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'Why Won't My Dog' Series | Katherine Moseley | Vanity Fur Magazine
Why won’t my dog sit?

'Why Won't My Dog' Series | Katherine Moseley | Vanity Fur MagazineWelcome to the ‘Why won’t my dog’ series!

I’m Katherine Moseley (PACT-KSA ABTC-ATI FDM IDPKA) Dog Training Coach at Pathfinder Pups and Interactive Canine Enrichment. I often joke that I am a professional problem solver. I mainly support families who are struggling to help their puppies, adolescent dogs or new rescues fit into their busy lives. Working together, we find solutions to their struggles. Sometimes that’s training, but just as often it’s management or understanding the problem. My second love is helping people find things they love to do with their dogs.

We’re going to start the series by looking at the humble ‘sit’.

Broadly speaking, dogs will refuse to do something we ask for two reasons:

  1. They don’t understand what we want
  2. It’s not worth the effort


Human speech is not our dog’s first language. The word ‘sit’ means as much as ‘umplestew’ unless we’ve taught them what the word means. Using hand signals can be clearer as often we begin teaching behaviours by luring (getting our dog to follow a treat into position) and hand signals often resemble the movements we made to teach our dog in the first place.

If your dog happily does a nice sit behaviour when you use your hand signal but not when you say the word, then you’re just at the stage of needing to teach them that that behaviour is called ‘sit’!

Sometimes dogs can be observant and have learned something along the lines of, ‘when we’re in the kitchen, and the human stands in front of me and says ‘siiiit’ in that particular tone, then I plonk my bum down’ – and only in that specific scenario. This is particularly common in puppies and new rescues who have had no prior training. Taking a few steps back and re-teaching  the sit behaviour from the beginning in a few different places, on different surfaces can help them learn that the important part is when the human says ‘sit’.

'Why Won't My Dog' Series | Katherine Moseley | Vanity Fur Magazine


If your dog understands the ‘sit’ cue in different places, on different surfaces but then won’t do it in certain situations, it’s likely that you’re in the ‘not worth the effort’ group.

The most important thing to remember is that motivation is relative to what else is going on. Like if someone made you a job offer, your dog makes a quick assessment if the work you’ve asked for, is worth the reward VS other jobs on the market.

For most dogs, sit doesn’t require a lot of effort and the level of the reward can be relatively low for them to consider the job offer a good deal. If your dog is aging or you suspect that your dog has any pain or discomfort in a sitting position, and you find that asking for a different position seems easier for them (e.g. down, or wait without sitting), then you may like to speak to your vet for some pain relief, or find an alternative to sit that works for you and your dog.

Imagining the pros and cons for our dog to follow instruction can help us to find ways to convince them that doing our job is a good deal for them. And even more than what you have, is what your dog *thinks* might be on offer.

If you never reward your dog for their ‘sit’ then the list of pros is very short, and the list of cons can easily tip the decision into ‘thanks but no thanks’.

If you always reward your dog with a treat, then they will be more likely to accept your job offer. There is still the chance that they will make the decision that doing something else is more worth their time, particularly if they’re just not hungry!

Varying your reward by occasionally giving a large ‘jackpot’ is a great way to increase the likelihood that your dog says ‘yes’. Dogs actually engage better for the chance of a big reward than a reliable reward – providing they understand what is being asked.

The other side of the equation is what else is going on and this is where I see ‘sit’ breaking most often. We try to use ‘sit’ to stop another behaviour (not a bad idea at all) but forget that now the other ‘jobs’ on the market (e.g. jumping up at guests) are a lot more rewarding, and ‘sit’ is no longer looking like a good deal.

In these cases, we often need to ensure that our alternative behaviour (sit) is still always a great deal while the other option is either removed or the motivation for the other behaviour is reduced.

If you’d like to have a chat about your specific situation, then get in touch – I’d love to hear from you!

Katherine x

Article Author

Certified Dog Parkour Instructor  


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