When Sit Doesn’t Mean S*it.

Science killed another myth today.

This one has been around for a while and is almost universally accepted by shelter staff, rescue folks and dog trainers alike (including me). This is the belief that I am talking about:

Shelter dogs who have been trained to sit on command are viewed more positively by potential adopters and are more likely to be adopted into homes.” 

Makes perfect sense, of course. The “sit” command is usually one of the first things that owners teach to their new dog and is used by many trainers as the alternate behavior to reinforce not jumping up. As such, “sit” appears to have become the universal barometer for good dog behavior.

Sit Ubu

It has also become an informal litmus test for measuring shelter dog adoptability. The assumption that responding to a sit command enhances a dog’s prospects for adoption has become so commonplace that it has led to the development of shelter programs that train adoptable dogs to sit (among other commands). The goals of these programs are to increase adoption rates for the dogs who are so trained.

While there is absolutely nothing not to like about shelter programs that increase dogs’ interactions with people and introduce (positive) training, the assumption that they rest upon, that obedience training increases adoptability, has not been clearly demonstrated. Intuitively, I think most dog professionals (including myself) have believed that it does.

However, what does the science say?

Going to try science

Recently Alexandra Protopopova of Texas Tech University (and formerly of the University of Florida) and Clive Wynne of the University of Arizona teamed up to study the relationship between dogs’ morphology (appearance), their in-kennel behavior, and their length of stay in the shelter prior to adoption. Here is what they found:

It’s more about misbehaving: A group of 289 dogs living at a county animal shelter in Florida were videotaped for one minute daily throughout their stay (1). The one-minute time frame was selected because prior research has shown that potential adopters view a dog for only 20 to 70 seconds before moving on to the next dog. Videotaping took place as one or two visitors, behaving either passively (not interacting with the dog) or actively (interacting with the dog) visited the front of the kennel. Behaviors were classified using a validated ethogram composed of 41 standardized actions. The number of days that the dog remained at the shelter prior to adoption was used as a measure of adoptability. Results: Independently of appearance, several behaviors were significantly correlated with longer shelter stays (decreased adoptability). These included leaning passively on the kennel wall without interacting with the observer (+ 30 days), facing away from the observer  (+ 15 days), and frequent movement of shifting back and forth (pacing/stereotypies) (+ 24 days). Conversely, neither sitting for greeting nor showing eye contact influenced how long a dog was at the shelter prior to adoption.

These results suggest that kennel behaviors that reflect fear or a lack of sociability are more predictive of a dog’s likelihood for adoption than are trained behaviors such as sitting to greet or offering eye contact. 

science to the rescue

Protopopova and Wynne then did what all good dog researchers do. They ran a follow-up pair of experiments to find out how best to reduce the behaviors in kenneled dogs that were shown to contribute to increased shelter stays (2).

Experiment 1: The first experiment was a pilot study to determine the effectiveness of response-dependent and response-independent treat delivery as methods to reduce the undesirable kennel behaviors identified previously. Twenty-four shelter dogs were randomly assigned to one of three experimental groups, (1) Response-independent group; the appearance of a person was paired with a treat, regardless of the dog’s behavior; (2) Response-dependent group; the experimenter Differentially Reinforced “Other” [DRO] behaviors that were incompatible with the unwanted behaviors; (3) Control; no treat delivery. Exp. 1 Results: Interestingly, they found that both treat delivery methods reduced undesirable behaviors in the kenneled dogs, with no statistical difference found between the two methods. (The control dogs continued to show undesirable behaviors).

Experiment 2:  Their second experiment tested the effectiveness of the response-independent method on the entire kennel of shelter dogs. Different sections of the kennel area were used as the treatment group (visitor to kennel predicts treat) and control group (visitor does not predict treat). Between 56 and 70 dogs were enrolled each day of the 14-day experiment period. Exp. 2 Results: More than 40 percent of the shelter population regularly engaged in undesirable kennel behaviors at the start of the study. Within a few days, simply pairing the appearance of a visitor with treat delivery led to…..wait for it……a 68 % reduction in undesirable behaviors in the group of dogs as a whole.

