Sit Happens

After you learn how easy the positive approach to training really is, you'll never push a pup's butt to the floor again!


Sitting on cue is one of those basic behaviors that every dog should know, and happily, it is an absurdly simple behavior to teach. In fact, I remind my students that their dogs already know how to sit – it’s just the “doing it on cue” part that we have to work on!

Nowhere, perhaps, is the difference between positive and compulsion training more beautifully obvious than with the “sit.” A considerable part of the first session of many compulsion classes is spent teaching owners how to force their dogs to sit by jerking, pushing, and manipulating various body parts. I spend my first night of class talking with my students, explaining how (and why) we are going to train our dogs without using force. Meanwhile my demonstration dog for the night – an obstreperous, untrained dog provided by one of my students, a dog whom I have never met before – emphatically offers sit after sit after sit. Magic? Not really – just an application of the positive reinforcement elements of “operant conditioning,” a training technique that teaches a dog to voluntarily offer the behaviors that we want.

Magic Markers

The key to positive training is remembering to notice and reward the dog when he does something right. A dog sits dozens of times a day, all on his own. If we make it a point to reward him a good percentage of the times when he does, he’ll do it even more, because all living beings repeat behaviors that are rewarding to them. This is why so many dogs jump up on people. We tend to ignore dogs when they’re sitting quietly, and pay attention to them when they jump up. They get rewarded for jumping, so they jump more.

A reward marker is a word or a sound that tells a dog the instant he has exhibited a desirable behavior. Clickers are commonly used as reward markers because the Click! sound is so distinctive and consistent. Reward markers can also consist of the word “Yes!” (or any other word you choose), a “mouth click,” the click of a ball-point pen, or any other consistent, distinct sound. The Click! or “Yes” (or other reward marker) is a promise to the dog that a treat is forthcoming, and every Click! earns a treat.

Positive trainers use treats as rewards because food is a primary motivator – all living things need food to survive – and because a dog can quickly eat his treat and get back to the fun of training. It is possible to train without reward markers and treats by using toys, play, petting, and/or praise as rewards; but in my experience, it’s less effective and less efficient.

Let’s take a look at my first-night demo dog and see how the reward marker works.

I begin class by introducing myself and talking about the philosophy of positive dog training. While I do that, I also have the demo dog’s leash in my hand. I test his response to the clicker by clicking it in my pocket to muffle the sharpness of the sound. Then I feed him an irresistible treat. I click and treat several more times and then, assuming he doesn’t react badly to the sound of the clicker, I bring it out of my pocket and continue the clicks and treats while I talk. Usually, it takes no more than a half-dozen treats to convince the dog to rivet his attention on me.

Once this happens, I stop the constant flow of treats, and hold one up near my chest. Often, the dog will try to jump up for the treat. If he does, I simply whisk the treat out of sight and turn away, without making eye contact or paying him any attention. Eventually he will sit, because it’s easier to look up at me (and the treat) when he’s sitting. The instant he does, I Click! and treat.

It takes most dogs less than three minutes to become sitting machines, offering sit after sit in order to make the Click! happen and earn the treat reward; this is the secret of the “magic marker.” The dog learns that he makes the Click! and treat happen. Trainers jokingly call this the “Helen Keller moment.” Once we open that door, the dog is ready for training.

Putting Sit on Cue

Although the class listens to my comments while I work with the designated demo dog, they also watch his miraculous transformation from an out-of-control busy bee, to sitting at my feet, paying rapt attention to me. His behavior, more than any words I could speak, underscores the effectiveness of positive training.

At this point, I point out that I have not yet asked the dog to sit. With operent conditioning, we get the behavior first, then we add the verbal cue. There is no point in using a word to ask the dog to do something when he has no idea what it means. Once we know we can get the dog to offer the behavior, then we add the word so that he can start to make the association between the word and the behavior.

This is easy with the sit. I take a step backward. The dog gets up to follow his newfound treat machine. I stop, and he sits to make the Click! happen. As his bottom touches the floor I say “Sit!” then Click! and treat. I am telling him – in verbal shorthand – that the behavior he just did is called “Sit.” I repeat this several times, and then I start saying “Sit” just before he sits. By watching his body language, it’s easy for me to predict when he is about to sit. Now I am teaching him that the “Sit!” sound precedes his sit behavior. I click and treat every time.

I suggest to the class that an uneducated observer would think that the dog was responding to the verbal cue when he’s really not. I am predicting the dog’s sit behavior with the word. He does not yet understand that the word is his prompt to sit.

We test this assertion. I ask the dog to sit at a time when his body language tells me he is not about to sit – he is distracted, sniffing the floor, or looking away from me. Lo and behold, he doesn’t sit! I explain that he has not “refused” to sit on cue – he simply didn’t understand the slightly different context. I don’t nag at him with several repetitions of the “Sit” cue. Rather, I get his attention, and when I can see that he is ready to sit, I say the word. He promptly responds. The class gets the message.

Downhill from Here

Teaching the down is not quite as easy as the sit, since dogs are less apt to “offer” the down behavior in a training session than a sit. Once again, a food-treat motivator comes in handy. You can lure your dog into a down by putting a treat in front of his nose and moving it slowly toward the ground. Lots of dogs will follow the lure easily and end up in a perfect down on the first try. Click! and treat!

