Teaching The "Sit" Command
Continuing our series on basic training from the last few issues, we now come to teaching "SIT."
Some of you are no doubt wondering why I've sequenced SIT toward the end our yard work program when it's typically thought of as one of the more basic--and first-taught--of commands. Primarily it is balance; we have to maintain a sort of stability of understanding and comfort in the dog as training progresses, at the same time being aware of how certain aspects of training impact others.
During our discussion of teaching HEEL, we decided that too much literal enforcement early on could translate to confusion when you begin to work your dog on a check rope on birds and practice steadiness drills. Well, there can be similar concerns with SIT€¦most pointing breed trainers agree teaching SIT early will increases the likelihood a dog will sit as a form of displacement behavior or escape from pressure during steadiness drills, especially around birds.
In fact, a large percentage of bird dog trainers never do teach their pointing breeds to sit at all, but instead rely on WHOA as their stationary command. I agree that teaching SIT too early can confound steadiness, especially in softer students, but when brought in at the right time, with clear definition, SIT becomes one of your more useful commands. Also, if you are training one of the continental breeds--German shorthaired pointer, German wirehaired pointer, Brittany, etc.--as a versatile dog to be used as a "non-slip" retriever, or any of the retriever or flushing breeds, SIT is a must.
When using any dog as a non-slip retriever, SIT is the key to your dog remaining steady, concentrating on marking falls and subsequently making productive retrieves. For example, in the duck blind or on a dove stand, working dogs have to sit calmly so as not to interfere with the hunt or flare incoming birds, as well as maintaining focus and being attentive to mark down birds as part of a successful retrieve.
Springer and cocker folks typically use "Hup" rather than "Sit," but any sound you wish to use as a cue will work. What's important is being clear and consistent once you decide.
My favorite training aids to begin this work are a standard fur-saver type choke collar and a three- or four-foot lead. One of the Smiths' "Wonder Leads" is another option that I use a good deal. It is also helpful to have a two-foot stick to tap the dog's rump or chest as training progresses.
We'll assume your dog is accustomed to and comfortable with both collar and lead, not necessarily trained to heel but does understand and yield to pressure.
Remember when teaching any command, we first attempt to guide the dog through the maneuver, to assume the desired position or behavior, and only when the dog begins to understand do we overlay our sound cue. My point is, we do not want to associate this cue with misunderstanding, confusion or disobedience, so we only bring it in once we achieve the basic response/behavior. So hold off on your command word for a while.
Next, you should decide on your release command. Every command must have a clear release or cue to end it. Some use "Okay"; others release with the dog's name. In any case, a signal is needed to release your dog to maintain clear parameters and understanding.
When you're ready to use the choke collar, for a dog heeling on the left face the dog holding the choke collar so it forms a "P" and place it over his head and attach your lead to the ring hanging on the dog's right. If your dog is to heel on your right, flip the "P" so the ring hangs to the dog's left. This way the collar will slide free to release pressure the instant you slacken the lead.
You may also use a training table or some sort of elevated platform to bring your dog up on a surface knee-high to you during the initial teaching phase. This can be a great aid, as most dogs, upon losing their secure footing on the ground, are far more attentive to your guidance. Plus, it's easier for you to move and hold the dog in position as you begin.
I suggest using a table at first. Walk the dog around a bit, then up onto the table to a stop in front of you. Next, simply lift on the collar with one hand while pushing down on his rump with the other. Hold the dog in that position a few seconds, and you might stroke down his back a little or pat his chest. Either offers some assurance while the pressure tends to hold him in position.
There are a couple ways to achieve the initial response we're looking for when beginning to teach SIT. With most dogs, simply holding up on the leash while stepping close and not allowing them back up will get the job done...lift up on the lead, step closer and stand quietly. A second method, and probably more conventional, is to lift up on the collar while pushing down on the rump... remember, no voice cue at this time. Once your dog begins respond you can usually lift on the lead and tap the rump or step close as suggested earlier.
