All good relationships are built on mutual trust and cooperation, along with open communication and respect for the needs of the other party.
With this in mind I would like to ask you to consider a couple of situations.
If you were doing grocery shopping with your toddler in tow, and you knew she was likely to ask for sweets, chocolates or sugar rich snacks, and was likely to throw a tantrum when you said no, which one of the following do you think you would do:
Purposefully push your trolley with your toddler sitting in it, down the sweets aisle just to see what her reaction might be. After all, you already told her prior to coming to the shops that she can’t have any sweet snacks.
Continue down the aisle and ignore her protesting because that’s the best way for her to learn that she can’t have everything she wants.
Go down the health food aisle instead and offer your child a couple of interesting and tasty products on the shelves that you think she might like, knowing this would be a much healthier choice for her.
Get the basic essentials and leave the shop as quickly as possible so that your child doesn’t get bored or tired and start to nag for a sweet snack, because her sugar-level is now low. Then go home and make a healthy and tasty snack that you can both enjoy together.
Which of these choices do you think will build trust and cooperation in the relationship and leave both parties feeling good? And, which of these choices is likely to erode trust and confidence and leave at least one of the parties feeling bad?
Now I would like to ask you to consider a similar situation where you are taking your young dog for a walk to a place where there are lots of distractions including other dogs, children playing and things he might find super tasty like rabbit droppings or someone’s dropped ice cream.
In this scenario, which of the following options do you think are likely to build trust and confidence between you and your dog, and which are not?
Wind your way through the distractions, pulling your dog away and saying ‘No!’ every time he tries to go towards something he would love to sniff, chase, eat or play with. You have him on a leash anyway, so you can control the situation easily.
Sit on a bench and watch the comings and goings with your dog leashed beside you, ignoring his protests to go and play or interact with everything he can see and smell from there. You think this might be a good way to teach him self-control.
Make a wide circle around the park/play area and stay engaged by happily chatting to your dog as you walk along to another area where there are few/no distractions around, and you can let him sniff for treats which you have placed in the grass for him. Or, engage in a short game of fetch. In both activities you ask him to sit and wait before he goes to sniff or fetches his toy, so that he is learning self-control at the same time as having fun.
Instead of going to the park where you know the distractions will be too difficult for your young dog to resist, you call a friend who has a similar aged dog and you arrange a play-date. The pups have fun during a short play session and then you go home and enjoy some relaxing snuggle time on the couch together.
After considering the above, what choices will you make today and going forward to ensure that you are providing the best opportunities for your young dog to learn, and simultaneously building a great relationship?
Whilst I can think of at least 20 reasons why your dog won’t respond to your request, I am going to ask 5 questions here, which I believe you should be asking yourself instead of presuming that your dog is simply being disobedient.
1. Does your dog even know what ‘Sit’ means?
Dogs are contextual learners. That means when they learn a new behaviour, like a sit on command, they take the entire situation as part of the learning context. That would include the dogs position (which is usually in front of you), as well as you making eye contact with him and raising your finger as you say the word “Sit” (this is what most people do when asking their dog to sit). After you have repeated this exercise several times over a period of time and you have rewarded your dog for responding by plonking his butt on the floor, then you might presume he knows what ‘sit’ means. But, here is something you can try to test that. Stand in front of your dog, then turn around so that you have your back to him and he is standing behind you. Then, looking forward in front of you, ask him to “Sit”. Look over your shoulder and see if he is sitting. Did he sit? If he did, well done, but chances are he didn’t.
So, you see your dog might know what you are asking in a regular setting, like at home, in the kitchen before he gets his food or a treat, or perhaps at training class. But, if you are out and about and your dog is at your side facing forward and so are you, or maybe your dog is a few metres ahead of your looking ahead in the direction he is going, can he still follow through with your request?
2. Does your dog feel safe in the environment you are asking him to ‘Sit’?
Are you asking your dog to sit in a situation where he may be feeling nervous, uncomfortable or even afraid? This could be at the vets office, visiting someone, in a shopping centre, a new place he hasn’t been before, or in a crowded space with other people and dogs around? Your dog might find any or all of these situations stressful, and by asking him to sit or even lay down, you are pressuring him to take up a very vulnerable position. Just imagine you were in a place or situation you felt really uncomfortable or fearful, and your gut is telling you to just get out of there, but instead your friend is holding you firmly by the arm and asking you to take a seat, relax and just be there without moving. How does that make you feel? Pretty uncomfortable and vulnerable, right?
3. Is your dog too over-aroused to even ‘think’ properly?
If your dog is in an over-aroused state it means he has shifted into a physiological state where his hormones and neurochemicals have pretty much taken over the driver’s seat in his brain, so to speak. Over-arousal can be caused by both positive or negative factors. For example, your dog could be really amped up after playing and chasing another dog, or even from playing a long, hard game of of fetch with you.
