Whether you believe there are 5 or 7 basic dog commands, “Sit” always makes the list. It is usually the first command taught to a dog.
One immediate benefit is that teaching a dog to sit on command is the beginning of teaching self-control. This is very useful when you say the word “walk” and find yourself trying to attach a leash to a squirming, jumping, barking dog!
Teaching a dog to sit is also an easy introduction to positive reinforcement training. In this post, I will use clicker training to show you how to teach a dog to sit. I describe the overall benefits of using positive reinforcement training in another post. But, if you’re like me, after hearing the theory, you want a clear, concrete example.
Before you start teaching the Sit there are a few decisions to make.
When you say “Sit”, is the dog expected to remain sitting until you either give another command or a release? Or do you have to use the “Stay” command? Should the dog sit in front of you? On your left side? Between your legs? Or should the dog immediately sit wherever they are and whichever direction they are facing?
One of the most important aspects of positive reinforcement training, or really any training, is to know exactly what you are going to accept as successful behavior.
Beginning the Training
Clicker training is a type of marker training. In marker training, we use some type of marker to let the dog know the exact moment that they do what we want them to do.
You don’t have to use a clicker. Some people use a word like “Yes!” or “Great!” when a dog does what they want. Personally, I do ALSO use a word in case I don’t have a clicker at a particular moment, but my primary marker is the clicker.
Over the years I’ve learned to like the absolutely perfect repeatability of things like clickers and whistles. (My dog is trained to come to me when I blow a pealess whistle.) We humans are sometimes excited, sometimes depressed, sometimes tired, sometimes in pain, etc. All these emotions can make subtle changes in our voice.
We might think we are saying the exact same thing every time, but our dogs can hear the difference. So I’m going to describe the use of a clicker. Because that clicker sounds exactly the same every time you press it.
The beginning of clicker training is a lot of fun for your dog because it’s basically a free feeding period!
Around 1889 Pavlov did his famous dog experiment. He sounded a metronome and then fed his dogs. Soon he noticed that the dogs started salivating when they heard the sound of the metronome. You’re basically going to repeat that experiment.
Get your clicker and a supply of treats. You can either put the treats in your pocket or use what is called a “bait bag” worn around your waist.
Click the clicker and give your dog a treat, within about a second. Repeat.
If you have a puppy with a limited attention span, I recommend you do this exercise 10 times. Then have at least 10 of those sessions before moving on.
Dogs with limited attention spans do better with several short sessions than they do with a single long session.
And feel free to do more than the initial 100 exercises. It is essential that your dog respond favorably to the sound of your clicker every time they hear it.
Starting the Training: Capturing vs Luring
Start your training in an area with no distractions. An empty room with just the 2 of you is ideal!
There are 2 basic ways of introducing a command to your dog: capturing the desired behavior or luring the behavior.
Capturing a behavior means to wait until your dog demonstrates the desired behavior, and then clicking. In this case, just stand still. Sooner or later your dog will sit down. The instant their haunches touch the ground, click and then treat.
Your other option is to lure the behavior. This is where the bribery comes in!
Take the treat and hold it in front of your dog’s nose. Move the treat up and toward your dog. As your dog follows the treat with their nose, their haunches will lower to the ground.
Again, the moment your dog’s haunches touch the floor, click and then treat.
However you start the training, repetition is the mother of success.
A Couple Fine Points
The first fine point is that it is very important that there be a brief delay between the click and the delivery of the treat. The common phrase is click-and-treat, abbreviated C&T, and it is essential that is the order.
This is harder than it sounds. Especially when you start this training, it is sooo easy to find yourself wanting to deliver the treat at the exact moment that you click. In fact, it can be hard to train yourself to not do this.
But it is important that you do so. Because a smart dog, like a German Shepherd or another working dog, will start exhibiting the desired behavior when they see you reaching.
That makes for a passive dog. A dog that doesn’t do what it should until it sees the prospect of a reward.
You want an active dog. A dog that is actively trying to figure out what they need to do to make you become the human Pez dispenser of treats.
I had a short training session with my dog while I’m typing this. As soon as she saw me walk around the china cabinet wearing my bait bag, she became a whirlwind of activity. She barked, sat, laid down, poked her nose into my waist, touched each hand, barked again, laid down again, etc.
That’s the state of mind you want. That’s the mark of an active dog.
The other fine point is how you deliver the treat after clicking.
If you’re luring the Sit, then delivering the treat is pretty easy. As the dog’s rear end goes down, I lift the treat away from the dog and click while the treat is moving back to my waist. Then, within a second or so after the click, I hand the treat directly to her.
Correctly delivering the treat after a Sit is pretty easy. You just want to deliver the treat to them without making them move to get it.
A made up example demonstrates this point better.
Suppose I want my dog to circle a chair counterclockwise and I want to capture the behavior. As she mills about, the first time she steps in the general direction of the right side of the chair, I click and treat.
And I deliver that treat in the direction which will take her a bit further around the chair. So I’m really combining luring and capturing just by the way that I deliver the treat.
Similarly, when I train the Down, it’s important that I deliver the treat to where her head is while she’s down. I don’t want her to have to sit up to get the reward.
Mastering this point can really speed up your training.
Getting a Solid Sit
From here on, it’s like every other form of training. You first get the dog to give you 10 flawless reps wherever you’re starting the training, say your living room.
Then you go to the kitchen and repeat this exercise.
Dogs do NOT instinctively generalize. Just because your dog sits for you in the living room does not mean they will not look at you strangely when you give the same command in the kitchen.
After your kitchen go to your bedroom, the bathroom, the office, the dining area, the laundry room and every other distraction-free place in your house. 10 flawless repetitions in each place.
Then go out onto the front porch and get 10 flawless repetitions there. Then into the front yard. Eventually to a place just outside the fence of the local dog park.
Work your way up to getting a good Sit no matter the distraction. Be imaginative with your distractions!
Learning how to teach a dog to sit is the basis of learning how to train a dog.
It’s simple. There is only 1 component of the behavior.
Contrast this with teaching a dog to fetch a ball which formally consists of teaching the dog to sit and stay on your left, watch you throw the ball, when released run to the ball, pick up the ball, hold the ball, return to you with the ball, sit in front of you with the ball, on command drop it into your extended hand and return to your side. 9 components.
Success, however you choose to define it, is very easy to see. It’s when their hunches firmly touch the ground.
Much easier than when you are teaching your dog to look at you when you say the word “Look”. Depending on where they are standing, you’re trying to figure out if your dog is really looking you in the eye, or looking to see where the next treat might be coming from.
Speaking from experience, that second option is what happens when you violate the first fine point above!
All in all, teaching a dog to sit is a perfect introduction to positive reinforcement training. You will quickly see results and will gain the confidence of someone who has taught their dog to sit no matter what!
I hope you enjoyed reading this post and if you have any questions about how to teach a dog to sit or want to leave your own personal review, leave a comment below.