Teaching your dog to sit


Trainer Carolyn Menteith explains that training your dog isn't the same as doing quadratic equations at school - one of those things you never use after you leave - it's about teaching him useful skills that can keep him safe and make your life easier.

Every single thing you teach your dog builds the bond between you. Good relationships are built on good communication and training your dog using positive training methods is one of the best ways to discover your communication skills, and give your dog a chance to fulfil his potential.

Whether you have a new puppy, or want to brush up on your skills with an established adult dog, this new series will explain how to teach the basic exercises and how you can use them in real-life situations. To start with we are going to look at how to teach your dog to sit. This is always a good first exercise because it is easy and dogs naturally sit all the time, we just want to teach them to do it when we ask them to.

First, make sure you have a good supply of tasty, healthy treats that your dog loves. The treats are going to be used initially to show your dog what you want him to do, and then once he understands what you want, they will be used as a reward for a job well done. It is important not to think that using treats in training is bribery - it isn't. It is a way to inspire your dog to freely and happily offer the behaviour you want, and then once he understands what you want, it is a way to communicate clearly to him that you are happy with what he did. Having a way to gain rewards for a job well done is a really important means of keeping a dog happy and fulfilled - one of the key roles of training.

First of all, a sit is good basic canine manners. If you meet someone you want to talk to, if your dog will sit that means he isn't jumping up at them. This is really important for people who may be frightened of dogs, children, elderly people - or just when your dog has muddy paws.

  • A sit at the side of the road can keep your dog safe. If you ever have to cross roads that are busy and maybe don't have great pavements, having a dog who won't bounce around on the end of a lead can be a lifesaver.
  • Having a dog who will sit before bounding out of the car on walks or at exciting places is also good manners, saves you having to rugby tackle him, and means you can keep him safe from just bounding out on to the road.
  • Having a dog who will sit when you want to put his lead on makes things far easier for you - and saves sprained wrists and broken fingers when trying to hold a collar and a lead and attach the two together.
  • Sitting while dinner is being put down is also good manners, saves food and bowl flying everywhere, and also teaches your dog some frustration control - which will be really useful later in your training.
  • Most importantly however, a good sit is a simple exercise you can teach your dog, which you can then reward him for. This makes him feel better about you, you feel better about him, and he feels able to positively influence his environment. It will also build the basis for future training.
Teaching the sit
  • To get started with teaching a sit, take a treat that you know your dog loves, and hold it on the end of his nose so he gets interested in it and is motivated to work out how he is going to get it.
  • Slowly move the treat up and away from you. As your dog's head goes back to follow the treat, his bottom has to go down.
  • When his bottom touches the ground, give him the treat. Repeat this a lot until the dog sits as soon as you hold the treat by the end of his nose.
Thinking for himself

Now you are going to get your dog to think for himself and not just follow the treat. The treat becomes a reward for a job well done.

  • Take the treat as before and make sure the dog knows you have it, but just hold it in your hand.
  • You want your dog to get a little frustrated, and to think about what worked to get him the treat before.
  • If the dog loses concentration and looks like he is getting bored or about to wander off, show him the treat again, and let him smell it to get his focus back.
  • As soon as the dog tries sitting, be very quick to give him the treat. The treat, the success, and the relief from the frustration of not being able to get the treat, are powerfully rewarding for the dog.
  • Repeat this many times. If he really doesn't get it, go back to the first step until he really understands it before moving on.
Introduce the cue word

Now you're going to put a name to the new thing your dog has learned. Don't move on to this step until you would bet a month's wages that the next time you take your treat and wait, your dog will sit.

  • Take the treat as before and wait.
  • As your dog begins to sit, say ‘Sit' and reward him with the treat when he does it.
  • Repeat this endlessly so that your dog links putting his bottom on the ground with the cue word ‘Sit'.
  • Then introduce saying ‘Sit' to cue the behaviour. Only say ‘Sit' once - don't repeat it. You're teaching your dog that he should sit when you say ‘Sit' once - not wait until you have said it four or five times getting louder every time.
  • Now move on to not taking the treat out of your treat bag or pot. Ask for the sit once, and when your dog does it take out the treat and give it to him.
  • Whenever he sits on your cue reward him with the treat.
Changing places

Now comes the secret ingredient in any training programme. It isn't enough to teach this exercise at home, or in one place, with no distractions. Dogs don't generalise well, and you need to teach yours that ‘Sit' means "sit everywhere no matter what is happening". This is where people go wrong and why you hear them saying "But he is so good at home…." If you always train your dog in the same place at home, start practising the sit in lots of other places too.

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Start when it is quiet, but you can do it when there are a few distractions too. In the beginning go right back to step one, but it won't take long for your dog to realise that ‘Sit' means "sit wherever you are".

Now start to make your dog work a little harder for one treat. Sometimes ask for the sit but don't always reward him. Smile at him so he knows he has done it right, but quickly move somewhere else, and ask for another sit before rewarding him. Vary the times you give him a treat. Sometimes reward him for one sit, other times ask for three or four sits in different places. Keep him guessing as to when the treat is going to come but never make him wait so long that he loses interest. While he is still learning, make sure you reward fast sits - so he learns what it is you want.

Now find four different locations; maybe the kitchen, the garden, the park, and the pub. Wherever you choose make sure it is safe, and if it isn't 100 per cent safe, have your dog on a training lead and a flat collar. Practise in each of the new locations. Take some treats and practise while you are out on walks too. Make your walks interactive - and make yourself an interesting person for your dog to work with.

Start in areas that are quiet with no distractions, but then begin to work where there are other people and dogs too. You may need to have higher-value treats when you are working around distractions. Start by rewarding every sit as before, then only reward the good ones, or at variable times so your dog never knows when the treat will come and so has to work harder. Remember these steps can take weeks.

Don't move to the next step until you are 100 per cent happy your dog understands the previous one. There are no prizes for speed, only reliability.