.  It is very simple, and if you follow this one piece of advice you will immediately be a better dog trainer.  And that makes you a better human.  Here’s all you need to know to be a better human-and as a bonus, get a better dog: Work on one thing at a time.  That’s it.  If you “just” work on one thing at a time it will improve.

That word, “just.”  I hate hearing it.  “Just do it,” is one of the most prevalent phrases, yet there are more couch potatoes than ever.  Obesity is an epidemic despite the amazing number of books and diet plans out there.  But if people would “just” eat right… get the idea.

My dog Moose has the fastest sit I’ve ever seen.  I’d never asked for a sit before starting at Austin Canine Central recently.  The courses there are drop in and dogs are just expected to have a sit ingrained.  Moose had never needed a sit before-I just had her go to a down instead.  So I free shaped a sit in order to bow to peer pressure, because that’s just how I am.  Ha ha.

It was interesting seeing Moose finally “click” on the fact that this simple thing was what was making the clicker click.  She tried everything else she knew that would get sometimes get a click-scratching for like a full minute, spinning forever, etc etc.  Then she would stop, look at the clicker and sit.  You could see her body jump at the well-timed click.

Moose’s attitude seemed to be that getting that thing to click usually takes a lot more physical effort, like a jump into my arms, or running around me several times.  A simple sit?  Let’s just say Moose does not spare any effort in her attempts to get a click, whatever the situation. And I love alacrity in a behavior-just the type of attitude a clicker trained dog exhibits.  That beats out any type of less-enthusiastic precision in my book.

So we were in a class doing heelwork which includes sitting when you stop.  And Moose had that down cold.  Stop=Sit.  I couldn’t be happier with the speed.  And Moose was so happy, sitting there with a big smile on her face!  Her tongue would loll out of her mouth, her head cocked back.  Beautiful!

But perfect?  Well, she should really be closer, was the instructor’s admonishment.  And it was true.

So at the next sit, which Moose again did lightning fast, I withheld praise and you could see her face go from being super happy to confused while I waited for her to come closer.  Well, by this time the class had been instructed to go back to heeling and when we stopped again, I again waited for Moose to come closer.  More confusion. I realized, and after “just” this second attempt, “Moose is confused because she’s doing exactly what I’ve trained for and not getting praised.”

“No problem,” I thought.  “I’ll just go back to accepting the sit.”

Remember, this had only happened twice.  I was still too late.  Moose was already confused and the next time we stopped she simply didn’t know what to do.  R  EGRET REGRET REGRET!I had immediate fear that I’d never get that beautiful speed back!

In these cases you have to go right back to assuming the dog has no idea what you want.  You have to give the poor little guy the opportunity to discover it all over again. The good news is that if you’ve free shaped regularly this will go pretty quickly.  I do it right in the middle of a show when there’s a distraction sometimes without it being noticed.  It can happen that fast-and you can totally lose the behavior for good in just about the same amount of time if you expect it and make your petty dictator-like demands.

What had I done wrong in the heeling scenario?  I was asking for two things that I hadn’t trained together-speed and closeness.  I had also complicated matters by doing this in a stressful situation-a class with lots of other dogs to think about.  And we’d just been heeling, a further complication!

I should have worked on closeness, with no other distractions, and no other behaviors needed.  Any approach to me would have gotten a click.  Then shaping to get the correct side, then orientation, until the dog is in the right position.  Then the closeness would be nailed down.  After getting closeness and orientation solid, I might wait a beat before clicking to give a chance to offer a sit.  I’ll bet it’ll happen pretty soon.