A guide to navigating the challenge and adventure of life with your dogs.

The Ultimate Guide to Training Your Dog to Sit

At last: everything you could ever want to know about getting a dog to put his butt on the ground. Exciting stuff.

Seriously though. “Sit” can be hard to get right. A common problem is when the dog sits perfectly well in the living room when he knows there are treats coming, but he totally blows you off at the park where there are exciting things and no treats.

This tutorial will show you how to deal with issues like this and train a dog who will sit on cue any time, anywhere.


Why Sit Matters

Sit is an important part of every dog’s vocabulary. It should be one of the first things you teach your dog to do. Your eight-week old puppy fresh from the litter can start learning this right away.

  • It builds a common language between you and your dog. Sparky learns that the strange sounds coming out of your mouth are relevant to his life.
  • It gives Sparky a socially acceptable way to ask for what he needs. “I don’t want you to jump on my visitors, Sparky. But they’ll pet you if you sit nicely!”
  • It trains you. Once you’ve mastered the humble sit, you can use the same principles to teach your dog the really important stuff, like fetching a beer from the fridge.


How to Make Sit Happen

The training process comes in three parts:

1. Get the behavior. The dog learns that for some reason, putting his butt on the ground makes you really happy.
2. Cue the behavior. The dog learns he should put his butt on the ground when you say “sit.”
3. Proof the behavior. This is arguably the most important part, but most people overlook it. Don’t be like most people.


Part one: Get the Behavior

You will need:

  • a container of pea-sized treats. Chopped up cheese or hot dogs are good.
  • a distraction-free environment.

There are a couple different ways you can do this, Lure/Reward or Capturing. See? Options! It’s not called an ultimate guide for nothin’.


Lure/Reward

Try this first. It’s pretty straightforward: use a treat to lure the dog into position, and then reward him.

Step one: kneel in front of your dog (or stand if he’s tall). Hold a treat in front of his nose and move it backwards over his head. See these pictures of Merlin, who already knows “sit” but is a fantastic actor, for reference:

Sit Happens 1

Sit Happens 2

Sit Happens 3

Most dogs will follow their noses into a sitting position. When he does, praise him and give him the treat (aka “mark/reward”)

If he jumps up to your hand, that’s fine. Just make sure he doesn’t get the treat, and continue the luring motion. He’ll get the message eventually.

If he walks backwards instead of sitting, try the exercise with him backed against a wall:

Sit Happens 4

Repeat this step just until Sparky consistently sits every time you lure him. This should only take a couple five-minute sessions.

Step two: Fade the lure, i.e. GET THAT ****ING TREAT OUT OF YOUR HAND.

It’s important to graduate from the luring portion of lure/reward as quickly as possible. Otherwise you’ll end up in that annoying situation where the dog only performs when there’s food in front of his nose.

So. Make the same hand motion, but this time, do it without holding a treat. Don’t lure him with a treat – reward him with one by feeding it to him out of your other hand:

Notice there's no treat in my "lure" hand. It's in the other hand.

Gradually make the hand motion less exaggerated until you can do it without reaching over the dog. This motion will become the hand signal, which should look like this: hand out, palm up, raised in a single straight movement.

The hand signal.

When Sparky will follow your hand motion into a sit every time, you can move on to part two: putting it on cue


Capturing

This is real simple and can be used by itself or in conjunction with lure/reward.

It’s great for shy dogs who don’t like hands above their heads.

Capturing simply means waiting until the dog does the behavior on his own and then rewarding him for it. Sparky will figure out that sitting magically makes treats and toys appear, so he’ll do it more often.

You don’t need structured training sessions for capturing. Do this during play time or when you’re hanging out together.

Any time Sparky sits down, the instant he does it, mark/reward.

When Sparky starts sitting and staring at you like, “look at me! I’m sitting!”, it’s time for part two.


Part two: Put it on Cue

Continue lure/rewarding or capturing right where we left off. This time, AS Sparky sits down, say “sit!” and then mark/reward.

Repeat about a dozen times to give Sparky time to connect the words with the action. Then you can start giving the cue BEFORE he sits.

Next step: only reward Sparky when his behavior is cued. You want him to learn that he’s being rewarded for doing what you say. For the next few training sessions, don’t reward Sparky when he sits before you tell him to.

Look at that, you’ve got the the sit behavior on cue. Outstanding! Congratulations! But hold up there, grasshopper. We ain’t finished yet.

Now the real work begins.


Part three: Proof it – How to Prevent “My Dog Only Listens in the Living Room” Syndrome

Merlin sits at a music festival. Such talent! Such skill!

Proofing is the process of teaching a dog to follow commands in all kinds of situations with all kinds of distractions.

