ClickerSolutions Training Articles

The Sit Test

The following article was originally published in the June 1990 edition of the AKC Gazette. It is reprinted with permission of the author.

The purpose of the "Sit Test" is to provide an objective assessment of performance-reliability for basic obedience commands. Why? So that instead of reprimanding the dog for "misbehaving," the trainer steps back and reflects on the real reasons for the dog's "disobedience," i.e., lack of proofing and reliability training prior to pattern training. Many trainers have an inflated view of their dog's reliability because during practice, performance reliability is assessed by subjective means. The trainer tends to remember the good and forget the bad. Moreover, following an objective assessment of reliability during obedience trials, failed exercises are frequently dismissed as bad luck.

In reality, no dog is perfect; each dog fails a certain percentage of the time. For example, to estimate your dog's percentage reliability for competitive obedience, average scores over the past year and divide by two. Very few dogs average over 97%, even when performing a well-rehearsed choreography. The Sit Test magnifies problems that occur in competition, when the dog's immaculate obedience or conformation patterns break down because of minor variations in proceedure, or distractions in the environment, e.g., applause from an adjoining ring, or a photographer tossing a lure.

Even minor changes in routine can produce dramatic decreases in reliability. For example, it is easy to demonstrate that an OTCh dog doesn't really know what "Sit" means. Dogs are extremely fine discriminators. If the dog has been taught to "Sit" for supper in the kitchen, or to heel-sit and front and finish in obedience class, that's precisely what the dog learns -- to sit in the kichen and in class. The same dog may occasionally not sit in the obedience ring, while playing in the park, or while greeting visitors at the front door. The dog must be trained in an infinite number of situations for it to generalise the "Sit" command to all instances. (This is in marked contrast to people, many of whom will generalise at the drop of a hat - sometimes from a single experience).

To illustrate, I devised a simple test a Sit Test -- nothing fancy, no bizarre or frightening distractions, just minor variations in what the dog expects. I chose "Sit" because it is the easiest command to teach a dog and probably the first command that many dogs learn. Also, using "Sit" enables Novice, Open, Utility and pet-trained dogs to compete in the same test.

Sit Test Ia

The Sit Test is simple - on a signal from the judge, the dog is instructed to sit in eight different exercises. To obtain a perfect score in each exercise, the handler must say the dog's name followed by a single command (or signal) to sit, and the dog must sit within one second, within one dog length and remain in position for at least three seconds. Each exercise scores a maximum of 25 points (total = 200) and the dog is judged only on its responsiveness to the handlers "Sit" commands.

Scoring is similarly simple. A single point is deducted for:

  • Each additional command (or signal) given by the handler
  • Each additional second required for the dog to sit
  • Each additional dog-length moved before the dog sits

In each exercise, scoring does not begin until the handler has given the dog's name followed by the instruction to sit.

1. Sit on Heel

Whilst heeling the dog at normal speed, on cue from the judge the handler shall instruct the dog to "Sit." Before, during and after giving the command, the handler must keep moving at the same pace. There shall be substantial deductions for slowing down (-5) or stopping (-10).

2. Signal Sit

Whilst heeling the dog, when ready the handler shall instruct the dog to "Stand." The handler may halt while standing the dog and further instruct the dog to "Stay" before walking to the other side of the ring and turning to face the dog. On cue from the judge, the handler shall signal (or request) the dog to "Sit."

3. Sit for Examination

The handler shall instruct the dog to "Stand" and "Stay" and when ready, shall walk six feet away and turn to face the dog. On cue from the judge, the handler shall instruct the dog to "Sit."

4. Sit on Recall

The handler shall instruct the dog to "Sit" and "Stay" and when ready, shall walk away about 35 feet and turn to face the dog. On cue from the judge, the handler shall instruct the dog to "Come" and when it reaches the halfway point, the handler shall instruct the dog to "Sit."

5. Sit-stay Sit

All handlers shall instruct their dogs to "Sit" and "Stay" in a line along one side of the ring and when ready, all walk to the other side of the ring and turn to face their dogs. One at a time, on cue from the judge, each handler shall instruct his/her dog to "Sit."

6. Out of Sight Sit

All handlers shall stand with eyes closed in a line along one side of the ring. One at a time, a steward shall walk each dog on a loose leash to the other side of the ring and drop the leash on cue from the judge, whereupon the handler shall instruct the dog to "Sit." When the dog sits, onlookers shall praise the dog, "Good dog, Rover."

7. Down-Stay Sit

The handler shall instruct the dog to "Down" and "Stay" in the center of the ring. When ready, the handler shall walk about six feet in front of the dog and lie down with his/her head a couple of inches from the dogs forepaws, i.e., dog and handler both lie in a straight line with the dog prone and the handler supine. On cue from the judge, the handler shall instruct the dog to "Sit."

8. Sit on Head or Hand

The handler shall instruct the dog to "Stand" and "Stay." For small and medium-sized dogs (and/or for large or medium-sized handlers), the handler shall walk about eight feet behind the dog, and lie down in a supine position with one arm extended and the hand lying palm upwards between the dog's hind legs. For large dogs, the handler shall walk six feet in front of the dog and assume a supine position (as in #7) with the handler's head in front of the dogs forepaws. The handler shall wriggle backwards, such that the handler's head passes between the dogs forelegs and hindlegs until the handler can look up and view the dog's rear end. On cue from the judge, the handler shall instruct the dog to "Sit." To obtain a perfect score in this test, a small dog must deposit its posterior on the handler's palm, and a large dog must sit on the handler's head.

