The sit command is one of the easiest commands to teach, and there’s no reason why it cannot be started as soon as the puppy has acclimated to his new home and family. While several years ago it was common belief that puppies should be trained only once over the age of 6 months; nowadays, a better understanding of how dogs learn through reward-based training techniques has made it possible to jump start the whole training process at an early age.
Why train a dog to sit? For starters, the sitting position encourages relaxation and impulse control. Once a dog has learned the sit command it can be used in a variety of circumstances that can be very beneficial to both the dog and the handler. For instance, a dog can be asked to sit when guests come over so he’ll not be jumping all over them with the end result of leaving messy paw prints all over their clothes. A dog trained to sit politely before being fed will also be less likely to get in the way potentially causing the owner to trip and create messy spills.
Asking a dog to sit before throwing a toy or before petting the dog encourages calm behaviors which are rewarded with a game or some attention. Furthermore, the sit position can be used as a precursor of other commands such as down and stay. Best of all, a dog that sits on command gives the impression of a dog with good doggy manners and makes him more likely to be accepted in today’s often discriminative society.
There are several ways a dog can be taught to sit. The choice of method will vary based on the handler’s preference, level of experience and the dog’s learning capabilities. The following are some common methods used to train a dog to sit.
This is perhaps the most popular method to train a dog to sit. It uses food, strategically placed between the handler’s thumb and index finger and protruding enough for the dog to be able to sniff and see. As the term implies, luring means using food or a toy as a lure that will guide the dog into the desired sit position. In order to train the dog to sit, the treat will be brought at the dog’s nose level and then lifted upwards from the nose towards the head. As the dog follows the treat, his nose will point upwards which will cause the dog’s rump to hit the floor in a sitting position. Right when the dog’s rump touches the floor, the dog is praised and the treat is given.
While luring is a very effective method that can quickly yield results, it’s important to quickly fade the lure or the dog will rely on it too much with the end result of him obeying only when treats are in view. Fading the lure is a process that should be done gradually by removing the treat from view once the dog understands the sitting exercise and allowing him to depend solely on the upwards hand signal without the treat. The treat should then come back in view and given to the dog only once the dog is sitting.
In this case, spontaneous behaviors are “captured” and marked promptly. Dogs by nature tend to sit every now and then. Handlers who are patient may wait for these spontaneous sits to happen so they can mark them as they unfold and reward them accordingly. To mark the desired behaviors, a clicker can be used, but so can a verbal marker such as an enthusiastic “yes” of “good.”The click of the clicker or the verbal marker tells the dog: “That’s just what I wanted” and lets the dog know that a reward is on its way.
Some dogs learn better with step-by-step approaches. In the case of shaping, the dog is taught in small, incremental steps which ultimately are approximations of the finished behavior. The dog would, therefore, be rewarded for looking upward and then for slightly bending the hind legs. Often trainers use lures and prompts to expedite the shaping process, but shaping “purists” may frown on these. Clickers are often used to quickly mark desired behaviors.
Last, but not least, some trainers prefer teaching dogs to sit by simply pushing down on their backs until the dog sits. This method is based on negative reinforcement, meaning that something perceived as aversive by the dog is removed the moment the dog complies. In this case, the dog learns to sit faster and more frequently so to avoid feeling the pressure on his back. Another similar method consists of pulling the dog’s leash forcefully in an upwards motion until the dog is forced to sit. This action can be further accompanied by pushing down on the dog’s rear stifles.
This method has obviously several disadvantages. For instance, it’s not a good idea to push on the back of a dog with back pain, a growing puppy or a dog with some orthopedic problem. Also, most dogs resent being touched this way. Not to mention the opposition reflex where the dog instinctively resists pressure so to better balance himself, and on top of that, the fact that dogs trained through physical molding may learn to depend on the handler’s touch something that may interfere when training distance work.
Introducing the Command
When should the verbal sit command be introduced for the first time? Ideally, only once the dog is giving signs of understanding what is asked for him to do. If the sit command is given when the dog is in the initial stages of learning, he won’t clearly understand what it really means. The dog may therefore think that the word “sit” means looking up at the treat or slightly bending the rear legs. If the dog is being lured into a sit, the sit command should be pronounced when the dog is fluent in sitting, but right before the hand signal is made. This helps the dog associate the word sit with the hand signal, and because dogs love to anticipate, rep after rep, he’ll likely end up sitting when the word “sit” is pronounced even before seeing the hand signal. The hand signal can therefore be faded so the dog sits only when he hears the verbal command.
For some dogs, the sit command may be more challenging to learn than in other dogs. For instance, greyhounds are known for not being able to sit easily. This can be due a conformation issue; indeed, it seems like their anatomy makes sitting for them uncomfortable. It’s also important to realize that dogs suffering from orthopedic problems or old age may find the sitting position uncomfortable or painful. Best to have Oliver see the vet if he’s reluctant to sit or performs sloppy sits on a frequent basis.
So assuming that a dog is in perfect health, but doesn’t seem that eager to sit, what strategies can be used to make him perform the behavior? There are some tricks of the trade. For instance, in dogs who tend to back up when asked to sit, a wall or a bench may prevent them from backing up, allowing them to finally sit. Dogs who appear distracted, many need to be trained in a quiet area where there aren’t many distractions going on. Distractions can be added gradually only once the dog is fluent in sitting on command.
The use of high-value treats can help motivate even the most unwilling dogs. Dog owners should, therefore, skip using kibble the dog eats every day. Best treats to use for training are soft, small and smelly. Crunchy treats can take a long time to chew and may cause a dog to choke if he’s excited and eats them too fast. Great training treats can be found in pet stores nowadays, but many handlers prefer to give their dogs small pieces of people foods such as slices of hot dogs, strips of string cheese or little chunks of boiled chicken or steak.
The Bottom Line
As seen, the sit command can turn out very helpful in many different circumstances. It’s always a good idea to make training a fun and rewarding process so the dog looks forward to it. Tedious, long sessions may cause a dog to lose interest in training soon, with the end result of a dog dreading it. Once a dog learns how to sit in a quiet area, it’s the handler’s job to gradually add distractions by asking for sits in the yard, and then on walks and in increasingly distracting environments. The best part of training a dog to sit is that once the dog learns this command, it will become almost second nature to sit when asked to. There’s ultimately no shadow of doubt that regular obedience training paves the path to owning a dog that is a joy to have around and a well-adjusted member of society.