I shouldn't have listened to that sneaky little P+ voice at the back of my head: "She knows how to sit; this is unacceptable!" and so I pushed her butt down, hard. In other similar instances too I used excessive force and was basically a brute, because I was tired/hungry/cranky or whatever and decided to take out my frustration on my dog. And so I poisoned my cues.
(That little paragraph was really hard to write! Still, if I gave Sylvie a milk bone for every friendly Lab that's gotten pronged for sniffing at my purse full of treats then I'd have one fat little dog. But that's neither here nor there.)
Sylvie's cued sits have always been a little slow, a little hesitant, a little shifty-eyed. But recently they've really fallen apart, after I started making her sit for 10 seconds as a time-out, as P- for barking at someone or forging ahead on her leash. In hindsight, maybe it wasn't a good idea to turn "sit" into a punishment, but there was some shred of logic to it, once upon a time: I was worried that I'd built a chain out of pulling ahead on the leash and coming back to heel (actually, some jerk made me feel bad by saying I'd trained a yoyo dog) so I started making Sylvie sit for 10 seconds each time she pulled... or barked at a person... or displeased me in any way at all. Until before I knew it, I'd conditioned the single most commonly-used dog command into a punisher.
I began to have second thoughts after stumbling upon Katie Bartlett's website, www.equineclickertraining.com, which has some excellent articles that transcend barriers of species. She quotes a talk given by Karen Pryor at ClickerExpo 2009, on neuroscience and clicker-training, in which Karen explains how "all the benefits of the primitive path of conditioned reinforcers--rapid learning, long retention, elation and joy--can be built into our cues as well as our clicks." (It's at equineclickertraining.com/articles/clickerexpo2009_new.html.) I thought of how Sylvie's recall cue makes her light up with elation and joy, when she comes bounding over to me with her shining eyes and toothy grin. And she'll turn away from ducks, and she'll jump through briars and brambles, and she'll come to me even when her nose is six inches out of another dog's butt. (Yeah I like to show off at the park.) But when I ask her to sit at the curb she sniffs the ground and looks away. This won't do.
Also, I've been teaching her to play patty-cake for her latest trick, and I finally could not ignore her yawning and licking each time I said sit to set her up. I couldn't keep a high rate of reinforcement either, with her sniffing the ground between each trial. So tonight I stuffed my pockets with foul-smelling liver treats and set out to capture some sits. Sylvie seemed almost skeptical at first, and offered some pretty great variations on the theme: rolling on one haunch, thumping her back feet like a jackrabbit while she sat, etc etc, but she figured the game out pretty quick. Her tail was going nuts and she really looked like she was laughing at me. I trained her new sit the right way, doing all the things I'd skipped the first time because by the time I got really interested in dog training of course my dog already knew how to sit. (And if she appeared to have forgotten, I'd just push her butt down, hard. Why not, I thought, not once considering how I'd feel if a 20-foot giant with a rope around my neck reached over me and shoved me down onto the ground.)
People will still tell her to sit randomly: at the groomer's, at my work, house guests, and even my little 4-year-old neighbor after asking if she can give the puppy a treat. They seem to assume that all dogs are born with an innate understanding of that word. No other dog-cue carries this assumption, except perhaps "come", and "down" when it means 'remove your paws from my body and put them down on the ground.' For her new sit-cue I chose "doggy", because it's something else that strangers tend to coo at her. (And what a well-behaved dog she will be when she somehow knows to sit without even being told!) She's picked it out from other discriminative stimuli so quickly. I went through all the variations of Ian Dunbar's "sit test", and even started working on distance, which I'd never done before--the old behavior had been unstable at three feet away, so it broke right down from farther away. I don't expect her to remember everything she showed me but I'll be happy to teach it all again tomorrow. This is going to help our relationship so much. She has to sit at every door and every curb, and each sit was poisoned by the threat of punishment. Her life should be significantly less stressful. Maybe her interactions with strangers will feel safer too, if she can hear a good, solid, R+ -based cue from them instead of an ambiguous command (once I teach her to generalize to other people's voices, of course.) She can sit without having the order barked at her, and we'll all be happier, and the world will be a better place.
The next behavior to heal will be lying down. Just imagine how that one could get ruined by displays of anger and excessive force. I haven't used a verbal "down" cue in ages, only situational cues, because when I tried to shape speed and accuracy in response to "down", Sylvie would run from the room. "Bring it" is also severely poisoned: forcing an object into a dog's mouth and then clamping its muzzle shut is no way to teach a retrieve. On the basis of that last sentence I probably should not be trusted with living things; I should be given a pet rock, which will sit and lie down obediently without ever needing to learn any cues. But somehow my "leave it" cue still makes Sylvie's tail wag despite being grounds for similar abuse, perhaps because of the times when tearing after a squirrel together was the reward for leaving it, or the hours Sylvie has spent sitting in my lap at my desk, where she knows she must not lick my face or my hands but still likes to put her nose very very close to them and then pull back wagging happily, several times, before making a sneak attack. So maybe I can be trusted with mammals after all. Anyway, I like Sylvie's happy new "doggy" sits, and maybe I'll call her new down "pancake."