You might have a battle early on, but keep him in a sitting position a few seconds or at least until he relaxes. Your signal is in the feel of his muscles or even a subtle sigh as the dog yields to your pressure. At that instant, you relax and give the dog a light brush with your hand, then hold him for a second or two longer, give the release command, and move off.
Again, don't give any other command words yet, and no big "Good Job!" or "Attaboy," either. At this point it would only wash out what little understanding your dog has gained. The first couple sessions are subtle gains.
If the dog moves before your release, push him back down and again hold him until he relaxes and sits for some time. In each session, you'll expect the dog to sit and hold his position slightly longer.
Once your dog yields to pressure and begins to assume the sitting position on his own, you can begin to overlay the sound cue. Say, "Sit€¦Sit" softly and slowly. Our hope is that the dog will now associate this sound with our desired response. Continue lifting the collar and pushing down his rump as you repeatedly overlay the SIT sound.
As you progress, move off the table and work through the drill in several locations around the yard, garage, and house, each time forcing the dog to hold his posit
ion until you decide to release him. Make him hold the position a little longer each time, then release him with "Okay." And remember you decide when, not the dog.
Also notice that I do not recommend a second command to keep your dog in position. You hear some folks say "SIT" then "STAY" but there is no need to complicate things; in the end SIT will mean to assume and hold the sitting position until released, with no options.
Once your dog understands and responds to your voice cue, it is time to think about some sort of visual signal to associate with SIT. The most common signal is a flat open hand, palm forward toward the dog. The visual will eventually allow for a silent signal or reinforcement during advanced work.
Begin bringing this visual into play along with the voice cue to SIT, reinforced with lead pressure during training. On the ground, with the dog facing you, move toward him while lifting on the lead and showing him the visual signal with your other hand. In time he will give to the lead pressure and sit.
If you would like your dog to sit on a single whistle blast, now is the time to bring it in too, pretty much in the same way you introduced the voice command. First, with the dog standing beside you, blow the whistle, apply lead pressure and maybe reinforce with the visual signal. After he has mastered this and sits at the whistle, begin moving the dog at heel, then stop, pop the lead, and hit the whistle. Be ready to tap on his rump with the end of your lead or heeling stick.
As you progress, strive for an immediate response to the SIT voice or whistle command. Popping up on the collar and a firm whack on the rump should speed the response, eliminating any confusion of what is expected.
To extend the sit time, with your dog in a sitting position, walk around, move back and forth, even walk around the dog, but keep the lead in hand at first so you can make corrections or force the dog back into position if he moves.
I suggest teaching your gun dog to sit at your side, giving you a leg up when you move to retrieving drills and actually hunting. Teaching the dog to sit straight allows you to line him up in the direction of the hall.
Take your time; this does not happen in one session, and in fact it may take weeks to get to this point. But you can do it. Remember, the benefits of discipline and self-control your dog masters here, and in other basic drills, become the foundation for advanced work.
Another point to consider is that dogs tend to generalize to areas and situations. In other words, just because they obey in your yard doesn't mean they will in other surroundings. So once things start coming together in the yard, add distractions, move to new areas and increase the SIT time as you and your dog gain confidence.
After the dog sits on command and holds position until released with various distractions and while you move around the area, you're ready to take the next step. Place the dog under the SIT command and walk away and completely out of view. If he moves, be ready to put him back in position and repeat this drill until he remains stationary with you out of sight.
Now the fun starts for working non-slip retrievers, spaniels, and versatile dogs. We move on to throwing dummies while requiring the dog to sit until sent for the retrieve, and at some point we will add blank shots, birds and so on. Granted, a bunch of other elements of training have to be in place as you move through these later distractions, but the concept is sound and demonstrates a progression of control among distractions toward our objective.
In all cases it is very important to set up artificial situations where you're in control and able to make corrections. Don't wait for opening day; if the wheels come off then, it can get ugly. So plan ahead and do your homework. A finished dog doing its job yields rewards beyond measure.