The cues 'sit' and 'down' are very versatile and useful to teach to family dogs so your dog has basic house manners and also for safety (eg for 'sit' before crossing roads, 'down' for travelling safety in the car).
A quick, easy, safe and friendly way to teach a family dog the cues 'sit' and 'down' is to use positive reinforcement. This is my variation of a lure-reward method which gets quick results with minimal frustration. It's easy for novices and also fun and helps you bond with your dog. No special equipment such as clickers are required and it works effectively on 2-month-old puppies as well as older dogs. A 5-minute training session a few times a day is all that is needed. A puppy will typically learn quicker than an older dog.
In this video with a pet dog I've just met, I've demonstrated teaching 'sit' and 'down' with a dog who was willing to interact with me (99% of pet dogs). I started off sitting to be on the dog's level and then started changing my body position and also used hand signals. I try to stand up and move around as soon as I can (going at the dog's pace). At first I say the cue/command or give a hand signal DURING the behaviour I want (sit or down) to make sure the dog understands what I want. Then after as few as 6-12 times I can say it BEFORE I want the desired behaviour. You will be able to see the progress he made in just a single 10 minute session.
Positive reinforcement is when things your dog likes happen (rewards), it increases the likehood the behaviour occurs again. Luring is using a treat or toy to guide the dog into a particular position. The lure and luring movement should be eliminated as soon as possible (ideally after only a few times). If they volunteer the behaviour without a lure, then jump in and use it by saying your cue word followed by a reward (not always food) multiple times.
Rewarding is typically done with food initially (as most dogs are highly motivated by food) but this should quickly be phased out (after less than a dozen repetitions) when learning anything new so that it doesn't become bribery and lose its effectiveness. Reward instead with any combination of praise (your tone of voice matters more than the actual words you say), a pat on the shoulder or other affection your dog enjoys, attention and play a game with toys your dog values (eg a tug toy or squeaky toy). Ideally treats unless used as a lure should be hidden from view - dogs are smart though and know if you have food for not.
I don't always use food - for very attention-seeking dogs, they've been very rewarded by my giving them attention so I haven't even needed to use food. I aim to phase food out quickly (I overused it in this video).
Note that some dogs do not enjoy touch and many do not like praise if you go overboard or use a very high-pitched voice. If they do not like it, it will be a punishment to them, not a reward. Most dogs enjoy attention in the form of talking in a soft voice and interactive play. The dog decides what is a punishment and what is a reward.
Timing is important for both the cue (verbal or hand signal) and the praise (which also acts a marker instead of using a clicker) as your dog makes an association within only a few seconds.
If I need the dog's attention, I say their name in a friendly slightly higher tone of voice to get their attention, usually just before I say give a cue/command.
At first, use a cue at exactly the same time the dog is performing the behaviour - within 1 second. Once they understand the cue, you will be able to say it whenever you want the behaviour to occur. Tone of voice for the cue is more effective if using a neutral, assertive voice and avoid inflecting upwards like a question (which makes you sound unsure of yourself). I learned this trick when I was teaching high school students - the right tone of voice had even teenagers with challenging behaviours respond to me immediately without ever resorting to scolding or shouting (which is not my style).
Praise immediately ("good girl/boy/dog!") in a cheery, sing-song voice when the dog is performing the desired behaviour and quickly (within 1-2 seconds) follow with a treat. A piece of dry kibble or a pea-sized piece broken off a dried treat stick is ideal as they can be carried easily when not at home. If your dog isn't motivated by these, upgrade to food they find tastier and try training before meals. Tone of voice is more important than the actual words you say - praise voice should be higher pitched, enthusiastic (without going over the top) and friendlier than your cue/command voice.
Once a dog knows a cue, I've never needed to say a cue/command more than once usually. Rarely I've said it twice. The second time I might stand up to raise my height, make sure I have the dog's attention and say the cue/command in a slightly more authoritative, firmer 'I mean business' voice, but never a very low or scolding or loud voice ie do not punish or it will backfire.
Don't ever say 'sit..sit...sit...sit..sit...' repeatedly to try to cue your dog into a sit - it just dilutes it and confuses your dog. Either your dog doesn't really understand it yet generalised to different environments or you have jumped too suddenly to a high distraction environment. Lower your body height if needed, make sure you have your dog's attention and check your tone of voice. Practise more with saying the cue when your dog is actually sitting, even if they just happened to sit on their own. That's the only time I will say 'sit' multiple times at first to teach them what the word means - dog's bum on the ground in any place no matter what I'm doing - walking, sitting, standing, lying down.
Have the dog off-leash ideally so they don't associate the cue with the leash. Get down on the dog's level ie sit or kneel on the ground if you have a puppy or small dog. Otherwise have them positioned on a table so you are not towering over them.
Lure the dog into the position sit. To do this, hold a treat in front of your dogs nose and move the treat directly back over their head (not upwards). The dog will sit as it follows the direction of the lure. Then when the dog sits, give them the treat as a reward. Use their name in a friendly voice to get the attention before using the cue in a more assertive voice eg "Zoe, sit."
