Sit, Fido, Sit

What’s wrong with the title of this blog post? If you’ve worked with me before, you’ve probably heard me say to give the cue just one time. Say it once. (Not twice like in the title.)

Steps for teaching sit.

The Steps for Training Sit
  1. Lure your dog’s nose up and back with a treat. Head goes up, rear goes down. Give him the treat as soon as his hind end hits the floor. Be sure he always collects the treat in the sit position.
  2. Transition to a hand signal. With your palm up (no treat in your hand), sweep your hand upward from your dog’s nose. As soon as he sits, give him a treat from your other hand.
  3. Make the hand signal smaller and more stylized. The instant he sits, give him a treat from your other hand.
  4. Add the verbal cue. Now that we have enough of the sit behavior, we can name it. Say “sit” one time, pause, then use your small hand signal. Give a treat as soon as your dog sits. Repeat this until your dog jumps ahead and sits after you say “sit” and before you give the hand signal.

What if my dog won’t sit for a food lure?

1. Lure his nose up in the air for 1 second. Give a treat for keeping his nose up.

2. Lure his nose up in the air for 3 seconds.

3. Lure his nose up in the air for 5 seconds.

4. Throughout this process, look for knee bends or partial sits. Immediately deliver a treat if you see them. Continue this process and look for deeper knee bends over time, until the dog is sitting for a lure.

When do I move on to the next step?

  • 4–5 out of 5 = Push. Go to the next step when the dog is successful at least 4 times out of 5 attempts at the current step.
  • 0–2 out of 5 = Drop. Go back to the previous step if the dog is successful 0–2 times out of 5 tries.
  • 3 out of 5 = Stick. Stay on the current step if the dog is successful 3 times out of 5.

I already taught my dog to sit. But, sometimes, he just won’t do it.

Here are some of the common reasons why our dogs may struggle to do what we’ve asked.

  • Dogs don’t generalize well. They can easily be thrown off by changes in the context, such as switching to a new location, a new person asking for the behavior or even a change from the trainer sitting in a chair to the trainer standing up. Practice in a variety of locations, and have other people practice with your dog. Help your dog out by doing an easier version of the exercise (sit for a food lure instead of a verbal cue, for instance) at first. Work your way back up to a more difficult version of the exercise.
  • Distractions. There may be something in the environment that was too big of a distraction. Again, try an easier version, upgrade to a more interesting reinforcer (chicken instead of a dry training treat, or a nice game of tug for those tug-obsessed dogs) or wait to try the exercise until the dog has gotten a bit bored (saturated) with the environment. Build up to a more difficult level of distraction more gradually. If it’s too hard for the dog to sit while on a walk, try on your deck after your dog has sniffed around for 5 minutes.
  • Cue chanting. It’s quite challenging for us humans to refrain from chanting the cue over and over. Why does this matter? By repeating the cue, we wear it out. It becomes irrelevant to the dog, something they’ll start to tune out. That’s exactly the opposite of what we want!
  • Payment dried up. We get rid of unwanted behaviors by setting things up so they stop paying off; those behaviors no longer work for the dog. Again, this is the exact opposite of what we want. Sure, we can eventually get more behavior per reinforcer, but we’ve got to make sure it pays off enough to maintain the behavior we want. We have to make the desired behaviors work for the dog.
  • Fear. Something in the environment may be scary or worrisome to your dog, making it difficult for them to focus on what you’re asking. That scary thing is, understandably, a bigger priority.
  • Physical issues, like pain or illness. It may hurt for your dog to do what you’ve asked. Sitting for long periods of time may be uncomfortable. A reluctance to sit could be an early sign that something’s not quite right.
  • Click here for more on why our dogs don’t always do what we ask. (Link to The Usual Suspects: Dog Training Problems)

Can’t I just push her tooshie down?

Resist the urge to force a dog into a sit by pushing down on their derriere. Being pushed or pulled into a position could be annoying, uncomfortable or painful. Ironically, rather than speeding up the process, the stress created by manhandling a dog into a sit could actually slow things down. There are other potential unintended consequences. A dog could become defensive, turning to aggression or avoidance, in a desperate attempt to get us to stop. It’s better for your dog to sit on her own without you pushing on her.