Teaching your dog to “sit" is always fun because it’s (usually) easy! It’ll likely be one of the very first things you teach your new pup. Successfully teaching “sit” will give you and your dog a win to celebrate and it will introduce her to the whole concept of training.
The sit command sets the groundwork for other commands like “stay" and “down" and it’ll also be your go-to command when your dog is acting up. Dog jumping up on the mailman? Sit. Dog nosing you and asking you for food? Sit. Dog sees a scary skateboard while you’re out on a walk? Sit. Your dog is going to be a sitting machine in no time!
Since this is typically the very first thing we teach our dogs, I’d recommend you head over and check out positive reinforcement training 101 before you start. This'll give you some important background how dogs learn and how we can set them (and ourselves) up for success.
Okay ready? Let’s do this!...
When your dog is in the proper sitting position, her entire butt will be planted on the ground. Some dogs like to cheat and hover (which actually seems harder than just sitting… dogs are weird) so make sure you see a full, confirmed “sit” before you reward your dog. Some breeds, like dachshunds, are so low to the ground that you can barely tell they are sitting, which is just adorable. Keep an eagle eye out though, because you want to mark the action and then reward it as soon as your dog sits.
Whenever you teach your pup something new, be sure to start in a quiet, familiar place - like your living room or kitchen. Try to minimize distractions as best you can. Before you begin, make sure you have a handful of delicious “high value" training treats to offer your dog. These treats should be soft and small. Break ‘em up into small pieces because we’re going to use a lot of them.
After your dog has successfully done step one at least 12 times, you’re ready to introduce the hand signal.
1. Grab a treat with your left hand now and hide it behind your back. Show Bella that you don’t have a treat with your right hand, but continue to do the exact same motion with your right hand that you were doing before. Take your hand in a fist and slowly raise it above your puppy's head.
2. When she sits, click! or say “yes!” to mark the behavior, then praise your dog and pull the treat out from behind your back to give to her. Try this for a few more times to solidify the behavior. Note that we haven’t said the word “sit” yet.
3. Now try it with the “sit” hand signal, which is an open palm facing toward you, elbow bent. Practice in the same way - treat behind your back with your left hand, giving the hand signal for “sit.” When she sits, click! or “yes!” and be extra excited when you give her the treat. She’s learning!
Now you’re ready to add the cue word to the command. You’re going to repeat the exact sequence, but now when you do the hand motion, you’ll also say “sit!” Since she’s already learned the motion and the hand signal, when you introduce the word, it’ll be easier for her to make the connection.
Repeat several times, using the word "sit" each time you do the hand signal. Make sure you continue to mark the action “yes!” or a click as soon as she sits and then enthusiastically praise your dog and give her the treat.
Once you’ve done this at least 12 times, set up for the trick like normal - left hand behind your back - but now just say the word “sit!” once and look at Bella. It will likely take her a few seconds to think about what she should do, but hopefully at this point she sits. Mark the behavior “yes!” and give her a few treats with enthusiastic praise! Her neurons are firing!
If you try to say just the verbal cue and she doesn’t sit automatically, don’t worry about it! She’s just not quite ready yet. Go one step back and practice doing the motion with the verbal cue several more times before trying again.
You could be stuck on this stage for days. This is all totally normal! Stay patient and continue to practice until she gets it.
Once your dog knows how to sit on cue in a quiet spot in your house, work on training the sit command in various locations with varying levels of distractions. In the dog training world, this is called “generalizing” and it ensures that Bella doesn’t think she only has to sit when you are in your living room, next to your couch.
Keep in mind that every time you change things up for your dog, she might regress just a little bit. Sitting on command outside is much harder than sitting in your quiet kitchen. You won’t lose your patience because you’ll be prepared for this. If Bella doesn’t listen to “sit” when you go outside, simply take away some of the distractions, start back with step one, and lure her into a sit a few times. This time, she’ll get it faster, because she’s already been through this process. She will begin to learn that “sit” means “sit” wherever she is!
Incorporate the “sit" command with daily tasks so you continually reinforce it. Ask Bella to sit before you open any door, before you put down her food bowl, or before you cross the street on a walk. (These are all things she wants, so she is learning to that sitting brings good things.) This will solidify the command and have the bonus effect of teaching her good manners.
Once your dog becomes an expert at sitting, you won't have to give her a treat every time. But it is nice to give her some treats occasionally so she never knows if they coming or not. Rewarding with excited praise and a chest scratch is always a good idea.
If you can’t get your pup to sit, don’t get frustrated! First, make sure your training sessions are short and upbeat, in various locations around your house and outdoors. Be patient and consistent.
If your dog does not sit on her own after several tries, keep trying to lure her with the treat and make sure she can smell how yummy it is. If she really doesn’t seem to care, try to use higher value treats, like cubes of cheese, boiled chicken, or hot dog pieces. If she still doesn’t care, do this in the morning after she potties and before you feed her so you know she’s hungry.
Keep in mind that dogs lose their appetite when they are scared or nervous, so make sure you start practicing in a quiet, safe space and then work up to distractions.
Do not yell at your dog or force her to sit with your hands. Yelling will teach her to be afraid of you and forcing her to sit won’t teach her anything either. You want your dog to gain confidence and start making decisions on her own.
If you are still having trouble getting your dog to sit with upgraded treats, try catching the behavior and then marking it that way. Grab some treats and watch your dog. Anytime she naturally sits, say the word “sit” and then praise and reward her. You can also use your clicker to mark her action when you see her starting to sit and then praise her. Once she connects the action with the reward, she’ll catch on. ;)