Some dogs won’t, however. They may not understand what you want them to do, and so they stand up when you try to lure them down. Some dogs are reluctant to lie down because they feel more vulnerable in the down position. In these cases you can “shape” the behavior. Shaping means breaking the final desired behavior into small steps and clicking and rewarding the dog repeatedly at each step along the way. Here is one way to shape the down:

1. Have the dog sit facing you. Hold the treat in front of his nose and move it two inches toward the ground. Click! and treat. Repeat several times until he shows no sign of trying to stand when you move the treat.

2. Have the dog sit. Hold the treat in front of his nose and move it five inches toward the ground. Click! and treat. Repeat several times until he shows no sign of trying to stand when you move the treat. If he does get up, say “Oops!” in a cheerful tone of voice, and try again. If he consistently gets up, go back to two inches, and when he can do two inches without getting up, try three inches. (When your dog has trouble with the transition from one step to the next, make the steps even smaller.)

3. Keep moving the treat closer to the floor until your dog’s nose is touching the ground. Now move the treat away from his nose along the floor, toward you, a few inches. Click and treat when he follows it with his nose. Gradually move the treat farther and farther away from his nose, clicking and treating as he follows without getting up. Eventually he will move one paw forward as he follows the lure. Click! and treat, then continue to lure him with the goodie until he is all of the way down. Click! and jackpot! Give him several treats, one after the other, while you tell him what a wonderful dog he is.

Bingo – you’ve done it! Or rather, the dog has done it. Once. Fortunately, it’s usually much easier the second time. Keep practicing until he will lie down for you easily when you lure him, and then start adding the verbal cue, “Down,” as he does it. Remember, you’re not asking him to “Down” yet, you’re telling him that the behavior he is doing is called “Down.”

As soon as your dog has had an opportunity to hear the word with the behavior a half-dozen times or more, you can use the word first, then lure to help him lie down.

Fading the Lure

Now comes the real challenge – getting your dog to lie down on the verbal cue without the lure. You must “fade” the lure – that is, reduce his (and your) dependence on the treat to get the “Down.”

Have your dog sit facing you, and hold the treat behind your back. Say “Down” in a cheerful tone of voice. He probably will sit and look at you, since he doesn’t know what the word means yet. Give him several seconds to think about it, then put the treat in front of his nose and lure him down. Click! and treat. Then do it again.

Watch him closely when you say “Down.” If he looks at the ground or makes a tentative motion as if to lie down, it’s almost as if he’s asking you if that’s what he’s supposed to do. Tell him “Good boy!” and quickly lure him the rest of the way down for a Click! and treat. If you encourage his tentative movements, you will speed up his response to the verbal cue.

Another way to fade the lure is to use smaller and smaller motions toward the ground with the treat until you’re not moving it at all. Or, motion toward the ground with your empty hand; Click! when he goes down and feed him the treat.

How quickly you accomplish the verbal down depends on the dog and you. I have seen dogs go down on a verbal cue in as few as three repetitions, and I have had students who still need the lure at the conclusion of a six-week class. Timing and persistence are key. If you frequently forget to pause after the verbal cue before you lure, your dog will focus on the lure, and won’t learn the cue.

Formula for Learning

Remember that the more complex a behavior is, the more likely it is that you will have to shape it. The better you are at breaking the behavior into small steps, the easier it is for your dog to understand what you want. Once he figures out that he makes the Click! happen, you can use the same training formula to teach any behavior. Figure out how to get the behavior, Click! it, and put it on cue. Simple. Not always easy – but simple.

The most valuable aspect of this training method is that it teaches a dog how to learn. This is a skill that the two of you can rely on for the rest of his training career – whether for formal competition, or to perform new tricks to impress your friends. His ability and interest in learning behaviors that please you will also help make him a more enjoyable housemate and companion.

Pat Miller is a freelance author and a professional dog trainer in Chattanooga, Tennessee. She is also a member of the Board of Directors of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers.

Thanks to trainer Sandy Thompson, of Sirius Puppy Training in Berkeley, California, for her help demonstrating these techniques in these photographs.

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Pat Miller, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA, grew up in a family that was blessed with lots of animal companions: dogs, cats, horses, rabbits, goats, and more, and has maintained that model ever since. She spent the first 20 years of her professional life working at the Marin Humane Society in Marin County, California, for most of that time as a humane officer and director of operations. She continually studied the art and science of dog training and behavior during that time, and in 1996, left MHS to start her own training and behavior business, Peaceable Paws. Pat has earned a number of titles from various training organizations, including Certified Behavior Consultant Canine-Knowledge Assessed (CBCC-KA) and Certified Professional Dog Trainer - Knowledge Assessed (CPDT-KA). She also founded Peaceable Paws Academies for teaching and credentialing dog training and behavior professionals, who can earn "Pat Miller Certified Trainer" certifications. She and her husband Paul and an ever-changing number of dogs, horses, and other animal companions live on their 80-acre farm in Fairplay, Maryland.