Working at a shelter, I have witnessed many people’s first moments with their newly adopted pets. And I’ve noticed a trend in humans’ interactions with their new dogs that totally bewilders me. The moment some people have their new pet on a leash and are walking out of the building, they’re shouting commands at it. I’ve seen people walk outside, with a newly adopted and totally over-stimulated dog, and start asking it to sit, even forcing it into a sit. Why? Well, that’s how we humans communicate—with our words. But that doesn’t mean much to dogs. These dogs have no idea who these people are or what the heck they’re shouting about! Even more baffling than the insistence on commanding a new dog to sit, was an owner shouting “heel” at his new pet, followed with exasperated comments about how this dog is already proving himself to be stubborn.
It seems many pet owners believe dogs intrinsically understand certain commands, and it never occurs to them that these dogs, even if they’re older, have to be shown what it is we’re expecting. Heel especially is a difficult and strange command for a green dog, who previously may have never walked on a leash or been asked to engage with a person on that level. Why would that dog want to keep pace with a total stranger? He wants to go explore and this slow-poke is holding him back!
Even if a dog sat showed it could sit for a volunteer, that was in an environment the dog knew, with a person he’s been working with—out in the parking lot with their new owner and they may be too overloaded to perform those commands.
As a new adopter, you could be poisoning a command for your dog by saying it frequently without showing the dog what that word means. Pretty soon “sit” is just another one of the many words your dog learns to tune out because it doesn’t mean anything to him. Or worse if he starts learning “sit” means some guy is going to come over and force my rear end down, the dog could develop an aversion to the command.
So, the lesson here is, don’t expect your new dog to instinctually want to listen to you (a total stranger he has no relationship with) or to have been born the innate knowledge of basic commands. If your dog doesn’t sit, stop saying “sit!” Give him time and work with him to learn the behaviors you expect. And if you’re having trouble? Call a professional!