Sit: Starting Your Dog Training Journey

By: Tyler Kent CPDT-KA

I was clearing out my rental car the other day when a stranger passed by and asked me to “mind my dog.” We were obeying the laws of the city (he was on a six-foot leash) and being courteous (general etiquette: don’t take up the whole sidewalk). I own a Belgian Malinois; a physically intimidating breed, so I understand the stranger’s concern as he passed by. I pulled my head from the back seat and told my dog to “sit”. As soon as I uttered the word, he sat in a calm manner next to me. With surprise in his voice, the stranger said, “that’s a well-trained dog.” I felt proud of my boy and happy that a stranger felt safer because I demonstrated control over his behavior.

Teaching the “sit” command is a great starting point on your journey to a well-trained dog. There are an unlimited amount of situations that this command is useful for, and nothing feels better than having complete control of your dog. The beauty of teaching this behavior is that it can be done while you’re in bed, on the couch, writing an email, or cooking dinner. Every moment your dog is by your side can be used as a teaching moment. Make sure that you have the proper motivation tool ready when you begin your training sessions (for help on this matter refer to my Motivation post). For most dogs, using a special treat (anything other than their normal food) should be a sufficient motivator. Personally, I use Zukes because they are small and low-calorie enough to not affect daily nutritional levels.

Exercise: Using Prompting to Teach “Sit”

Prompting is the quickest way to generate a behavior and achieve reliable responses to your command. A prompt is an event that will generate an action. When a person offers you an object during a conversation, you will reach out and take the object without thinking about it (try it on a friend, it works). You were “prompted” to grab the object, simply because it was thrust in your direction. For dogs, we want to harness that same effect. We use an event to elicit a behavior they haven’t learned yet.

The event you will use to prompt your dog to sit is a simple hand motion. Take the treat in between the tips of your fingers. Make sure it is secure enough that your dog can not snatch it out of your grasp. Hold the treat an inch from your dog’s nose without allowing him to take it from you. If your dog reaches for the treat, pull it away and reset. With the treat in your fingers, trace a path a few inches above the contour of your dog’s snout towards the back of his head while saying the word “sit.” This action will compel your dog’s rear to the ground in a sit position. Once your dog is in the sitting position, you may reward him with the treat. Next, back up a few steps until your dog moves to the standing position again. Repeat the above steps, rewarding your dog every time they sit.

“My dog doesn’t know the word “sit” yet.” We say “sit” from the very beginning of the process so your dog will begin to pair your hand motion, and the word “sit,” with the action of sitting. The goal is to eventually fade out the use of your prompt (the hand motion), and only use the word “sit.” Most importantly, do not overuse the command. Say it once with the prompt, and wait ten seconds for a response. Repeat only if necessary. If the command is said too many times, it will begin to lose it’s meaning (known as learned irrelevance).

“My dog keeps backing up and not sitting.” Lure your dog towards you with the treat. As he is moving forward, trace the treat over his snout quickly. Make sure you stop the movement of your hand between his ears, then move the treat straight up a few inches from the top of his head. Imagine you are tracing an invisible “L” over your dog’s head. It is only necessary to move your arm in this exercise, your body should stay stationary. As soon as your dog begins to sit, you may reward him.

“My dog almost sits, and then bounces back up again.” It is ok to reward your dog for almost sitting on the first few attempts. You’re using the treat to tell him, “you’re heading in the right direction.” After this happens a few times, withhold the treat until he gets closer to the sitting position. He will eventually sit all the way down in an effort to get the reward. Patience is the name of the game.

“My dog keeps jumping up, barking, and pawing for the treat.” This happens to all dogs that are learning to sit for the first time, don’t let it stress you out. Start by backing away from your dog, keeping the treat close to your chest. Wait for him to calm down, and try again. When his behavior is less erratic, wait for the proper response, and if necessary, repeat the hand motion and the word “sit,” while keeping the treat just out of your dog’s reach. Your patience is very important during the teaching phase of a new behavior. Even if it’s unintentional, your stress will cause your dog anxiety, which has a negative effect on his learning and memory retention. It is ok to (and you probably should) stop the session until you both relax, and then try it again.

“My dog sits every time.” Congratulations! Now that your dog is reliably sitting with each command, you can start rewarding each proper occurrence of behavior at random (known as intermittent reinforcement). Your dog will gradually learn that when he sits, he only gets a treat some of the time. This is proven to strengthen learned behavior exponentially and happens to be the same trick used to keep us playing slot machines. The end result: Your dog sits every time he is asked, regardless of whether he gets a reward or not. “Good boy!” is a great replacement for a treat, but more on that later.

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