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Dogs don’t come genetically hardwired to know “SIT”

February 10, 2013 Leave a comment Go to comments

Dog Lying on FloorRecently 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.

Sound familiar?

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?

  1. February 11, 2013 at 1:15 AM

    What an amazing exercise. I feel like I need to do this with my baby sister and her boyfriend. At 8 months, little Lu is still a holy terror and it’s just that they have no idea what they’re doing or how the way they communicate is hurting him. Thank you for sharing this!

    • Mel
      February 11, 2013 at 6:45 AM

      You should do it with them Jodi! I know Lu won’t be given up, but I have seen many a “Holy Terror” in our shelter because that cute little puppy that was never trained had turned into an obnoxious adult. It’s sad to think something so simple could save so many dogs. Let me know if you do try it on them. It’s a lot of fun to watch too!

  2. February 11, 2013 at 2:15 AM

    Interesting exercise! I think it sounds cool! How many new dog owners or older ones could use this?? 😉

    • Mel
      February 11, 2013 at 6:42 AM

      I think a lot! I thought it was a great way to make a point without having to explain it.

  3. February 11, 2013 at 11:17 AM

    This is why I was dumbfounded when I was told that my adult Eskie did not know any commands (skills, we now say!) I thought, never to have heard a given word, and recognize that some sort of action is expected on her part when we say a word— wow, how does that association happen?? This is why I didn’t want a puppy… And the trainer I hired (rhymes with Ark Trusters) had me push her butt down! But I must say, when a dog wiggles and jumps all over the place, holding the treat “just” above the nose doesn’t work too well either!

    • Mel
      February 11, 2013 at 9:03 PM

      You’d be amazed Natasha. Many of the dogs who came into our shelter were older than a year and usually younger than 5 years old. Many did not know basic commands.
      I have trained many puppies. The wiggling butt is normal, but if you hold the treat until butt is on the ground and reward quickly you can see progress. Again, it’s all about helping them understand what you want. Words mean nothing until they figure it out. 🙂

      • February 12, 2013 at 11:05 PM

        Of course Mel — people don’t understand the importance of waiting. It wasn’t just her butt wiggling, she is a pogo stick – so holding a treat above her nose is hard when her nose is bouncing and flying around! But I wait, and eventually she sees that jumping around isn’t getting her the treat, or the open gate, or whatever. My husband says I’m too lenient when he sees me with my head turned as she’s jumping and dancing…. Just doesn’t understand waiting! (He never worked with first graders)… I’m stunned by how fast she has learned! Weeks after I showed her ” walk, walk, stop and SIT” (thinking she would need the extra time to slow down), I didn’t practice it, but I have treats and just say “walk” in that tone and her butt’s on the ground! Eskies are darn smart!

      • Mel
        February 13, 2013 at 6:57 AM

        Wow! So impressed!
        I laughed at what you wrote about your husband. I have done things that are a part of dog training that people think is not training too. Like turning my body away when a dog jumps on me. People think you should just knee the dog or push them down. I believe in showing a dog that rewards come when their butt is on the floor. It sounds like you and I have had similar experiences. 🙂

        I’ve never had an Eskie, but I have no doubt they are smart! 🙂

  4. February 16, 2013 at 11:32 AM

    usually there was some form of this game at the clicker training seminars I went to. They called it the clicker game. It can be real eye opening to play and realize that dogs aren’t born learning English. Positive reinforcement training and clicker training has really helped me see things from the dog’s point of view and become more aware of how my interactions with them influence their behavior.

    • Mel
      February 17, 2013 at 11:17 PM

      That’s awesome Dawn. I wonder if there was a clicker involved in ours too and I’ve just forgotten? I may have to ask one of our trainers. It definitely is an eye-opener. I have learned so much from clicker training and from being exposed to some really amazing trainers. It has changed my point of view too.

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