A friend of mine recently returned from the Hunting Retriever Club’s Grand Championship in Georgia. Unfortunately, his dog was unable to complete the series of five tests needed for the Grand Champion Pass. Two of these passes, together with an accumulation of points from earlier tests, are needed to earn the Grand Title. This is not unusual. Of the 424 dogs that were testing, only 57 were able to complete all five days of testing to earn 40 points toward the prestigious title. The field of 424 dogs produced 11 new Grand Hunting Retriever Champions.
My friend has a long history of training HRC dogs, and I frequently turn to him for advice when Kaia and I hit a snag in our training. I asked him what skill I should concentrate on the most if I was interested in taking Kaia to the Grand. I was not really surprised when he replied, “sit”.
“Most failed tests are lost at the line.” It’s an often repeated bit of wisdom that most hunt-tests that are failed are lost right at the starting line before the dog is even sent to make a retrieve. This is because a dog is required to sit attentively at the retrieving line and watch as multiple retrieves are thrown and shot. The dog must remember the location of each bird or bumper so that he can retrieve them as directed by the handler. Any squirming or inattention at the line can lead to missed birds and lost points or complete failure.
Once the dog has been sent from the line, the sit command is just as important because a dog that is being directed to a blind retrieve (one he has not seen from the line) must be commanded to sit before he can be directed by hand signals to the position of the blind retrieve.
The reason I’m telling you this is that I’m trying to show the importance of the sit command and how vital this command is, even for dogs that are competing at the highest levels in their sport. The sit command is just as important for all dogs, even if they never put a paw in an obedience ring or step to the line at the Grand.
Here’s a story that shows how important it is to teach your dog the sit command:
I was walking Kaia early one morning in an open training area on Ft. Lewis. Kaia was running ahead of me in the brush along Muck Creek. She was having a fantastic time sniffing for birds and splashing through every mud puddle she could find.
I spotted the heap of old razor wire at the same instant that I saw her change course and run directly toward it. I had no time to think about the situation. I grabbed the whistle that is constantly hanging on a lanyard around my neck and blew the single, short blast that means “sit” to her.
I heard her yelp as she sat amid the looping coils of razor wire. I ran as fast as my legs would carry me and reached her a few seconds later. She was sitting calmly with her right front leg outstretched and caught on a strand of that nasty wire. I was able to free her and treated her for a small cut on her foreleg. I still shudder every time I think about what could have happened if she had plowed into the razor wire at full speed.
At the time of this incident Kaia was less than a year old. At that age she was already pretty solid on the sit command because we had been working on it since she was a little puppy. Even though her formal obedience training didn’t begin until she was 6 months old, we had been incorporating the sit command into games and even requiring a sit before mealtimes.
Now, imagine your dog slipping from his collar while you are getting him out of the car at the vet’s office; or imagine him bolting towards a cat that he’s spotted on the other side of a busy street. What if your dog charged into a field of cattle? What if she was running straight toward the cliff at Point Defiance? You don’t have to encounter razor wire to have a “razor wire moment.” Having the ability to command your dog into an immediate sit can save his life.
Most trainers agree that the sit command is the foundation for all obedience training. The command tells the dog three important things:
First, it tells him to stop whatever he is doing. He can’t sit and run at the same time, and he can’t jump on anyone while he is sitting!
Second, it tells him to focus his attention on you.
Third, the sit command establishes and reinforces the dog’s subordinate position in your relationship. The act of sitting, focusing on you and acknowledging your leadership, prepares the dog for your next command.
There are several different ways to teach the sit command. Most of them can be sorted under the two different schools of thought in dog training: positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement. Positive reinforcement rewards desired behavior and negative reinforcement corrects undesired behavior.
The word, “punishment” is often used to describe the process of negative reinforcement. This is inaccurate because the word “punishment” carries with it the concepts of good and evil, sin and atonement, and a whole bunch of other moral gobbledygook that dogs just don’t understand.
Rather than think of correction as punishment, it’s important to understand that a dog will respond to correction because it is the path of least resistance. In other words, the dog will perform the desired behavior if it is more comfortable than being corrected for the undesired behavior. It is absolutely vital that the dog understand what behavior is being commanded before he is corrected for undesired behavior.
Positive reinforcement, or reward-based training is very useful in teaching a dog what behavior is desired. At some point we need the dog to perform these desired behaviors without reward. Some dogs respond very well to positive reinforcement. As a behavior becomes a conditioned response the reward can be gradually eliminated. Other dogs can be taught behaviors using positive reinforcement and then some negative reinforcement may be necessary to overcome the dog’s self-directed behavior until a desired behavior becomes a conditioned response.
Some trainers adhere to one form or the other with religious conviction. There are positive reinforcement trainers who view negative reinforcement as torture. There are negative reinforcement trainers who label the other camp as “cookie trainers”, claiming that positive reinforcement is nothing but bribery.
Rather than insisting that a dog be trained with a certain underlying philosophy, some trainers have jettisoned the ideological approach and use whatever method is the most effective for the dog. These trainers will place a greater emphasis on observing the dog and his responses so that the most effective methods can be employed with the individual animal at different levels of training. It is still important to make the distinction between the two training approaches so that the choice of proper approach can be a conscious decision rather than a chance discovery on the part of the trainer.
Regardless of how you train your dog, the foundation upon which your training is built is the sit command. The better you and your dog understand this, the farther you both can go in your skill level and the better chance you have of avoiding disaster when you face your “razor wire moment.”