A few weeks after arriving at my new home and settling in with my human parents they took me to Puppy School. This place was much larger than my home and there were other puppies there too. To begin with it all felt very strange but as the weeks went by I got used to going there and it felt safe. This is where my story begins.
I thought it was fun there at the time as there were lots of tasty snacks to be had. The first thing I had to perform to get one of those yummy treats was to put my bottom on the floor, my human would stand at the front of me and place some smelly food just above my nose. I would raise my head to sniff it and my bottom went down. My human got very excited by this and said ‘yes’ and I got the food, easy-peasy. My human then started to say a little word, I could see a flash of white teeth showing whenever this noise was made. The noise was the word ‘sit’, and each time I lowered my bottom down on the floor I got some food, yum!
I had to perform lots of other things too, to get these food bits. I had to lie down on the floor, come running back to my humans, stay still on one spot, look up at my human’s eyes and be close to my humans when they moved around the big room. When I got back home I had to do these things all over again.
The word used the most often was that little word ‘sit’ which I would have to do repeatedly every day and even the little humans were saying it to me. Most of the time I didn’t know why I needed to do it but they seemed pleased when I did and more often than not a treat came my way. On occasions I felt like lying down instead of sitting but my humans would insist I sit on my bottom, I was a growing lad and hungry all the time so I would do a sit position to gain more treats.
After a while I found it got quite uncomfortable to do this and the slippery floors did not make it easy for me as my back legs would splay out behind me sliding outwards on the shiny surface, this was the only way I could keep my balance and it made my hips and lower back ache. Sometimes the instruction was not said in the same way it was ‘sit, sit, sit’. I knew what the word was the first time but I just didn’t feel comfortable doing it but I would reluctantly do so
As I grew larger becoming an adolescent dog I heard this word more and more and I had to sit before I ate my dinner, I had waited hours and hours for this moment, yet I still had to sit and wait longer, why? My humans seemed to have been munching all day. If I had found my own food, I would certainly eat it all up straight away.
This word popped up again when new people came into our home. I was very excited about this and I wanted to check them out, give them a sniff and put my smell on them with my paws this would make them part of our family, a perfectly natural behaviour for my kind but I was told to go and sit on my bed. I found this very difficult to do, it made me anxious and worried, was there something wrong with these new people? Also, somewhere along the way all the tasty treats had stopped.
When we prepared to go out on a walk I would stand nicely to have my lead on yet I had to do a sit position as well which was not helped with that slippery floor. From then on throughout our walk there were lots more rules and all I wanted was a good old sniff to get all the neighbourhood doggie news.
When we saw another of my kind I would have liked to have said ‘hello’ with a sniff, but that little word was said again. How could I possibly show my natural body languages to other dogs when I sitting? That would not be my natural position at all. I like to show my mid-range wagging tail and relaxed body, I like to dip my head slightly and turn my head to the side to show I am happy to meet and not a threat. I cannot do this whilst sitting. Some dogs might choose to, but that was not for me. I would get very frustrated and start to bite on the lead to tell my humans I was not comfortably at that time to sit but this just seemed to make matters worse.
When we came to a roadside that little word was there yet again. I didn’t like sitting on hard, wet or cold floors but my humans asked me again and again so I reluctantly did so.
Now, I did have a problem with the metal dragons, there were many of these and they moved very fast, they were noisy with glaring eyes. I feared these beasts and even more so in the dark. I would jump out at them, bark and warn them off. I was attached to my human if not I would have chased these dangers away. At these times I could sense my humans were getting angry with me, they would shout that word ‘sit’ again and again. I was scared, I did not want to sit and be still that was the last thing on my mind.
When I was a young puppy and felt in a safe place I used to think this little word was a nice word. My humans seemed to like it when I did a sit position for them and I got plenty of yummy snacks. This word got used many times a day and I never knew why. Now as I get older I will sit and put my nose in the wind and smell all the scents around me, freshly cut grass, wet leaves, a chicken cooking next door or a squirrel having recently passed by. I like to sit in my comfy place in the home and watch my humans, but my sit position never lasts for long as I prefer to fully relax and rest my whole body with lying down properly. I am hoping as I get to be a much older dog my humans will stop saying this word to me all the time as much as my hips and spine already ache and I am only 5 years old!
I am not suggesting that we should not connect with our dogs through verbal interaction. We are two different species and we can build our relationship and enhance our bonding through verbal and visual communication.
This article is to bring awareness to the overuse of basic cues in general within the modern- day interactions we have with our dogs. They may not always be necessary and in many cases are being utilised when dogs feel uncomfortable in the environment or situation they are in.
If the dog knows the cue well and it is having to be repeated then there is usually a reason why the dog is not being responsive at that time. They may be overly aroused by the environment, fearful or simply do not feel safe. Therefore, proceeding to gain compliance under those circumstances can become aversive for the dog even when laced with food rewards. You may experience that the dog is eagerly responsive to the ‘sit’ cue and will often naturally choose this position for themselves, every dog is an individual.
Instead, we can utilise verbal communication and positive reinforcement more in the times when our dog chooses to settle naturally, at times when we are interacting in play with our dog, when we are out enjoying our dog’s walk with them. Cues can be used as part of our communication to encourage and support the dog to do natural and instinctual behaviours, such as retrieving, sniffing, digging or searching, tugging or swimming.
When using any instruction cue to your dog consider your dog’s emotional experience at that time. What is happening in the environment when the instruction has been given? Would an alternative action for your dog to take be more comfortable, mentally and physically? Is the action you are asking your dog to do necessary at that time? Is it a benefit to your dog or to you? Is it for your dog’s safety? Ask yourself why the need for it at that time?
Article two in The Dog’s Emotional Experience in Our World by Mandy Rigby
Canine Behaviourist & Scent Work Instructor
Yes! Good Dog / Scent Work Academy