There has been a lot of debate off-late on the idea of asking a dog to “sit” as part of their training. The first time I was exposed to this debate was back in October of 2013 when I visited Turid for the first time. I was sitting in on one of her classes in Bad Wimpfen in Germany. There was a lovely whippet in the class and during the break, I saw some dog treats on the table. I confirmed with the dog’s guardian that it was okay to give the dog some treats and I asked the dog to sit. I did not anticipate what happened next.
The students around me said that they do not ask dogs to sit and that if I wanted to give the dog treats, I was to just give it, without expecting the dog to sit. I did not really understand that. From everything I had read up, asking a dog to sit was just good manners. I had learnt that it was a great idea to get a dog to sit before heading out of doors so as to not let them rush out, sit when meeting humans so as to not let them jump on them, sit when meeting other dogs to prevent poor dog-dog interaction and sit before meals because that is just good manners. I had diligently taught my Nishi to sit and I was asking her to sit on all those occasions and felt I was being a good and responsible guardian to Nishi. I did not like what I had just heard.
Later that day, when I got a chance to talk to Turid in private, I brought this topic up. I asked her why I should not be asking my Nishi to sit. She looked straight into my eyes and asked me, “Did you not tell me your dog has an issue in the knee or hips?”. It suddenly hit me like a tonne of bricks.
Back then, Nishi was barely over two years old and was very hyper and sprightly. So, it was not yet very evident that she was indeed struggling to sit and get up, but the early signs were there. I knew I had seen it, but I had not thought it through.
But now it was blindingly obvious that if a dog has knee or hip issues, the act of sitting and getting up can be painful.
Physical impact of “sit”
The immediate physical discomfort of sitting and getting up is not the only consideration. Putting on my hat of a canine myotherapist, I can see that there is a long term impact to consider. Young dogs are very good at ignoring the pain and powering through it. However, when they do sit and get up repeatedly, they slightly alter the way they move, to protect the joints that are weaker and thus overload other limbs, joints and the neck, which starts causing compensatory issues. This worsens gradually even leading up to things like arthritis and spondylosis.
In the case of a dog like Nishi, it is obvious why it was necessary to stop asking her to sit. But what about dogs that do not have diagnosed issues in the hips, knees, elbows, neck and spine?
My first concern is that in many young dogs, several of these issues remain hidden for many years and by the time we realize that there is an issue, we have already built in a habit in our dogs and it is quite hard to break it. I see that in my students’ dogs now, who are trying to “untrain” and we all know how hard that is, particularly with older dogs that have been doing this all their lives. Even if these dogs were fitter in their younger years, several dogs have arthritis and spondylosis as they age and none of us wants to be in place to have to untrain dogs in their senior years. It can be heartbreaking to see them struggle into a sit the second the pack of treats come out because that is what they have been doing all their lives.
What about in the case of puppies? In an article titled, “Should we be teaching our puppy to sit?”, Julia Robertson of Galen myotherapy, explains the specific biomechanics of sitting and says, “There is no doubt that dogs and puppies are anatomically designed to sit. However, if puppies are habitually and unnaturally asked to sit, the loading on their body could have an accumulative effect as they progress into adulthood. Especially if we add other potential environmental factors that can also cause damage such as running on slippery floors and repeatedly jumping on and off a sofa .”
The point Julia makes about sitting and getting up repeatedly on slippery floors is a consideration for young healthy dogs too. Smooth floors do not provide sufficient traction and so dogs could end up overloading on their front limbs and neck when sitting and getting up, which has long term implications on the neck, elbows, shoulders, cervical spine, hips and knees. An over working neck can further lead to other issues like tight jaws, headaches and increased pressure in the eyes. Increased pressure on the neck can increase inter-cerebral pressure, which can increase the risk of glaucoma. Interestingly, a study titled “Effect of body position on intraocular pressure in dogs without glaucoma” shows that even in the short term, sitting can start increasing intraocular pressure (pressure in the eyes), when the position is held for more than 3 minutes.
Behavioural aspect of “sit”
Now we come to the behaviour discussion around “sit”. The “sit” command is used very often as a way to calm dogs down. However, a study done by Miller et. al. looked at how sitting impacts the behaviour of dogs. Some of the dogs in this study were asked to sit before being exposed to the presence of another aggressive dog and some dogs were not asked to sit. What they saw was that the dogs that were asked to sit did poorly when dealing with aggressive dogs. The study claims that the reason for this is depletion of self-control.
