The Disappearing Sit

by Kevin Myers on May 21, 2011

Dog owners are often confronted with the mystery of a dog that suddenly stops doing a behavior that it previously knew. All of a sudden, or gradually in some cases, the dog doesn’t remember how to sit, or that it’s supposed to wait at the front door, or any number of previously learned behaviors.

When trying to solve this mystery, it’s easy for the owner to see this as willfulness or even as a challenge by the dog for dominance of the house. For example, a dog that once sat on cue now looks at you as if you’re crazy when you ask them to sit. Isn’t this a dog that is behaving in a willfully disobedient manner? Isn’t this dog being dominant?

While I would never say never, it’s far more likely the result of variety of factors that have absolutely nothing to do with defiance or dominance.

Incomplete Training

Dog’s often do themselves a disservice by being so smart. Many dogs pick up the behaviors we teach them very quickly, often within one or two training sessions. As a result we assume they have the behavior down pat before they do. In many cases the dog will display the behavior properly in a specific location under specific circumstances– but the behavior falls apart outside of those circumstances. This is a result of poor generalization as we will discuss later.

Mystery Cues

Body language is the native language of the dog. They may use their voices to communicate certain things, but body language is the only evidence permissible in doggie court. As a result, they are constantly scanning our body language for clues.

If you were to poll 1000 dogs as to what the cue is for the down behavior– about 10% would say it’s the word down. Another 10% would say the down sweep of the hand is the cue. The remaining 80% would say the cue is the word down, along with the hand sweep, along with the human bending over so far that you can smell the pepperoni pizza they had for dinner last week.

Okay, so this is not quite a scientific poll, but you get my point. Often a dog is responding to cues other than the ones we intend.

Poor Generalization

We are creatures of habit and often have a set routine when training our dogs. We train in the same place, we train with the same people and animals around, we train at the same time, we train in the same clothes, we… well you get the picture.

The problem is that our dogs are really creatures of habit and they look at their total environment as a cue for behavior. A person saying “sit” is often only a piece of the puzzle. If you teach your dog to sit in the kitchen, on top of the rug, in front of the refrigerator, it just may be that they think all those things are needed for them to sit. Behavior is a noun and needs to be taken on the road and taught with new persons, places, and things.

Learned Irrelevance

The simplest analogy here is the boy who cried wolf. I remember hearing Bill Cosby talking about children, he said that you can’t just say something to a child once, you have to send a litany of requests their way. “Sit, sit, sit, sit, sit!” “Come, come, come, come, come!” “No, no, no, no, no!” This can work against us when dealing with dogs.

I’ve described dogs as the ultimate relevance engines. If a behavior hasn’t been completely learned and the dog isn’t being reinforced for it in some way shape or form, it can quickly decide the cue is irrelevant. It just become more gibberish for them to ignore.

Health Issues

Pain and discomfort can often lead to reluctance or refusal to do certain behaviors and are among the first things you should rule out, especially in older dogs. Behaviors like the sit and the down can really be uncomfortable for dogs with sore joints. Hey, I know that at close to 50 years old, I am reluctant to do lots of behaviors that I learned in my youth.

Conclusions

With all the talk in the media about pack leaders and alpha dogs, it’s very easy for a dog owner to incorrectly see a dog that forgets a previously learned behavior as disobedient. We often hear that dogs are like small children and there is a strong impulse to compare a dog refusing to sit with a child throwing a temper tantrum. However, as we have shown here, the blame is usually laid at the doorstep of miscommunication and misunderstanding.

Before deciding that your dog is being disobedient or willful, ask yourself the following…

  • Has the dog really had enough time to get the behavior down pat?
  • Has the dog reliably performed the behavior in many different places and in many different circumstances?
  • Has the dog possibly been responding to cues other than the ones you intended?
  • Is there something new in the dog’s environment? Have you brought a new dog home? Have you a new houseguest?
  • Is it possible that you’ve worn out the cue by overusing it before the dog really knows its meaning?

If your dog seems to be having amnesia and you aren’t able to figure out why, it’s helpful to find a trainer in your area well versed in dog behavior and positive reinforcement. Their expert eyes can often pick out what’s going on very quickly and can help you back on your way to being sync with your dog.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Eileen Anderson October 9, 2011 at 3:37 pm

Hi Kevin,

Great article! This a subject that is near and dear to my heart, from being around too many traditional trainers. They are quick to say the dog is “blowing you off” or being otherwise willfully disobedient. I made a series of videos and posted them on YouTube of my dogs failing to respond to a known cue, and explaining the reason why. Hope it’s OK to refer to it here.
http://www.youtube.com/eileenanddogs#p/c/04B074F373F2CCFC

eileenanddogs

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Kevin Myers October 9, 2011 at 3:46 pm

Great video Eileen. A nice demonstration that generalization can be a game of inches. Thanks for the link.

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Eileen Anderson July 24, 2012 at 11:14 pm

Hi again Kevin,

I put my three videos about missing cues into a blog post and also linked back to this article. Just wanted to let you know.

http://wp.me/p2zcA6-3A

Enjoyed your cognitive dissonance piece as well.

Cheers,
Eileen

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Sandra July 25, 2012 at 10:12 am

I agree with you. Dogs are creatures of habit. Just like children. They need the repetition and positive reinforcement to continue the said behavior or trick or they will forget. I did train my dogs that on command they do what was asked where ever we are. And they do. But they do the exact same behavior every time. Here are a few examples. After successful potty trips, they know they get a treat and no potty, not treat. I say, ‘Who is sitting” they sit in there correct order time after time. What’s funny, My Maltese Ziva, Was sitting on the wrong side and realized before I said anything and quickly scrambled to her spot. But in agreement with you, “sitting” was the word they knew. Same as give me paw, paw bump. Don’t tell me dogs are not smart. when I say no treat, Rascal sounds like scooby doo and sounds like oh hum.
Ziva taps her 2 front paws, shakes her head and sneezes, I will tell her again no potty no treat. Then I get to short bars and she sits pretty. She is something else.
Just whisper “Does any-they are out to the door. It’s the phrase we use for potty and it works. Does anyone here have to go potty? and we sing it, No lie they sing along (if you want to call it that) Here too, key words. Had we stopped after learning, there is no way that they would remember. Night Night they run upstairs an get on my bed. What I love best though is Rascal is a cock-a-poo on the larger size not a toy, but he thinks he is a lap dog. And you can’t tell him otherwise. Ziva thinks she is a Rottweiler. The defender to Mama and all she sees is Ziva’s. Though there are times she thinks she may be part cat because she suns herself in the window, purrs when messaged. She stretches and skulks like a cat. Dog are like people. Each are a different personality yet they have something that the breed all share in common.
Thanks for letting me post my opinion’
HotK9Mama

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Me August 6, 2012 at 4:54 am

Eileen, could you please check the link? It takes me to your channel but not to the specific video. I’d love to see it and link to it. Thanks in advance. :)

By the way, I loved your comment on Kikopup’s article about errorless learning. I couldn’t agree more.

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Diane Garrod August 6, 2012 at 10:26 am

Nicely done – once again Kevin! Shared on my FB biz site http://www.facebook.com/cTLC3. Came at the exact moment a theme on training vs. manipulation was used. Temporary suppression fits well with why a behavior wouldn’t be strong in the first place. Well-written as usual and informative. I hope many around the world start understanding these concepts.

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