People tend to complete the first two parts and then think they’re done. But if you want your dog to reliably sit on command whenever you ask, you have to do this part, too.

Generalize in many low-distraction situations

Dogs don’t generalize cues very well. For example: you hold all your training sessions on the living room rug. You THINK you’re teaching your dog to sit on command. But really, all you’re doing is teaching him to sit on the rug. Ask him to sit outside, and he gets confused. “How can I sit?” a bewildered Sparky asks. “We’re not anywhere near the living room!”

Generalize with:

Different locations – Train in different rooms, on the patio, in the backyard, in the front yard, etc. Keep the distractions to a minimum for now. No dog parks yet.

Different handlers – everyone in your household should hold a sit session or two.

You being weird – You probably always stand directly in front of Sparky when you work with him. So sit on the floor. Lie on the floor. Put a baby gate between you and him. Wear a funny hat. Hold an umbrella. Hold a baby, if there’s one handy. Sparky should learn that sit means sit, no matter what else you’re doing.


Slowly introduce distractions

Starting at home, think of ways you can make the environment more interesting. Train in the dining room when someone’s cooking in the kitchen. Hold a training session next time you have visitors at your house.

As you add distractions, you make it harder for Sparky to concentrate. Take this into consideration when planning training sessions. You might need better treats – you might find that Milk Bones work when it’s just you and him in the kitchen, but you need hot dogs when you train in the yard.

Make sessions shorter, too. Instead of five minutes, you might only get 30 seconds or a minute before you’ve lost his attention. That’s okay. As always, end the session before Sparky gets bored.

Once Sparky is good at dealing with distractions at home, you’re ready to go out into the big scary world.

Say your eventual goal is to have Sparky obey the sit command in the dog park to impress all your dog park friends. Start by working in a quiet area near the park. Have him sit three times, then end the session and reward him with a trip to the dog park. Tomorrow, you can work a little closer to the park. Continue until you’re working in the dog park.

Learn more about proofing here: Why You Can’t Get Your Dog to Listen to You


Sit in Real Life

As you add more distractions, you’ll reach a point where treats lose their value. Who cares about chicken bits when there are squirrels and fascinating smells and other dogs?

Sometimes, you can use those distractions as a training reward. We call these “real life rewards.”

Real life rewards are the best way to get a strong response to the sit cue.

Real life rewards at home

Ask Fido to sit before:
You put his dinner bowl on the floor
Letting him out into the yard
Going for a walk
Letting him greet visitors
Throwing the ball

In public

Ask for a sit before:
Getting out of the car
Letting him sniff that fascinating tree
Entering the dog park

Read more about real life rewards here. What other real life rewards can you come up with?


When can you be sure that Sparky knows the sit cue?

Every trainer has their own criteria for when they consider a behavior learned. Here’s mine: when he sits the first time he hears you ask, nine out of ten times, in every typical scenario you expect him to encounter in his everyday life.

Everyday life for a family pet might be at home, at the vet, the groomer, the dog park and your kid’s football games.

Everyday life for an agility dog might be all those scenarios plus training class and competitions.

Only when he can do this can you exit training mode and consider the sit cue fully trained.


FAQS

I want to try lure/reward but I can’t get my dog to follow the lure.

Some dogs need encouragement to follow a lure. Forget sit training for now and just reward him any time he goes after the lure, even just by leaning forward a bit. Turn it into a game of follow the treat: get excited, wave it in front of his face, run around, whatever. Reward and praise whenever he goes for it.

Can I use a toy instead of a treat?

I prefer to use treats in part one and two, only because it’s easier. I start using toys during the real life portion of the game. But if your dog will work for the toy right from the beginning, and you can still clearly and effectively communicate, feel free!

My dog lies down when I tell her to sit. How do I fix this?

Simple: just make sure she doesn’t get rewarded for lying down. When she lies down, ignore it or use a no-reward marker – basically, the opposite of a reward marker. Pick a word, like “oops!” or “nope!” to indicate that her behavior did not earn a reward. Please note that this is not a “NO! Bad dog!” thing. It’s more like shrugging your shoulders and saying “oh well, try again.”

This problem is common when the trainer is unclear with the timing of the mark/reward.

If Fido tends to sit first and then sink into a down, you should delay the mark/reward. Have Fido hold the sit for a few seconds first. Slowly increase the amount of time he has to stay sitting.

Should I push down on the dog’s rump to make him sit?

This is a relic from back in the day when we taught dogs to sit by pushing down on the hip joints. But hands-off training with lure/reward and capturing is better because it results in less frustration all around. Think about it: If someone pushes on you, do you just go along with it? Or do you get annoyed and lean into the push?

You CAN use your hand as a guide when lure/rewarding, though. Keep it light; use the same amount of pressure as patting a friend on the shoulder.