Do this a few times. When luring, try to stay very still (ie try not to dip your head or lean over the dog or otherwise give any signals that may confuse your dog). Then lure with 'invisible treats' (your hand minus the treat) and then reward with the other hand. Either make the hand movement less conspicious each time or alternatively turn it into a hand signal which can be used instead of a word cue eg when at a distance when they have reliable recall or for deaf dogs. An ideal hand signal for 'sit' is to turn the palm of the hand upwards, keep the hand and forearm in a straight line and elevate the palm upwards by bending the elbow.
Dogs tend to respond to visual signals more than verbal cues (other than emotion and tone of voice). Practise saying the verbal cue and the hand signal together and also practise separately so that you have both options (ie a hand signal is useful if your dog is off-leash at a distance so you don't have to shout).
After getting the behaviour a few times and rewarding it, then attach the word 'sit' to the behaviour. Say 'sit' when the dog's bottom hits the ground and praise in a sing song voice and reward with the treat. If the dog stays sitting, stay perfectly still (no distracting hand movements) and say 'sit' again and reward again. Say 'sit' not 'sit down' or some other variation.
Reset the dog by walking backwards or tossing a treat on the ground so the dog stands up. After as few as half a dozen repetitions, the dog should sit when you say the cue 'sit' if you have managed to link that cue with the behaviour. If your dog does not respond to the cue just be silent and still and wait. Your dog may offer the behaviour and then say the cue and reward.
Always reward for the appropriate behaviour with at least praise and attention and sometimes a pat on the shoulder. Phase the treat out quickly - don't give the treat every time - make it like a jackpot. The dog will be motivated to work harder (getting variable treat rewards is addictive). Reward with a treat less and less until you have gotten rid of it altogether and are using only other non-food rewards such as praise/attention/affection/play.
If you happen to see your dog in a 'sit' position incidently, say 'sit' and praise them and give them attention to help reinforce that cue.
Practise the cue in different settings ie sitting when indoors, outdoors, on the tiles, on grass, on carpet, on lino, on their bed, off-leash, on-leash, when you have different body positions ie standing beside them, in front of them, sitting down and at a distance. Raise the criteria and reward proportionally for more very quick response and for longer sits. Gradually increase length of some sits - an extended sit can be used in place of teaching 'stay'. Teach a release cue such as 'okay' or 'go' to let your dog know when they are free to go.
Have other people (including children 8 years and older) practise the cue so they are used to different voices. Gradually add distractions such as people walking past. Then start using in areas with more distractions such as in public places.
Practise using sit before meals, before crossing roads, before going through a door, putting their leash on, taking their leash off. Have the dog sit if they tend to jump up when meeting people (as a dog can't sit and jump at the same time). Have them sit before they would normally jump up so they don't link a behaviour chain of jumping up then sitting to get a reward.
After your dog knows 'sit' well, teach them 'down.'
Using exactly the same method as above, use a treat to lure a dog into a down position. Again, ideally train initially off-leash and lower your height at first if your dog is a bit fearful or if they are small. From a sit position, hold the treat by their nose and lower directly downwards so the dog settles down with its front paws extended. Do a few times then say the 'down' when when the dog moves into a down position and reward. If the dog stays in a down position, say 'down' again (without any hand distractions left over from luring). Then reward with at least praise and attention (and preferably affection or play if your dog enjoys this) to help your dog form a link that the down position is associated with the word 'down'.
An ideal hand signal for 'down' is to have the palm of your hand facing down, keep your hand and arm in a straight line and lower the palm towards the ground, bending at the the elbow. A hand signal can be used as an alternative to a verbal instruction - it's versatile to have both options.
Have your dog move back to a sit and then a down and back to a sit. And also down from a standing position. Practice in a variety of settings and gradually add distractions and then start using the cue in public places. Keep practising down often, for example when on their bed or in the car. You can use their name before the cue eg "Zoe, down."
Reward proportionally for immediate and extended downs. An extended 'down' can be used in place of teaching 'stay'. Make sure you release your dog from an extended 'stay.'
Teach the cue 'bed' in a similar way ie say 'bed' when they are on their bed & reward. After some repetitions so your dog forms a link with the word 'bed' and being on their bed whether sitting, standing or lying down, you can instruct your dog go to their bed by saying 'bed' and tell them to 'down' when you have visitors come (to avoid your dog jumping up or barking at visitors).
Do not use 'down' to stop a dog from jumping or to tell a dog to get off the couch as this will confuse the dog. Teach the cue 'off' instead to get off the couch or off your bed or out of the car or off people (if they have jumped up).
The same method can be adapted to teach your dog other cues such as 'bed', 'leave', 'out(side)' and 'off'.
I will write further blog posts to teach cues such as 'leave' and 'off'. 'Leave' means to not touch or pay attention to something (eg to ignore a cat or barking dog, not eat something harmful or not to touch something stinky). 'Off' means to get all paws off the object or person.
Xanthe founded an award-winning pet sitting business in QLD, Australia in 2011. After selling the business, she returned to Taupo, New Zealand.
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