The All Important SIT


By Valerie Barry, Professional Member APDT
In Partnership With Dogs

There are many skills that help your dog be well mannered and a pleasure to live with, but some things just stand out in importance.  The Sit is one of those critical skills.  It’s a polite choice for meeting people, a nice way to ask for something, a neutral way of greeting other dogs, and even life saving if it stops a mad rush across a busy road.

Strangely, even though the Sit is one of the first things a puppy learns, it’s one of the least practiced skills!  Puppies are taught to sit first by their moms and then later by other adult dogs.  The Sit is a neutral position and a polite choice either to a correction received by another dog, or as a way of asking for something that another dog has. I have a theory that because a Sit is often used as a response to conflict or confrontation from a more mature dog, puppies easily pop into a sit when we ask because of how we ask.  We’re usually standing in front of our pups, and we tend to lean forward as we ask, maybe using a stern tone.  Dogs are masters of body language, so if you’re a puppy used to dealing with confrontation by sitting, the answer is an easy one!

I often hear dog owners confidently say, “my dog knows how to sit” – but does he really? Try something new: lie down on your living room floor and ask your dog to Sit; or turn your back and ask your dog to Sit.  What happens?  Frequently, I find that owners and their dogs seem to have different meanings for Sit.  A Sit has a pretty simple criteria – “butt on the ground”.  But to a dog who isn’t consistently giving a Sit when asked, his criteria seems to be “when someone is standing in front of me sounding stern, play the odds and put the butt on the ground”.  Those are pretty different meanings! How do you teach your dog your criteria for Sit?

The answer is Practice!  You need to practice everywhere and every way you can so that it becomes clear that Sit is just “butt on the ground”. We need to help our dogs understand that it doesn’t matter whether we’re standing, sitting or lying down; whether we’re close by or further away; whether we’re sounding worried and upset or relaxed and happy; or even whether we’re moving or standing still – it’s simply “butt on the ground”.

In order to make your practice as effective and efficient as possible, follow these simple guidelines:

  • Give your cue only once – if you don’t get a Sit, then you need more practice you don’t need more intimidation or urgency in your request.
  • Mark it – make sure you give a Click or a verbal marker (“Great!”) as soon as the butt hits the ground so the goal is clear.
  • Pay generously – offer a treat, a toy or something your dog loves as a reward for each successful Sit.
  • Be successful more often than not – start your practice in areas that are easy for your dog, like the kitchen, and keep him on leash so he can’t just wander off.
  • Don’t rush the process – move on to new distractions gradually after getting frequent success at each point.
  • Be flexible – if your success rate goes down, scale down your expectations.  If necessary, go all the way back to using a treat lure at his nose to get a Sit and gradually work back up to a good response to a verbal cue.

Remember not to keep making the job harder – occasionally make it easier.  If you find a spot where you’re having trouble, there’s no need to get bigger or stronger.  This is your dog’s feedback that you may have upped the distractions too quickly, or maybe he just needs a mental break.

Keep your training sessions short and fun – that always makes the job go faster!