Image via Javier Brosch/Shutterstock
By Russell Hartstein, CDBC, CPDT and owner of Fun Paw Care in Los Angeles
People often seek immediate gratification and find it difficult to invest in relationships and outcomes that take a while. How to teach a dog to sit no matter where you are is an exercise to practice with your dog for the long-term. It doesn’t take a day, but it doesn’t take a lifetime, either.
Dog Training Is a Process That Starts at Home
It helps to remember that dog training and behavior is not an event but a process. Learning is different for every animal, it is progressive and takes repetition and conditioning to ensure reliability.
In dog obedience trials, we don't say a dog knows a behavior until after tens of thousands of iterations. That may seem daunting at first, but when you work your dog’s daily allocation of dog food into everyday training and in all areas of life, like compound interest, the trials add up very quickly.
As pet parents with busy schedules, we may have doubts as to whether a teaching or technique will work, and we feel a sense of urgency to get something accomplished quickly. However, learning occurs most naturally and efficiently in a slow, progressive and repetitive manner, in an environment where an animal is the least stressed and distracted.
Dogs are most comfortable in their own home, with their family. This is why we usually begin dog training at home, with the whole family involved.
How to Get a Dog to Sit
You can go about getting your dog to sit by capturing your dog's natural behavior (later, this behavior will be marked by a verbal cue). Capturing a dog’s natural behavior is when you observe your dog sitting on their own volition, then immediately mark that behavior with either with a “Yes” or a distinct sound, such as from a dog training clicker, and immediately reward them with a high-value food reward.
If you’re like me and remember things easier with mnemonics, think of RRR (Request, Response, Reward). If you want to speed up the process, or if your dog is not offering a sit regularly enough to reinforce the behavior, try adding a food lure:
- Request / Cue
Request / Cue
Because dogs primarily learn from your body language before your voice cues, there is a lot to learn as a teacher about what message you are conveying to your dog. If your body language suggests something different or inconsistent from your voice cue, your dog will naturally get confused.
It's important not to begin to use a verbal cue before the dog starts to reliably offer the behavior. After the dog offers the desired sitting behavior reliably (approximately 8 out of 10 times), we will pair that behavior with the new verbal cue. This is easy to do with associative learners.
The lure is the promise of a food reward. We only use a high-value food lure when teaching a dog new behaviors or when in new environments. But in all cases, we fade the lure ASAP, which means after one or two iterations. If we continue to use the food lure beyond the first couple of iterations, we will condition the dog to only respond with food in our hand, and it will become a bribe.
If the dog is not following your request or cue, you can add the lure back into the equation for one or two more iterations. After a few times, your dog will reliably be able to follow just your body language cue without the food lure.
We use the marker "Yes" to communicate to the dog and mark the exact moment in time in which they are being rewarded for. The “Yes” acts as a snapshot in time, the end of a behavior or sequence of behaviors, and a release. The exact moment your dog does something correctly. And we use the word "Good" to indicate and communicate duration to your dog. It stands for, keep on doing whatever it is you're doing.
Using high-value food rewards is effective, not to bribe, but to reward a dog immediately after performing any desired behavior. You can use other high-value rewards such as dog toys, petting, praise or other objects; however, food is the most effective and efficacious way to begin to train most dogs.
How to Teach a Dog to Sit in New Environments
Once you and your dog have mastered the home environment, honed your dog’s skills, confidence and concentration, we gradually and methodically move to new or different environments. Very slowly, novel stimuli, duration, distance and more distraction are introduced along the path of learning. This is what dog trainers and behaviorists often refer to as the three D’s of dog training and obedience:
These should be practiced consistently and with continuity.
Once your dog can sit for a duration or around 1-2 minutes, then you can move on to building in some distance. After success with the first two D’s, you can try adding in some light distraction, progressing very slowly to more distractions, etc.
Keep in mind that distraction comes in many forms. They can be obvious, like people walking by or loud sounds, or they can be things we don’t notice, like scents.
What most people mistake is doing all three D's together at the same time or moving on to a new environment too soon. Do not conflate these activities. Take each one separately until your dog is proficient in each, and only then move on to the next step. After your dog is doing great with the three D's independently in your living room, then you can mix all three D's together—not before.
After your dog masters the sit in each familiar environment, move on to new environments using the same process. Remember that if your dog looks confused, or is not responding, you went too far too fast. Back up a step or two and proceed again.
Also, remember not to practice training your dog when you are in a rush or need to get something done. When you begin to practice sitting in the park or a restaurant, practice when you have time and can dedicate the activity to your dog.
Practicing any behavior in a progressive methodical way will get a rock-solid sit in any environment, regardless of distractions.
Using Life Rewards to Bond and Build Reliability
Once your dog has proven their proficiency with "sit," you should start to transition to a variable ratio of reinforcement. This means rewarding your dog only when they demonstrate better precision, accuracy, latency or speed when given a request.
You will also eventually use fewer food rewards, not eliminating them altogether, but transitioning your dog into receiving life rewards. Life rewards can be anything your dog loves doing (going for an on-leash walk, going to the dog park, playing, doing a fun job, getting petted, etc.) Just use those fun things as the rewards instead of the high-value food some of the times.
As you and your dog work on bonding, communicating and holding her attention on you all around the house, and in familiar places, you will begin to slowly progress moving on to more novel spaces.
Sit is one of the four fundamental behaviors [sit, down, stay and come (or targeting)] that help a dog and parent live in a harmonious relationship. Every one of these behaviors can be transformed or used in many different scenarios throughout your dog's life and in any situation—the only limitation is your creativity.