A Practical Approach to Motivational Dog Obedience Training
Lori Drouin            Fall River Mills, California

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When Is a Sit Not a Sit?

   That’s the riddle. The answer is when the method of getting to the sitting posture is not what you want to see. When the average dog owner thinks about “sit”, the picture is of a dog already sitting. It’s the posture. Average dog owners don’t care how the butt ends up on the ground as long as it does. But for performance obedience trainers, the process matters.

   For heeling halts, a tuck sit is preferred by most trainers. That means the front feet of the dog stop, and the rear feet continue forward and tuck under the dog’s abdomen and then the hocks and haunches hit the ground. But the sit that most puppies learn at puppy class (if they learn a sit at all) is at best a rock back sit. The rear end stops, the dog lifts its head and pulls its front feet backward as the body rolls backward onto the haunches. It’s more gravity feed than effort. For halts, rock back sits take a dog whose head is in lovely heel position while moving, and rolls the dog back into a lagged position on the halt. (Unless the dog is forging in motion, in which case the rock back halt looks correct after the sit; but a good judge still sees all of the forging!) Those same sits in the context of a front start out with closeness of approach, but end up with the Grand Canyon of space between dog and handler.

   Even experienced trainers will see the chasm, but fail to see the process that caused it when training a young puppy who emits terminal cuteness and hides the physical process behind its cute face.

   To a certain degree, rock back sits are part of a puppy learning that sit = butt on the ground. But the earlier you establish the motion pattern you want, the easier your life will be, and the better the puppy will develop the muscle motion patterns you want in the first place. Whether you are attempting to teach or re-teach, you have to be aware of the motion of the back feet and how they relate to the dog’s head. The  pictures show how to use obstacles to help make you and the dog aware of the physical pattern of motion we want for halts and fronts.

   Note carefully where the left hand is: ON the nose, and at NO time above the dog’s head. The food is in the left hand, and is used to draw the dog’s head forward and slightly down on the first step as the dog moves his front feet over the bar. (Here’s the link to the video: http://youtu.be/9uEgFjyHbw8 .)

   Phoenix dropped his head to take a look at the next bar, but notice that his back feet are starting to lift over the bar as he comes forward. That’s the motion I want to verbally mark at first. As he gets his body into the chute, the leash in the right hand as well as the food prevents him from leaning back comfortably, and the bar behind him is something he doesn’t want to sit on; so he tucks his fanny forward and drops into the sit. Note that my hand is ON HIS NOSE LEVEL, and NOT over his head. His weight is leaning forward over his front feet, not backward onto his hips.

   Fixing or teaching this takes patience and fortitude. You have to allow the dog to try to lean back and just not let that be comfortable. If it’s a puppy, and you’re thinking, “Well, it IS a sit even though he rocked back; shouldn’t it be rewarded?”, the answer is yes....but not exactly. It’s okay with a puppy or a dog just being introduced to pattern changes to say, “Okay, I will let you have this treat to reward having your bum on the ground; however, the treat is here in FRONT of your face, and in order to get it you will have to lean forward and reach for it.” And if you stick with this, pretty soon you find yourself getting not only a lean, but a little scoot forward. And then most dogs decide it’s more efficient to scoot to that hand during the sit in the first place, and there you are, with a nice little skip sit.

   When you and the dog have mastered the mechanics of the skip sit from the illustrated orientation, which allows you to see all parts of the dog, you then move to working skip sits in front to encourage the dog to push into the correct spot. Reward the dog from BOTH hands centered in front of the dog at first. Eventually you will focus on only rewarding perfectly straight sits, but when you’re working on repairing a habit of fronts too far away, focus on rewarding the tucking motion pattern into the sit and the proximity of the dog to you. If the very thought of rewarding crookedness disturbs you, then practice this in chutes so you can have straight and close at the same time. Just keep in mind that crooked can still qualify, but too far away won’t!

   The other sit that you have to make choices about is the move from a down to a sit for the signal exercise. Remember that the regulations don’t require a specific motion pattern; but dogs who keep their front feet in place and scoot their butts forward into the sit, which if you think about it is a tuck sit as discussed above, sometimes segue into also moving their front feet forward during the process of the sit. Many dogs really want to move forward during signals, whether it’s to get farther from the arm-waving judge, or to get closer to their handlers in the high probability of reward zone. Teaching the dog to push up on his front feet and keep his rear end in place is one way to minimize that trend. The Rally down/ sit exercise in heel position is a good approach to teaching and practicing this. I use the same signal the dog will see in the signal exercise, and I use the leash in my right hand to apply slight upward pressure if the dog seems uncertain about what to do. If that doesn’t work, I stand in front of the dog as he is lying down, and use a dowel in my right hand to gently touch the dog’s chest to create a desire to back away, and then give the sit command and/or signal. As with any motion pattern, this takes some repetition and consistency to create the habit. If you are working a young dog in novice and rally, you may not yet care about the specific motion pattern. But think ahead. If Utility is in your future, anything that you can train the way you want it to be right now prevents the necessity to retrain in the future. (Also review the signal teaching video : http://youtu.be/Bb5VWCwpCMc )