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Should we be teaching our puppy to sit?

Training a dog to ‘sit’ has manifested into an everyday interaction between dogs and their owners and is taught in every puppy and dog obedience class across the world. Owners are encouraged by professionals to ask their dog to sit in almost any context as a way to manage their puppies behaviour. There is no doubt that training behaviour is important to help our puppies succeed in our human world but we must also consider how a puppy’s body is built and what it is designed to tolerate and not tolerate.

A ‘sit’ seems like such a simple and natural action and you may argue why do puppies sit if it could potentially cause damage? The question is not about the action of sit and stand but the unnatural repetitiveness of the actions, being requested by traditional training methods.

An ongoing study that is being performed by Lyubov Elupova and other students of Turid Rugaas (International Dog Trainer) is involved with counting the times that dogs sit naturally, in a 24 hour period. Preliminary results have found that if dogs are not ‘asked’ to sit, they are sitting less times by choice in a 24 hour period, than they were when they were asked or told to sit. Puppies that are told to sit up to 10 times a day, may only sit naturally 3-4 times a day or less.

Also, initial results show that there could be a specific breed or breed type connection that has an effect on the number of times they sit in a day. To date their study has shown that hounds choose not to sit, at all.

There is no doubt that dogs and puppies are anatomically designed to sit. However, if puppies are habitually and unnaturally asked to sit, the loading on their body could have an accumulative effect as they progress into adulthood. Especially if we add other potential environmental factors that can also cause damage such as running on slippery floors and repeatedly jumping on and off a sofa .

To put a human perspective on this, most primary school age children are happy to sit on a floor cross legged, less adults would be as comfortable adopting such a pose for any length of time. So as adults we can choose not to sit in this position.

However our dogs are not given this choice because of the conditioning to go into a sit from puppyhood. We teach our dogs to routinely sit throughout the day, before being fed, sitting at a kerbside, before receiving a treat etc. As a dog ages this conditioned response continues because they associate a sit with all of these behaviours so they continue to offer it despite any discomfort which they might feel.

Loading issues, or anatomical imbalance is something Galen Myotherapy specialises in managing and treating. When a dog’s body is unbalanced, it creates imbalance through the body, causing uneven stresses and therefore wear and tear on specific structures of their body. Having seen and treated these issues for nearly twenty years on thousands of dogs, we are very conscious of potential events where actions can cause damaging overloading conditions, especially in the developing dog.

To understand the impacts of a sit let's look at the biomechanical action of a stand to sit, and sit to stand in an adult dog with no known underlying issues.

The biomechanics of stand to sit

The stars indicate where the main forces are being driven, static, rotational, and kinetic.

When a dog sits, they must hold their weight against gravity during the process.

The large percentage of that load and canter-lever force goes through their elbow. They tend to dominate one elbow rather than equally spread the load.

There is also a load through the neck and shoulders using eccentric contraction (muscles having to hold a load and allow a controlled muscle fibre release), excessive challenge can be damaging to muscle fibres.

The elbow is really talking the load to ease the settling into a seated position, that will release the loading.

The knee of stifle is now taking up some of the stress and load, as it the carpus or wrists of both the front legs.

The neck now takes up some of the load, but the elbow continues to brace the body whilst the pelvic region meets the ground in a sit.

At this point the elbow is still bearing weight, even though the dog looks like she has sat, she has not fully settled her bottom on the ground.

If we now look at this final stage of the sit more closely you’ll see that the dog goes almost from a hover (5), then settles onto the ‘seat bone’ of the pelvis (6). When the bottom finally settles onto the ground, there is a large forward thrust from the tibia towards and into the stifle joint, that also impacts in the hip, until the weight is fully settled onto the ground.

From the images above you can see the main forces are being driven and the areas of the body which are being loaded when a dog sits, with a large percentage of the load going through the leading elbow. Now let's look at the biomechanics of sit to stand.

The biomechanics of sit to stand

The dominant elbow takes up the load. Other areas are preparing to lift the body off the ground.

The body here must support itself fully against gravity and swing itself forwards into a stand. The elbow, the wrist, the stifle, and hip all are under massive load and kinetic force.

The pelvic region and lower back is supporting the body as the fore quarters start to take more of the load and the forwards trajectory into the initial stride, which will be taken up by the dominant elbow, until the body is standing on all four legs and can balance the weight and load.

We can see that once again the dominant elbow takes a large percentage of the load during this action and as with most physical activities, it is the repetitive nature of the action that can be detrimental. With puppies in particular their skeleton is developing and their skeletal structure grows quicker than their associated musculature soft tissue attachments. Therefore, for a puppy with proportionally less developed muscles, especially over the hindquarters, will find it difficult to push themselves up from a sit; they will have to adjust their hind limb position to aid and create the required drive and force. (They do this by drawing the hind legs and feet closer together, to combine strength). However, much of the force and drive will be also driven through the forequarters or forelimbs.

To conclude I think it is responsible for us, as dog owners, to be aware of what we’re training our puppies to do, as well awareness of their environment and activity levels, that may be having a negative impact on their physicality which will affect them in later life.

Any injury or damage to a puppy’s body, however small, will have a lifelong impact on its construction and therefore function. Physical overloading and stresses in a body can promote joint problems; and according to Canine Arthritis Management C.A.M., ‘4 out of 5 dogs older dogs will be affected by arthritis’.


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