Training “Sit”

Dogs know how to sit. They do it all the time. You're not teaching them to do the behavior; instead, you're teaching them to do it when you ask for it. A dog that is sitting can't be jumping up on anyone or chewing on table legs. Training your dog to sit on cue puts the action under your control.

Photograph by Cheryl A. Ertelt

The sit command should be mastered early.

Using the Lure

Hold a bit of food between your fingers and hold it right in front of your Yorkie's nose. When your dog's attention is focused on the food, move it back over the dog's head, between the ears. When the nose follows the food and moves up, the rear end automatically goes down, because of the way the dog is constructed. As soon as the dog's rear end hits the ground, say your marker word — “Yes!” — and give the dog the treat.

If the Yorkie stands up or jumps up after the treat, you're holding it too high. Keep it just above the dog's head. If your Yorkie backs up instead of sitting, work with the dog in a corner.

Fading Out the Lure

Very early in your training, after no more than a week of practice, do one or two sits to warm the dog up, then make exactly the same hand motion, but without the treat in your hand. Be ready to mark — “Yes!” — and reward — have treats on a nearby counter, in a bait bag you're wearing, or in your other hand, behind your back. You'll find this most effective if you keep everything exactly the same except for removing the food from your hand. If you have any problems, go back to using your lure for a few repetitions, then try again. Once this consistently works with your dog, you have successfully converted your lure into a hand signal.

Adding the Cue

Note that in all the training thus far, you've said “Yes” to mark the behavior you want, and you've certainly praised your Yorkie for successful tries. But you haven't told the dog to do anything. You've relied on the power of the lure.

Humans tend to want to start giving the dog orders right away. But the dog can't understand English, no matter how smart you think she is, until you demonstrate what specific words mean. So try to be quiet while you train — it will let your dog concentrate on learning and make your words more important when you do use them.

When your dog is responding well to your hand signal — that means your Yorkie gets it right eight out of ten times — it's time to add your verbal cue. The sequence is very important.

Stand perfectly still and say your new cue word — “Sit” — then use your hand signal. Continue to mark and reward when your Yorkie complies. You can use your dog's name before the cue, if you like (“Angel, sit”). Note that the word comes first, and it occurs without your doing anything else. If you were to say your cue and use your hand motion at the same time, the dog would attend to the hand motion she already knows and might not pay any attention to what you are saying.

After only a couple of sessions of saying your cue word, say it and then wait to see if your Yorkie responds. Many dogs will surprise their owners by promptly sitting. Be ready to mark and reward. If your Yorkie doesn't sit after you wait a second or two, use your hand motion. Continue saying your cue word first, and try again after a few more repetitions.

Finishing Up

To make the “Sit” command really useful, you want it to happen on cue, but you also want it to keep happening. That is, you don't want a dog that sits and then pops right back up. You want your Yorkie to keep sitting. To do this, you need to switch from using a marker word to using a release word.

Your firststep in this phase is to choose a release word. Make it one you will remember, but try to avoid words that often come up in conversation. People tend to want to use “Okay,” but it occurs so much in everyday conversation that it's not really a good choice. Imagine this: Your dog is standing in your car with the door open, waiting to have her leash attached. A friend says, “See you tomorrow,” and you respond “Okay.” If “Okay” is your release word, your dog could jump out of the car, possibly into traffic. So, try to think of something else — “Free,” “Release,” “Finished” — whatever will work for you.

Once you have your release word, your training sequence changes. Now you say your cue word, and your Yorkie sits. You wait a second and give a treat while your dog is still sitting, and quickly say your release word. Praise your dog. Notice you have now dropped using your marker word and are instead using your release word at the end of the behavior. Be sure to reward while your dog is still in position — you don't want to reward him for getting up.

Gradually increase the time between having your dog sit and saying your release word. Make it unpredictable — one second, four seconds, two seconds, one second, five seconds — not just longer every time. After you've practiced for a few sessions, sometimes release the dog without giving a treat first. This is the start of phasing out the food. You never get rid of rewards — you wouldn't keep going to work if they didn't pay you anymore, would you? Instead, you just make them unpredictable, like playing a slot machine.

Shouldn't you be telling your dog to stay?

Remember, dogs don't understand English. So “Stay” has no meaning for your dog. You can use it if you like, but the actual rules of the game are that the dog should continue doing what you've told him to do until you either release him or give him another cue. Always remember to release your dog, or your dog will (rightfully) begin to decide for himself when the exercise is over.

Finally, practice in different locations. Trainers call this “taking it on the road,” and your training isn't complete without it. Until you show her otherwise, your Yorkie may think your cues only mean something in the room you usually use for training.

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