Trainers and shelter staff everywhere should be excited about these results. While DRO is a technique that many trainers regularly use (a common example is teaching a dog to offer “sit” for greeting as an alternate behavior to jumping up), its use in a shelter environment is labor-intensive and not always feasible. However, simply pairing the appearance of a staff person with treat delivery, without requiring the treat to be contingent on the dog’s behavior is a rapid and simple technique that can be easily incorporated into daily shelter routines.

Does Sit Matter? Recently, a graduate student at Emporia State University in Kansas tested potential adopters’ inclination to adopt a dog based upon whether or not the dog sat on command (3). Her study asked a group of 79 college students to interact with a dog who they believed to be available for adoption at a local shelter. Participants were randomly assigned to a dog and then either visited with the dog as he/she sat in response to a handler’s command or interacted with the dog naturally, with no commands given to the dog. Participants then completed a questionnaire regarding their interest in adopting the dog. Results: A person’s willingness to adopt the dog that they visited with was not influenced by whether or not the dog sat on command. Similar to Protopopova’s study, sitting on command was not related to potential adoption success.

Bottom line, while responding to a sit command is a great behavior to have in our dogs, sit may not mean (much) in terms of helping shelter dogs who are looking for their forever homes.

Chip Cooper Vinny Ally Aunt Betty Pond

SITS ARE GREAT, BUT EVIDENCE SUGGESTS THEY DO NOT ENHANCE ADOPTION RATES

Take Away for Dog Folks

Sad as it may seem, when it comes to a dog’s behavior, potential adopters appear to be more concerned with avoiding dogs who demonstrate behaviors that they don’t like rather than seeking dogs who show behaviors that they do like (such as responding to sit). The good news in this story is that the behaviors that people generally avoid (and which may signal a lack of sociability on the dog’s part), were demonstrated to be reduced in a substantial number of dogs without the need for a detailed and labor-intensive training program. This is classical conditioning at its best folks. Pair the approach of a visitor with yummy treats (visitor predicts treat) and over time, the appearance of a person flips the dog’s emotional response from apathy/distraction/fear to happiness, joy and interaction. The fact that the researchers improved in-kennel behaviors that were related to poor adoption rates in almost 70 percent of dogs using a simple, non-contingent procedure of food delivery is an enormously important bit of evidence. And it is evidence that can and should be used to encourage shelters everywhere to invest in treat pouches, arm their workers with a pouchful of yummy goodness and get going.

Don’t get me wrong. I personally think that training shelter dogs is a great thing. Shelter programs that teach dogs to sit, down, and walk nicely on lead are to be commended for their work and certainly should continue. However, the current science suggests that this type of training may not be as essential as we once believed and that it may not influence adoption rates. Paying more attention to reducing unwanted kennel behaviors is not only simpler, but it may be more effective as an approach to reducing shelter stays and helping dogs to be adopted into forever homes.

Cited Studies:

  1. Protopopova A, Mehrkam LR, Boggess MM, Wynne CDL. In-kennel behavior predicts length of stay in shelter dogs. PLOS One; 2014; DOI:10.1371/journal.pone.0114319.
  2. Protopopova A, Wynne CDL. Improving in-kennel presentation of shelter dogs through response-dependent and response-independent treat delivery. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis 2015; 48:1-12.
  3. Hajek V. The Effect of Watching a Large or Small Pseudo Shelter Dog Sit on Command on College Students’ Self-rated Willingness to Adopt. Master’s Thesis, Emporium University, 53 pp. 2016.

29 thoughts on “When Sit Doesn’t Mean S*it.

  1. As a rescuer, I think (although I have absolutely no science to back up my opinion) that training pays off after the adoption (not during the adoption process itself). Dogs that fit “seamlessly” into the home, don’t pull on the leash, and respond to basic obedience cues (such as “sit”) may be more likely to stay in the home (rather than be returned to the shelter or rescue group). Just my opinion, so not worth a great deal.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Hi Jan – Great point! I too would intuitively think that this training would help dogs to stay in their homes. (And again, personally, any program/person that works with shelter dogs in a positive way is a good program/person in my view!). Thanks for posting!

