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When to Teach the "Sit" Command for Gun Dogs

Did you teach this common command too soon?

When to Teach the "Sit" Command for Gun Dogs
Photo Credit: Dean Pearson

Back during the halcyon years, when I spent time as a quasi-professional dog trainer, I always asked my clients if prior to bringing their dogs to me, they’d taught their dogs to sit. If they had, I knew my job had just gotten that much harder.

Yet I teach my own dogs to sit and recommend others do so as well, because it is a very useful command that will make your life easier. So, what gives?

Timing. You should teach your dog to sit last, not first. In other words, you should reverse the traditional order of when the sit command is taught to save yourself a headache.

Timing Is Everything

Most folks feel they should do something with their new pups, and that something is usually teaching the dog to sit. If all that dog was ever required to do was sit, then there would be no problem with that. But pointing dogs are also required, at the very least, to whoa and to recall to whistle and voice commands. If you teach the dog to sit before teaching it anything else, the other commands will be more difficult, although certainly not impossible, to teach.

All new commands stress young dogs to the extent that they struggle to understand just what it is you’re trying to get across. A confused dog, knowing that you’re telling it to do something but unsure of what that command is, will revert to performing a command it already knows—the sit command.

If I had a nickel for every pointing dog I’ve trained that sat when I first commanded it to whoa, I’d have a lot of nickels. It’s very common fallback behavior in dogs that have been taught to sit before being taught any other commands, and simply waiting to teach the command until last will usually, if not always, nip the problem in the bud.

Is My Pup Ruined?

Let’s say I’m too late and you’ve already trained your pup to sit. Is he ruined? No, not at all. It will just take a little more work on your part.

The solution is straightforward. When you introduce your pup to the whoa command (or the recall command, heel command, etc.), and instead of whoa-ing the dog sits, don’t hit him with your E-collar. This will only confuse him further. Instead, lift your dog’s hind-end and stand him up, repeat the command, and when he remains standing, praise him.

But there’s a catch: You’re going to have to do this more than once. Sometimes a dog will get the message the first time he’s repositioned, but it’s far more likely that won’t happen. Instead, what will happen is that your pup will try to sit even after you’ve lifted his butt off the ground. If he does, pick him up again until he stands, no matter how many times you have to do it.

Curing him of this problem won’t happen overnight. I’ve had dogs that figured it out in a couple days, and dogs that would still sit on occasion weeks or even months later. Once it becomes a fallback strategy for your pup it can be hard to break, but break it you must, and you can if you’re persistent.

Should I Keep Teaching Sit?

So, given the drawbacks to teaching the sit command early, why not just forget it entirely?

You can. Many pro trainers recommend doing just that. They’ve got their reasons, and I don’t argue with them. But, I teach it because I share my house with my four dogs, and there are times when giving a sit command to a dog that is bouncing off the walls is the only thing that preserves my sanity. At the start of a hunt, when I put my dogs on the tailgate to fit them with their gear for the field, making them sit makes my job a little easier. At the end of the hunt, when it’s time to give the dog a tailgate checkup and brush him out, a sitting dog is a lot easier to handle than a dog that is pacing back and forth.

Teaching Sit

My process for training sit is easy and simple. Attach a leash to your dog’s collar. Simultaneously lift up on the leash with one hand and push down his butt with the other, and give him the command “sit.” Pushing his butt sideways and down, rather than straight down, is much easier. Give him the command a half-dozen times, and then repeat it again later in the day. Each time he sits, reward him with a treat and praise.

For hard-headed dogs, I use a piggin’ string (also known as a Wonder Lead), or a slip-chain collar. As the dog progresses, I add distractions: teaching him to sit in different places around my yard and when other dogs are present. Much later, long after the dog has been collar-conditioned, I add stimulation from an E-collar to reinforce the command. When he’ll sit even when distracted by other dogs, you’ve arrived.

Teaching the sit command isn’t something you should be afraid of. It also is not a command you should avoid. But teach it last, not first, and you’ll gain a valuable tool for controlling your dog and save yourself some headaches in the long run.

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