Updated: Feb 28, 2019
If there are two things that I have been trying to drill into my head the past few months, they are following.
John McGuigan always asks ‘What is the function of the behaviour?’. Kay Laurence trains behaviours in a way that ‘benefit the dog and improve their quality of life’. I am, of course, paraphrasing, but I hope you get the idea.
This has led me down a rabbit hole of thought relating to why we teach certain behaviours first, why we swear that certain behaviours are important, and why we teach certain behaviours at all.
When working with my own dogs, I realised there were some major gaps with my training plans. For example, not teaching Kevin any form of veterinary behaviours which have and are causing us problems now (but that is a story for another time).
I am also undertaking my APDT theoretical assessment, and as such need to answer why and how I would teach certain behaviours.
There are certain things that I would always teach an animal. Veterinary behaviours, which allow them to cope better being potentially poked and prodded, and scent work for mental stimulation are top of my list.
And for others that list might vary, from teaching a retrieve early on to focusing immediately on recall, to loose-lead walking to position changes.
And it’s these position changes where my opinion comes in.
What, for either the animal or the handler, is the actual benefit of sit?
At most if not all puppy classes, it universally one of the first things taught. It is an important behaviour in things like obedience and working trials, but I am struggle to see what the function is outside of these specific niches. I can think of a few of my own with assistance dogs, such as sitting in supermarkets to not block aisle ways by standing in them.
But there is still a massive prevalence for sit in amongst the pet dog training community, and it interests me as someone who is trying to think and question everything why it continues to persist.
In all everyday situations, I cannot really think of a single reason why sit would be preferable to be taught over another behaviour.
Sit at the vets isn’t useful, it would be better to teach a stand for a complete exam, or teaching the dog to lay on his side. When crossing a road you don’t need a sit, just having the dog stop and wait would suffice. For teaching a settle you would use a down, perhaps on a mat, perhaps not.
From the point of view of the dog, sit seems to be an almost annoying and perhaps even unnatural behaviour, apart from when the dog is having a scratch. For some breeds it might actually be aversive, such as Greyhounds and Lurchers.
For the point of view of the handler, I think it comes down to the basic culture of dog training and an almost instant gratification. For new puppy owners, ‘sit’ is usually the first cue they want to train. And, for the most part, it is relatively easy to do. It is a good way to get handlers interested in using Positive Reinforcement and luring, as using a food lure will (most of the time) get that wonderful little bum on the floor and a nice piece of kibble, cheese etc.
That surge of victory that follows that first sit continues to build and build, until eventually the handler is overjoyed that they can get their dog to sit without food in the hand, and then on purely a verbal cue.
I will spend a lot longer thinking on this.
Do I think sit is necessarily a bad thing to teach? Not at all.
Do I think it should hold such importance, both from a practical and self-esteem point of view for both trainers and owners?
Do I think I will be teaching it as one of my first behaviours?
No, I don’t think so. But we will see where this rabbit hole goes.