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  2. The follow-up study I would love to see: Does teaching shelter dogs “sit, down, come and walk on a loose leash” influence whether the match is successful?

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I agree with the two comments above. The study is about improving the first impression dogs make on potential adopters. However, that is just the first step of “adoptability”… The next is fitting in and staying in their new homes! and if training prior to adoption helps with that (which I intuitively suspect it might), then training is still essential

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  4. Good stuff, and all open access !

    Isn’t is about interaction with the prospective adopter ?;dogs that interact are preferred. A dog who obeys a command from shelter staff is not interacting with its prospective adopter – it’s a bit like asking people whether they like someone who talks to other people; they probably would like them more than someone silent, but nowhere near as much as someone who talks to them.

    What would happen, I wonder, if a dog were to sit (or anything) on command from a prospective adopter ?

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    • Good point Peter. (It was only the small MS thesis study that had a handler ask the dog to sit, though. In Alexandra’s studies, they were just measuring behaviors as the visitor approached the front of the kennel). As with any study, there area always limitations in study design, size, practical constraints, etc. Linda Case

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      • Wynne references several studies in which the dog obeyed shelter staff, and you mention these yourself. You will have heard the cowboy saying; “If you think you are a person of some importance, try giving orders to someone else’s dog” – maybe a shelter dog that obeys shelter staff is seen by prospective adopters as being someone else’s, cancelling out the positive effects of seeing that the dog knows at least one useful thing ?

        Liked by 1 person

  5. I see several problems with these studies. One I will mention is the later discussed with 79 college students as one of the defining points. Of course college students didn’t care about training. Most young people don’t understand the importance of basic training, rules, boundaries and so on and see “cute, fluffy…” and see “wrestle, over excitement…” as the markers.
    hardily do I consider a poorly designed study the definitive on science.

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    • Wow. That’s harsh. The last study to which you refer was the MS thesis of a student (who, BTW, is a KPA-certified trainer), who subsequently has graduated, so did meet the requirements of her university program. Many psychology research studies use students as participants; this is not unusual at all. Moreover, her research committee at the university signed off on her study, so they clearly thought it had at least a modicum of merit. Last, the first set of studies were conducted by Dr. Clive Wynne and Dr. Alexandra Protopopova, both respected researchers in canine behavior/training and their papers were published in academic journals, the second of which is peer-reviewed. Of course, no study is without limitations (which are also addressed in their papers), and the researchers certainly did not overstate their results in their works. (I try to not overstate results, but any misunderstanding regarding these data are on me, not the researchers). Linda Case

      Liked by 2 people

  6. Very cool. This comment isn’t intended to diminish the results, one unintended consequence of using a protocol like this (if it wasn’t implemented with constraints) is that it increases the number of opportunities for a visitors’ hands to be in close proximity to the dogs’ teeth (assuming that potential adopters, and not just kennel staff, will be distributing treats as they approach the available dogs).

    If treats are tossed into the enclosure that isn’t a problem, but it is an attractive nuisance for visitors to try and hand feeds dogs if the cage allows it. If a well-meaning visitor is trying to coax a dog to take a treat out of their hand (or from their fingers between the kennel wires), this could end badly. More a reason to educate and restrict it to tossing the treat, not an indictment against the practice.

    Very informative. Thank you

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    • Hi Nathan, Thanks for your comment. A very good point, indeed. I think that the intent though, was not necessarily to have potential adopters conduct the response-independent training, but rather the shelter staff. Regardless, according to Dr. Protopopova’s following study (see her comments below), changing the undesirable in-kennel behaviors via this approach did not significantly impact adopter behavior (i.e. they did not spend more time with the dogs) or adoption rate. Rather – two other factors (very cool results as well) did! Sasha summarizes these in her note and I plan on writing about this in a blog because they also did some interesting toy preference work in that study as well. Regardless, I think changing the dogs’ behavior using the approach that her paper describes still has some dog welfare benefits, even if they did not see the hoped-for adoption rate changes. Thanks for reading and for your comment! Linda

