Your dog doesn’t know “sit” – does she need to?

A couple of years ago, I entered a contest sponsored by the Association of Pet Dog Trainers. Part of my prize was a trip to...

Casey Lomonaco  |  Jan 4th 2011


A couple of years ago, I entered a contest sponsored by the Association of Pet Dog Trainers. Part of my prize was a trip to Oakland, CA to attend the annual APDT conference. I had a blast, one of the best times I can remember. I met and learned from amazing trainers from around the world. I got to meet and spend time with many of my training heroes, admittedly a bit star-struck. I became a “peck leader” in my “Click-A-Chick” workshop and forever fell in love with clicker training chickens, who move as quickly as a Jack Russell on speed. There were a number of training revelations for me, truly eye and mind-opening experiences and new tools to take home and share with my dogs and my clients.

One of the presenters I was most excited to see was Turid Rugaas. (Her work is amazing! Calming Signals is my favorite but you can’t go wrong with any of Turid’s fabulous books or dvds, available on Dogwise.)

Turid stood up to speak and said something to the effect of, “my dogs don’t know ‘sit’ or ‘down’.” The floor shook with the sound of over 1,000 trainers’ jaws hitting the floor. Blasphemy! All dogs need to know “sit” and “down,” right? Turid hinted that Americans tend to be control freaks, we want to control what our dog can look at, sniff, or do, when, and for how long. We often focus too much on training behaviors and not enough on training life skills.

Yesterday we talked about what I perceive to be two distinct categories of training, active training and passive training. I believe what Turid was advocating was passive training – letting dogs do what dogs want to do, earning opportunities through desirable behavior.

Passive training is so underestimated I’ve actually thought about creating a class specifically focused on “using life rewards effectively” for my students. I think you can have a pretty fantastic dog with very little active training. I don’t want to underestimate the importance of active training – it is one of the best ways to challenge your dog’s brain and build and enhance her behavioral repertoire. I think that a well-taught puppy class is the best thing you can do to establish the foundation for a lifetime of success. I think that pet owners facing severe (or even mild) behavioral issues in their pets should always seek the assistance and support of a qualified professional. I think going to classes throughout your dog’s life is a great way to bond, and provide valuable enrichment and ongoing socialization opportunities. If you do not know what behaviors to reinforce, how to read your dog’s body language, or how to determine what factors may be maintaining your dog’s behavior, hire a trainer. If you think you need help, you probably do.

I have a few clients that don’t do any active training at all. I tell them the downsides of not doing active training – they won’t have a variety of great behaviors and cute tricks on cue. They won’t have a dog which can compete in a variety of performance venues or function as a service dog. However, they can have a pretty well-mannered family dog fairly easily. They will have a much better bond than they had with their dog previously. The owners will need to develop new skills of vigilance. They need strategies for modifying unwanted behaviors. But they don’t even need to set aside “special training time.”

They keep portions of their dog’s kibble in their pocket and hang out with their dogs. When their dogs do something they like, the dog gets something great. Four on the floor when greeting someone new? Treat. You can train your dog to stay with you off leash, recall, relax, greet people politely, and focus on you without ever doing structured training sessions if you are careful about integrating training into your lifestyle. Like with any training, you will need to start in environments which are not highly distracting and work your way up. It may take passive trainers longer to reach the level of achievement reached by those active trainers who more conscientiously strive to set up training opportunities in a variety of environments, but it can be done.