The Sit Test

Hogo Guilty as Charged.jpg

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 basic training, proofing and reliability-testing. Many trainers have an inflated view of their dogs' reliability because during practice, performance reliability is assessed by subjective means and the trainer tends to remember the good and forget the bad. Moreover, following an objective assessment of reliability during obedience trials or any kind of standardized testing, 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, have your dog come and Sit-Down-Sit-Stand-Down-Stand 20 times in a row and then calculate your dog’s Command:Response Ratio and Percentage Reliability for each of the six position changes.  If your dog requires a second command for any of the 20 repetitions, percentage reliability is now 95% or less.

The original Sit Test was designed to magnify problems that occur during competition obedience training. Invariably dogs are pattern trained and often performance reliability breaks down with minor variations in procedure, or distractions in the environment. Even minor changes in routine can produce dramatic decreases in reliability. For example, it is easy to demonstrate that an Obedience Trial Champion dog doesn't really even understand 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 kitchen and during specific exercises 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 in order to generalize that "Sit" always means sit.

To illustrate what dogs understand and what they don’t understand, I devised a number of simple tests. The first was 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, probably the first command that many dogs learn, and the command that everyone is convinced that their dog “knows”.

Sit Test 101
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 two seconds, within one dog length, and remain in sitting position for at least three seconds. Each exercise scores a maximum of 25 points (total = 200) and the dog is judged only on his responsiveness to the handler’s "Sit" commands. Scoring is similarly simple. A single point is deducted for a) each additional command (or signal) given by the handler, b) each additional second required for the dog to sit, and c) for 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 — While 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 — While heeling the dog at normal speed, on cue from the judge, 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 ten yards away 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 ten yards and turn to face the dog. On cue from the judge, the handler shall instruct the dog to "Come" and when he reaches the halfway point, the handler shall instruct the dog to "Sit".
5. Sit-Stay Sit — The handler shall instruct the dog to "Sit" and "Stay" and when ready, walk ten yards away and turn to face the dog. On cue from the judge, the handler shall instruct the dog to "Sit".
6. Out of Sight Sit — The handler shall stand with eyes closed and back tuned to the dog. The judge holds the dog on a loose leash. On cue from the judge, the handler shall instruct the dog to "Sit". When the dog sits, the judge shall praise the dog, "Good dog, Rover".
7. Down-Stay Sit — The handler shall instruct the dog to "Down" and "Stay". When ready, the handler shall walk about six feet in front of the dog and lie down with arms crossed over the chest. Thus, both dog and handler lie down in a straight line, with the dog prone and the handler supine and with just two inches between the handler’s head and the dog’s muzzle. On cue from the judge, the handler shall instruct the dog to "Sit".
8. Sit on Hand — The handler shall instruct the dog to "Stand" and "Stay". 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. On cue from the judge, the handler shall instruct the dog to "Sit".

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 III) 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 — during the Sit on Recall, when the "Sit" command was given, predictably, obedience-trained Streaker 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, Streaker 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 (un-proofed) settings. Rather than punishing the dog for “disobedience”, 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 exasperated with the dog's creative improvisations. For example, in Exercise #7, not only will many dogs not sit, but some dogs will get quite silly and lick and paw and jump on the supine owner. Just put yourself in your dog's paws and the explanation becomes clear. How many commands have you taught your dog from the supine position? Probably just two — "Sleepy-Time" and "Playtime". Accordingly, many dogs selectively attend to contextural cues (owner lying down) rather than the spoken instruction, and they respond by snoozing , or with play-solicitation.

The Sit Test is to make you reevaluate training and especially, to make you reconsider whether you should reprimand a dog for not complying. Is the dog’s lack of response due to intentional disobedience, or because he simply does not understand the specific instruction in a slightly unusual setting — because you have not trained him? For example, in Exercise #6, if the dog does not respond when your back is turned and the dog is barely six feet away, what makes you think that he would respond when he is fifty yards away, with his back turned and running after a rabbit. How any times have you proofed his response without eye-contact, or at a distance?
To make the test a pleasant proofing and learning experience, if your dog does not respond appropriately, immediately stand up, face the dog and calmly ask and signal him to "Sit" once more. The dog will quickly learn by anticipation, "Ahh Ha! When they do that funny stuff, they always signal me to "Sit" afterwards. After just a few trials, your dog will now sit in the silly setting.

The Sit Test is not a single test but a concept. In addition to Sit Test 101, we have Sit Tests 201, 301 and so forth, plus 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" when you simply lie down behind your dog. And of course, if your dog breaks a stay when you lie down, obviously it would be unfair to get on his case if he breaks his stay around children, who spend a large amount of time rolling on the ground. It is vital to proof for reliability in all sorts of settings.

This article is based on Dr. Dunbar's Behavior column in the June 1990 issue of the American Kennel Gazette. Reprinted with the permission of the author and the American Kennel Club.

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