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  7. Great article and I am all for ANYTHING that helps dogs find forever homes. From personal experience of adopting rescue shelter dogs, it was more important to me how the dog behaved when I took them for a walk on the ‘meet and greet’ day and not how they behaved in the kennel. I don’t think dogs behave naturally in a kennel as it’s not a natural environment, indeed some shelter dogs suffer unbearably confined in kennels and these dogs tend to be the longest stay ones if not lucky enough to be fostered out in a home environment. My advice to anyone looking for a shelter dog would be to try and overlook any reaction to you whilst just peering at it through the wire. Walking and playing with the dog is the only way to tell and what have you got to lose? It is under those circumstances where I feel the ‘sit’ command comes into it’s own and would be endearing to a potential adopter. Well done all you heroes who do invaluable work in shelters, thank you.

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    • Great points, Jenn. See Dr. Protopopova’s comments about her follow-up study, below. Their results are very much in line with what you have experienced. Thanks for all that you are doing to help dogs! Linda

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  8. Linda, thank you very much for highlighting our line of research! It is so wonderful to see that our work is being shared with the people who can benefit from it (shelter volunteers, staff, and trainers). I wanted to share with you guys our recent study, in which we assessed how visitor behavior has changed now that the dogs are trained in the in-kennel pairing procedure described above. Unfortunately, visitor behavior did not change at all! We found that visitors attended to approximately 35% of kenneled dogs and only spent an average of 15 s looking at individual dogs. We found that whereas training was effective in decreasing undesirable behavior in dogs (as we have found previously as well), only morphology influenced visitor behavior. These morphologically-preferred dogs had a 1.3 times higher frequency of visits to their kennel and a 9 times higher frequency of being taken out of their kennel for further inspection.

    My current working hypothesis, based on our sequence of studies, is that there is actually not much we can do in terms of in-kennel training to increase the dog’s chances (people pay A LOT of attention to morphology- if it’s a cute fluffy puppy, it doesn’t matter much what he’s doing in the kennel); however, there is much more that we can do once the visitors have identified the dog(s) that they interested in and have taken them out for further inspection. Here, we found that there were only two behaviors that mattered: lying down in proximity and not ignoring their play attempts. When we experimentally manipulated these two behaviors, we found a large increase in adoption rates!

    As my research interests are all applied and all research is conducted with the goal of assisting animal professionals with their efforts, I would be very happy to provide any additional information or answer any questions anyone has. Please email me (a.protopopova@ttu.edu), I’d love to hear from you!

    Please find the studies here:
    Protopopova, A., & Wynne, C. D. L. (2016). Judging a shelter dog by its cover: Morphology but not training influences visitor behavior towards kenneled dogs. Anthrozoös, 29(3), 469-487.
    Full text: http://bit.ly/2bT6BYz

    Protopopova, A., & Wynne, C. D. L. (2014). Adopter-dog interactions at the shelter: Behavioral and contextual predictors of adoption. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 157, 109-116.
    Full text: http://bit.ly/2bG9ijU

    Protopopova, A., Brandifino, M., & Wynne, C. D. L. (2016). Preference assessments and structured potential adopter-dog interactions increase adoptions. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 176, 87-95.
    Full text: http://bit.ly/2bmp2WR

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Sasha – You are very welcome! Your research is a pleasure to read and is so very valuable! And many thanks for providing the additional information and papers! I had received the assessments paper from you and was really intrigued by the toy preference work that you did in that study – so much so that I wanted to single it out for its own blog essay (coming soon!). We talk about toy preferences and play styles in our classes at AG, so I was excited to see some research about this appearing!