On the other hand, lets say your dog is not comfortable with greeting other dogs and whilst you are enjoying a leashed walk, another off leash dog comes bounding towards you. Your dog might start barking to communicate to the other dog to ‘back off’, or maybe he cowers behind you to seek protection. In both examples he is in a state of stress and over-arousal.
Whether the cause was a positive or negative influence, the physiological result is pretty much the same. The body is in a state of stress and there are chemicals such as adrenalin, cortisol and dopamine surging through his bloodstream, his heart is racing, his blood pressure is raised, and if he is feeling threatened in any way, his body will be preparing for ‘fight-or-flight’.
Now imagine you ask your dog in any of these circumstances (or even shortly after the incident occured), to ‘Sit’. It might be the equivalent of you running a sprint race or a car swerving in front of you whilst you are driving, and straight afterwards your friend or partner asks you to stand still and work out the answer to 12 x 14 + 32 in your head…huh!?
4. Is your dog finding it uncomfortable to ‘Sit’?
Have you ever considered that your dog might be in some kind of pain or it’s uncomfortable for him to sit at that moment? Think about a time when you might have hurt or injured your toe / foot / knee or pulled a muscle in your leg, or perhaps when you have experienced back pain for some reason. Was it easy for you to go from a standing to a sitting position or maybe squatting and then standing up again?
Our dogs are pretty tough when it comes to pain and most of them don’t give many obvious outward signs when they are uncomfortable or in pain. Many dogs happily go about their lives with un-diagnosed muscular, joint or skeletal conditions and sometimes it takes a trained eye to notice a slight adjustment in their gate or a faint nod of their head as they trot along to compensate for any discomfort or pain.
And, if your dog has a known condition eg. hip dysplasia, then remember that asking him to sit on a slippery surface eg. tiles, laminate flooring, is extremely uncomfortable for him, especially when he has to stand up again.
5. Were you feeling frustrated, impatient or irritated when you asked your dog to ‘Sit’?
Sometimes when we are with our dogs, our minds are elsewhere….we are late for work, we have a list of chores to do, we have a headache, our child or partner is not well…the list goes on and on… Then suddenly our dog does something that we don’t particularly want them to do and we get impatient or frustrated and ask them to “Sit!”
Our dogs are very keen observers and brilliant at reading your emotional state. They can tell by the tone of our voice, your body language, your facial expressions, muscle tension, etc. that we are disconnected, preoccupied or feeling troubled and tense in the moment. But, instead of responding to your command promptly they may start to show you other behaviours which are also known as Calming Signals. This is a term for a set of signals that dogs use to communicate with other dogs as well as humans, that they feel uncomfortable or threatened in some way and are trying to avoid conflict or appease the person/dog to diffuse the tension in the situation. This could include (amongst others), the dog turning his head away from you with a quick flick of his tongue up over his nose, or a yawn and turning his body away from you, or perhaps moving off to sniff something on the ground, or perhaps even blinking his eyes and initiating a play bow.
These might all look like he is intentionally ignoring your request, but his motives are actually very different.
So, next time you ask your dog to ‘Sit’ or any other command for that matter, and he doesn’t respond in the way you expect him to, try asking yourself these questions and see if they reveal to you some possibilities of what may be going on.
Being a dog guardian or dog parent is not a dictatorship, it’s a partnership. That means you are equally responsible for getting the behaviour you want your dog to do.
So, what’s your part in this?
Firstly, have you taught your dog to sit in a variety of places, positions, with various distractions present or when he is feeling excited? Practice your sit skills often, anywhere and everywhere. Always having fun and rewarding your dog when he gets it right.
Learn to read your dog’s body language and signals that he is using constantly to communicate with you. His body posture, position of his ears, tail, vocalisations, facial expressions, calming and appeasements signals, stress signals, etc. It’s both fascinating and informative learning to ‘talk dog’.
If your dog is feeling anxious or fearful in a particular situation, is it necessary for him to sit? Can he simply stand / hold his position instead? Or can you move away from the thing he is afraid of, giving him the space to feel safe, and then ask him to sit?
If your dog can’t sit because he is over-excited and over-aroused, then this is your cue to end the activity, and remove him from the situation (if he has been playing with other dogs), giving him some time to cool off and settle down.
And lastly, remember to check-in with your own emotions and feelings. If you are feeling stressed, irritated or frustrated for whatever reason, then perhaps you should choose to do something else that may or may not include your dog. You could ask your partner, family member, neighbour or a dog walker to play with your dog or take them for a walk, whilst you take a break and relax. Or, you could choose a quiet relaxing activity to do together such as hiding treats for your dog to find, food puzzles or relaxing cuddle or a massage.