Excerpted from Click for Joy: Questions and Answers from Clicker Trainers and their Dogs by Melissa Alexander, an unparalleled guide to the concepts of clicker training.
Q: I'm trying to teach my dog to sit, but she's not really getting it quite right. What should I be doing?
A: Training your dog to sit? How hard can that be? Just pop him a cookie for putting his butt on the ground—right? Unfortunately, a reliable sit isn't quite that easy. Let's look first at how to get the behavior, then let's go over what it takes to get the behavior when you want it, the way you want it.
Getting the behavior
A simple, "butt on the ground" sit is easy to get through either luring or capturing.
- Luring: To lure the sit from a stand, use a piece of food to draw your dog's nose up and back. As his head goes back, his rear end will naturally go down. Click at the moment his rear touches the ground, then let him have the treat.
- Capture: To capture the sit, simply wait until the dog sits down. Click at the instant his rear hits the ground and give him a treat right away. If you're training for competition, a sit is more complex. It has additional requirements like "tucked," "square," and "straight." Each of those requirements is a criterion to be shaped.
Making it perfect
Getting the sit is just the first step. Consider each of these questions:
- Do you want the sit cued with a verbal cue, a hand signal, or a contextual cue, i.e., every time you halt?
- How long should the sit last? Five seconds? Five minutes? Longer?
- Do you want the dog to hold the sit while you move around or will you always be stationary?
- Does sit mean "sit in front of me?" Or do you want the sit to happen no matter where the dog is—and no matter where you are?
- Where are you going to want the dog to sit? In the living room? The backyard? Away from home?
- What are some potential distractions that might occur when you want the dog to sit? Other people? Other dogs? Kids on skateboards? Squirrels?
- How reliable is this behavior going to need to be? Are a slow response and multiple cues irritating but acceptable, or could your dog's safety potentially depend on the reliability of this behavior?
As the trainer, it's up to you to figure out how and when you'll use the behavior and then to train for those occasions. Training sit in the kitchen and then expecting the dog to respond when off the leash at a dog park is utterly unrealistic—and utterly unfair to your dog.
No matter how you define sit—or any other behavior—for your dog, keep this progression in mind when you train:
- Get exactly the behavior you want.
- Add the cue.
- Make the behavior perfect by generalizing to different locations and adding elements such as duration, distance, and distractions.
- Make the behavior reliable by proofing everything you've taught in every situation you plan to use the behavior.