      Regarding the follow-up study: Even though reducing the in-kennel behaviors that were correlated with reduced adoption rates did not change adoption rates (sigh), I imagine that those dogs who were positively affected by the response-independent training did still receive some very valuable welfare and emotional benefits from the training (even if the adopters did not respond to those changes). The new results regarding the factors that did affect adoptions is fascinating and will provide such valuable information for shelter professionals! Thanks again for writing and for providing links to your papers! Linda

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    • Can I widen the focus around these questions ? Overall the aim is for people to adopt dogs rather than not getting a dog at all, or getting a dog from any kind of breeder – to increase the number of dogs in homes, not just the number of dogs.

      As long as the people leave the shelter with a dog, and subsequently keep it, the aim has been met. Which dog they choose does not really matter, and what we have to avoid is that they walk out without one. Is there any work to show the effect of overall dog behaviour in a shelter on its individual dogs’ adoption rates ? In other words do adoptable individual dogs in a shelter with reasonably calm, well-behaved dogs get out of the door quicker than the equivalent dogs in another otherwise similar shelter where most of the dogs are badly behaved (by badly I mean all the behaviours that decrease their individual chances of adoption) ? I can well imagine that walking past rows of withdrawn or frenetically barking dogs would put people off the idea of getting a shelter dog at all.

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      • One thing that may be relevant is that the training in our last study was conducted by side of shelter. In other words, one side (e.g. front) of the shelter would get the training while the other side (back) would not. Then the sides would switch. A visitor would only see one side at a time when they would walk around the shelter. We thought that this would be a better way of assessing the kind of thing you are talking about rather than using multiple shelters (which introduces additional variables). Unfortunately, we did not see any effects. We did not find that people spent more time or asked to take more dogs out in the “trained” side.

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        • Thanks Alexandra

          Was it EO Wilson who said that counterintuitive results provide the lost powerful tests of hypotheses ? – yours are certainly profoundly counterintuitive. Why on Earth would people not prefer a trained dog, among other well-behaved dogs ? I suspect that human behaviour, not dog behaviour, is the key to whether or not dogs get adopted.

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  9. Jackie Phillips
    I imagine that it is be wonderful to be so convinced in your opinion that you can rudely dismiss anyone who disagrees with you – it must save you from ever having to think. Since you have all the answers to getting dogs adopted maybe you can tell us which shelter you work at, and what its adoption rate is.

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  10. Pingback: does respond to a sit command enhances a dog&rs...

  11. We use the Open Paw training method at our shelter and has made a huge difference. Getting the dogs to come to the front of the kennel, and sit or stand without barking or jumping on their cage bars. Open Paw uses the treat for good behavior methods mentioned above. Highly recommend it.

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  12. Pingback: If Sit Doesn’t Matter, What Does? – The Science Dog

  13. Pingback: Happy New Year from The Science Dog! (The 2017 Pet Blogger Challenge) – The Science Dog

  14. This doesn’t mean that teaching manners like “sit” is a waste of time. The constant high energy, excessive barking and strangers going in and out can cause many dogs to exhibit those “unwanted behaviors”. By implementing sit, (and quiet kennel) you greatly reduce those stress factors. In a calmer environment, dogs are more likely to be engaged or at least not cowering in fear. Plus, you are offering those dogs an alternative behavior with positive associations (sit=treat), giving them more confidence and engaging them. Also, another behavior that may prevent adoption, not mentioned but often seen, is a dog that races to the front of the cage, barks excessively, jumps up and down. This dog is often a turnoff because people see it as needing a LOT of work. Teaching that dog basic manners reduces those out of control behaviors. And I would bet any money that teaching quiet kennel and sit on approach increased the amount of time that potential adopters spend in the ward because it is a more pleasant experience, they are calmer, and can make less impulse choices.

    While sit may not be part of the criteria that determines adoption, it is a valuable tool in the shelter that enables the fearful, disengaged dogs to come out of their shells by reducing the stress in the ward. It provides alternative behaviors to the dogs with excessive energy.

    Additionally, working on basic behaviors while the dogs are in the shelter provides enrichment, and helps ensure a lower return rate. A volunteer dog training group brings more volunteers to the shelter, giving it wider exposure, getting the word out to a broader audience about the dogs available for adoption. It also creates a more educated public, undoing the misinformation spread by celebrity TV trainers.

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