When new clients describe what happens when their dog becomes agitated on walks, I hear the same thing again and again. Although pecifics may differ, asking (or making) their dog sit is very common.
It might seem a logical choice. Asking dogs to sit AFTER an outburst appears to:
- get the dog under control
- show that we don’t accept what our dog just did
- dole out a consequence for the inappropriate behaviour
- show others that we are doing something
So it would seem to be a responsible and valid choice. And given all the perceived benefits, it can also be very reinforcing to the handler. But there are more important reasons that it shouldn’t be what we choose to do.
We tend to be goal-oriented, and this applies to our dogs, as well. Rather than addressing the actual cause of a behaviour, we usually focus simply on stopping it. When our dogs react to something, it is usually a display that comes from fear, conflict or frustration. Unfortunately, making our dogs sit after an outburst doesn’t do anything to help with the way they feel about that trigger. That feeling should be our focus.
A Better Choice for You and Your Dog
If you want your dog to respond to triggers in a calmer way, making them remain nearby and getting after them is certainly not the answer. A combination of creating space and a solid counter-conditioning protocol is the best plan.
Ideally, your dog can be set up for success by creating adequate space proactively. This will take the pressure off and ensure they are not put over their threshold. This step alone will be a good solution and adequate to prevent future outbursts for some dogs.
A conditioning plan will take things a step further by changing the emotional response to the trigger. When a more positive association is created, the dog will no longer have the need to react or become aroused.
As an aside, if you ask your dog to sit in this type of situation, have you noticed that they haven’t picked up the habit of doing it? Do you have to ask or make them sit each time? They aren’t being stubborn. There’s a simple explanation. When you ask your dog to sit before letting them out into the yard, it often isn’t long before they start doing it on their own. But why doesn’t that happen when they react? Because there is one simple but significant difference. At the door, your dog has an immediate and meaningful positive outcome. They get to go outside with the freedom and fun that it brings. They quickly learn that sitting will make that good thing happen faster.
In the second scenario, there is no positive outcome for the dog. Sitting doesn’t create the space that will give them relief or create any other positive outcome. If they are ‘asked’ by increasing the pressure (collar check, pushing on their back), the negative association to the already unpleasant trigger will be compounded. Because there is no value to the dog, they won’t choose to sit in future occurances.
Don’t get me wrong. SIT is a nice behaviour for certain situations (no pun intended!). I love it when dogs offer it as their way to ask for things they want. It’s a simple behaviour that most dogs are happy to do if it’s been trained kindly and well-reinforced. But it is not part of how I help dogs learn to cope with triggers or reactivity.