The undisputed winner of the first Sit Test, (held in March 1988 at an Albany Obedience Club workshop in New York), was Labrador Retriever, Cassidy's Kid Underfoot, CDX, owned and superbly handled by Sandy Miller. In subsequent tests, Lynda Barber's Chesapeake Bay Retriever, Ch. Eastern Water's Sanderling Op, CDX just beat Michele Heater's Malamute, Ch. Mai Tai Natashquan, CD in Anchorage, Alaska. And Bulldog, Chug-A-Bug De Bowag (owned by Dunning Idle IV) blew away the competition at a Blue Springs N' Katydid workshop in Denver.

One of the best responses I have ever seen was Suzi Bluford's Golden Retriever, Ch. Dasu's Better Mousetrap UD WC, on the Sit on Recall. When the "Sit" command was given, predictably, Trapper went down like a ton of bricks, but... before his elbows and sternum hit the deck, he sprung up into a solid "Sit-stay." What does this illustrate? Like many competition dogs Trapper had been pattern trained, but... he had also been taught to pay attention to the handler's instructions. And with a different instruction, he immediately modified the default pattern.

The humane objective of the Sit Test is to illustrate that unreliable responses usually stem from the dog simply not understanding familiar instructions in unusual (unproofed) settings. Rather than punishing the dog, the intelligent and caring owner would go back and retrain. Bear this in mind when performing the Sit Test. The Sit Test is meant to be a learning experience - to help demonstrate exactly how the dog interprets basic obedience commands. It is important not to get upset or exasparated with the dog's creative improvisations. For example, in Exercise #7, not only will many dogs not sit, but also, some dogs will get quite silly and lick and paw and jump on the supine owner.

Just put yourself in your dog's shoes for once and the explanation becomes clear: How many commands have you taught your dog from the supine position? Probably just two -- "Get Lost" and "Playtime." Accordingly, many dogs selectively attend to contextural cues, (e.g., owner lying down), rather than the spoken instruction, and they respond with friendly appeasement and/or play-solicitation guestures. Exasparation will only increase the dog's confusion and need to exspress deference, i.e., by licking and pawing.

To make the test a pleasant learning and proofing experience, if the dog does not respond appropriately, simply stand up, gently touch the dog's collar and calmly ask the dog to "Sit" once more. The dog will quickly learn by anticipation, "Ahh Ha! when they do that funny stuff, they always tell me to "Sit" afterwards. Hell! I'm an eager-to-please critter, I'm going to sit when they do that funny stuff, i.e., when the handler instructs the dog to "Sit" in a slightly different manner or situation.

The Sit Test is not a single test but a concept. In addition to Sit Test Ia, we have Sit Tests Ib, IIa and so forth, and Down Tests, Stand Tests, Recall Tests, Heel Tests, Retrieve Tests and Jump Tests, etc. For example, during Exercise #8, many dogs will break their "Stand-stay" if the owner simply lies down behind the dog. It is vital to proof for reliability and to motivate a dog before pattern-training for obedience or conformation. Otherwise, by attempting to proof a pattern, repeated reprimands will erode the dog's spirit for competition and eventually destroy the pattern, e.g., slow recalls will be followed by no recalls!

Pattern training vs. reliability -- often mutually exclusive, but need not be. Most people teach the pattern and then proof the dog for reliability This sequence has two significant drawbacks. Proofing involves reprimands, which progressively erode the dog's spirit. During training, the dog is punnished by the handler for making mistakes when performing a patterned exercise, or after completing an exercise, (especially those patterns which involve the dog staying close to the handler, or the handler returning to the dog, or the dog returning to the handler, i.e., every single AKC obedience exercise). As training `progresses', performing the pattern and the handler's proximity become less enjoyable - evidenced by inhibited and dulled performances. The obedience commands quickly become the contingent cues for punnishment, such that an otherwise happy-go-lucky dog becomes depressed during obedience workouts and competition. The dog loses lustre and then eventually, the dog loses the pattern altogether, e.g., slow retrieves are followed by failiure to retrieve at all. Elementary retraining and motivational training now become essential to reestablish the dog's reliability and joie de vivre for competitive obedience.

An additional drawback of pattern-training before establishing reliability is that the dog appears to be pattern perfect until unproofed distractions occur. Usually the dog exits the pattern and scores a duck-egg, since the dog has not been trained to enter the pattern at different points under any eventuality. Under adverse circumstances, most dogs would not comprehend an additional command mid-exercise, even if it were given.

Whether in competition, or real life, it is much better to give an additional instruction (and lose a few points), than fail the entire exercise. By inverting the training sequence and ensuring reliabilty and motivation are assured before ever introducing it to a formal exercise, substantially reduces the number of reprimands and corrections that occur during each pattern because the dog is less likely to make mistakes, i.e., the dog is taught the command-concept with similar, but informal, commands such as "Come Here", "Come Along", "Wait" and "Fetch", before it is taught formal obedience exercises, such as "Front", "Heel", "Stay" and "Retrieve". Should any problems arise, it is vital to immediately excise the problem from the pattern, (so as not to damage the pattern with excessive corrections), solve the problem and then reinsert the now reliable behavior back into the undamaged pattern.

Ian Dunbar
copyright 1990 Ian Dunbar


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