Another explanation for this could be the inability to engage in a coping strategy. Anticipation, excitement, stress etc…lead to brain arousal and adrenalisation of the body and mind. Dogs are likely to engage in activities that help cope with this. Some dogs may pace, some may pick up things in their mouth to increase tactile sensory input to the brain which can be calming, some dogs may chew things up which is known to decrease cortisol and increase some calming chemicals and some dogs may engage in other displacement behaviours like sniffing or scratching.
Sit does not allow the dog to engage in any of these behaviours, which can lead to the frustration of not meeting goals, which can further increase stress hormones in the body, creating more brain arousal. Think of the last time you were pacing or fidgeting as a way to cope with excitement or anxiety. What would happen if you were asked to stop that behaviour and instead sit still. That should tell us how a dog may be experiencing this situation. This also explains to me why I often saw that with my own Nishi and with clients’ dogs, if we asked them to sit when they were excited or stressed, the second we released them from the sit, they seem to be far more charged up or hyper.
How about the use of the sit command during emergencies? Well, that would depend on the emergency, I suppose. If we are dealing with a dog that is bolting after something, then that may be a result of the prey drive or fight-or-flight response. Either way, these are a result of the firing up of survival circuits in the brain. These circuits fire up faster and most times, these take precedence over learnt behaviour. So, in such situations we may want to rethink our emergency strategy and not rely on something like ‘sit’, which has a high probability of failing and thanks to Murphy’s law, is most likely to fail when we least want it to!
Impact of “sit” on communication
We now come to the communication aspect of sit. Dogs use their faces and bodies to communicate. Have a look at this video that is an excellent communication between Cheeru and Blacky, two dogs that did not really get to know each other, but on this occasion decided to bury the hatchet. What is fascinating in this video is the sheer volume of signals exchanged between these two dogs. We have counted almost 30 calming signals in this clip, if not more. While we know what are the calming signals dogs use and that sitting is one of those signals, we do not yet have a good understanding of what signals are meant to be used at which point and the role of context here.
All communication relies on context and being asked to sit in the middle of this communication may not be what the situation calls for. For example, in humans, waving out is a way to communicate friendly intent in some cultures, but waving out of context on cue by someone who does not understand that culture may be totally inappropriate and even derail the communication. At BHARCS, we spend a lot of energy on ethological studies on free-ranging dogs to understand their communication better. We then use our observations in the context of companion dogs. Our observations are leading us to believe that dogs communicate best when they have full control over their own bodies, so they can use it effectively.
“Sit” in the ethogram of a dog
Does this mean that dogs do not ever sit? Not at all. Dogs do sit. As part of Turid’s education, we study the sitting behaviour of dogs, when they are not asked to sit. We found that some breeds never sat, while some sat a lot. Would you like to take a guess on these breeds?
To me, the breed trait is less relevant, because it boils down to the individual dog, and some dogs, despite breed traits, just refused to sit and some, sat a lot. Once I stopped asking Nishi to sit, she did not sit much when she was younger. But as she got older, she did sit a lot but did not want to get up too often. I suspect sitting gave her a chance to be engaged in what was going on around her, without having to get up on her bad knees. We also found that dogs sit when they observe something at a distance or are waiting for something to happen. It is very common to see street dogs sitting outside a bakery or butchers. This could be partly because they are waiting, but also partly because they are trying to look at people’s faces and establish eye contact. Streeties need to be excellent judges of the character of humans to know who to approach to beg and they do this by evaluating the faces of humans. They also use eye contact to beg. So, they need to be looking up at human faces quite a bit and that is easiest done from a sitting position, but sitting at a strategic distance that puts the least pressure on the neck.
My students often ask me if they need to prevent a dog from sitting. I don’t think so. As you can see, dogs do sit on different occasions, at the distance and for the duration that is right for the purpose, in a style that is optimal for their body. However, my bigger concern is about asking a dog to sit on cue and building habits in where they are offering sit because they have been repeatedly asked to. I like what Turid often says about this :
“If you want to sit, sit.
If the dog wants to sit, let the dog sit.
But if you want to ask the dog to sit, think again”
Endnote: I do also often get asked how one can manage different situations without a sit. Obviously, that is a whole other blog, or maybe a few of them. I will try to write a few soon. But my experience with Nishi was that once I told myself that asking her to not sit was an option, I did start discovering other ways to manage situations. So, if you do start looking for alternatives and find some interesting ones, do leave them in the comments. A good place to start will be working on just engaging in calming behaviours, just to get the dog to calm down so that they are able to communicate better and think before they act.