Dogs don’t come genetically hardwired to know “SIT”
Recently a friend posted her volunteer pin from our old local humane society that I used to volunteer at here in town. It brought back a lot of memories for me. We used to be such a tight-knit group of staff and volunteers. There was something special about the place. Even now, two years later, we all still pine for the days when we would all work together to help the animals in our care.
One of the things that made us such a close group was the amount of time we spent learning how to help the dogs and cats in our care. Like other humane societies, ours offered training classes for puppies and newly adopted dogs. We also had training for staff and volunteers, including such topics as cat care, dog care, positive reinforcement training and understanding dog behavioral cues. And, we had a training program for STAR volunteers, for those of us who worked with some of the less adoptable dogs to help them become more adoptable.
I like to think that our volunteers were trained better than those in most other shelters. I might be a bit biased on that front, but I know we certainly were given every opportunities to learn more about dogs and dog behavior (Thank you Rut, Inga, Kate and Colleen!).
Perhaps one of my favorite training segments was the one that didn’t include any dogs at all. It was a regular part of the dog training classes, both for adopters and their dogs and the volunteers and STAR members.
The instructor (i.e., dog trainer) would first have people pair up in class. Once pairs had been established, one person from each pair would be asked to leave the room. The trainer would then tell those who remained that they would be playing the role of a trainer. They would be responsible for training the other person a new trick or command. The catch was the trainer could not use any words to explain to the other person what they wanted them to do. They could use some hand gestures and head nods, but no sounds or words. The class trainer would then assign a trick or command and let the other people back in the room.
It was always fun to watch the other people come back in as we tried to get the to do what we wanted them to do. They would stand there with puzzled looks on their faces trying to figure out what were asking of them. Many would try the obvious commands -sit, down, come, etc. Others would resort to offering a variety of behaviors in hope they would hit upon the right one eventually. Most people figured out what they were being asked to do, with a little time and trial and error, but occasionally, they wouldn’t be able to figure it out and would just give up.
If you haven’t already figured it out, the purpose of the exercise was to help us understand what our own dogs go through when we are trying to train them. As many of you already know, training a dog with words only works if you first show them what the behavior is that you want. Saying “sit, Sit Sit, SIT!” over and over again is unlikely to get the behavior you want if your dog has never been shown the behavior in the first place, or if they haven’t been shown how that word “sit” is connected to a specific behavior. (I can’t tell you how many times I heard people going through the dog kennels at our shelter yelling “SIT!” to a dog who had no clue what they were saying or why.)
Dogs aren’t genetically hardwired to know “SIT”. Helping us to understand what it felt like to be our dogs helped us to be better trainers and to have more patience and understanding when working with them. Sometimes putting ourselves in their shoes can open our eyes to things we had not seen before. I know this one certainly made an impact on me and how I work with my dogs.
What about you? Have you ever done this exercise with your spouse or a friend before? How did it change how you work with your dog?