Training Your Dog to Sit

Training your dog to sit is one of the first lessons that you and your new puppy or older dog must master.  It's a crucial step in dog training, and one that you really can't skip! 

In obedience training, it's called the "sit-at-heel" or "heel position".  This is where your dog is sitting nice and straight at your side (usually the left side for training purposes).



This is probably a bit of a different picture than what you may be used to... many dog owners settle for having their dog sit where-ever he feels like, whether that be beside you, in front of you, behind you, or 10 feet away from you!

I can see you scratching your head already.  So why is this a problem?  Obedience training is about precision and control.  Dogs learn to control their instincts to chase squirrels, to jump, to bark. 

So when we teach our dog a new command, we have to very black and white about what that command means.  This is making it easy for your dog to learn what you expect, and will help him master a command quicker!

I teach the sit command first, before stay, before come, and before heeling on a leash.  A solid sit command is your foundation to work from for other exercises. 

And while you're probably tempted to take the leash off when training your dog to sit because he is such a good boy, don't do it!  Not yet, anyways...

At this point in training, your dog has to be successful in order to learn something.  Since we don't want him to become successful at ignoring our commands, this is where the leash comes into play. 

Always keep a leash on your puppy or new dog while he is learning a new command.  This way, you are able to follow through on a command in case he doesn't want to listen! 

A good rule of thumb is that if you aren't 150% sure that your dog will listen to you, don't take the leash off.

Training your dog to sit must be black and white - no grey areas - or your dog will get confused!

Getting Started

Before you start training, let's get all your dog training tools together and ready to go.  When training your dog to sit, you'll need the following:

  • leather or nylon training leash, preferably 6 feet long
  • dog training collar appropriate for your dog's age and temperament - There is a lot of mixed opinions on collars.  The fact is, your dog needs one. Trying to train a dog without a training collar is a lot like trying to drive a car without power steering.  
  • a few soft, aromatic treats, such as Rollover, chicken weiners, or Pupperoni

It's best to start training your dog to sit somewhere quiet, with few distractions around.  Once your dog learns the command, you can start adding distractions to practice the new exercise.

You don't necessarily have to train in the house, as long as you choose an area outdoors where the distractions are kept to a minimum (i.e. a fenced backyard or the sidewalk in a quiet neighborhood).

Before starting any training session, it's a good idea to put your dog's collar on about an hour beforehand.

  This is to prevent your dog from becoming "collar-trained", where he behaves one way when the collar is on, and misbehaves when the collar comes off.  Also, leave it on for about an hour after your training session, too!

A dog's collar should fit like a watchband - snug, but you should be able to fit one finger between the collar and your dog's neck.  If it's hanging loosely at the bottom of your dog's neck, it's way too loose!  If you can't move the collar around on your dog's neck very easily, it's too tight.

For flat-buckle and prong collars, always undo the collar before putting it on.  Once in position on your dog's neck, re-attach the collar or buckle.  Most martingale collars are adjustable, so you will have to loosen it up, slip it over your pooch's head, and then tighten it up again.

Effective Dog Training Collar PositionProper collar position on your dog's neck for training your dog to sit.

Once the collar is on and fitted properly, clip your leash on and use two hands to gently pull the collar up nice and high behind your dog's ears and under his chin. 

If you have ever seen a show dog, you'll notice that the collar is way up high like this.

This is called the tender zone, as there isn't much muscle on this area of his neck.  With the collar in this position, you will have better control over your dog than if the collar was hanging down low on his neck (where a dog has the most muscle!).

The photo to the left shows my dog, Justice, wearing a martingale collar properly.  Keep in mind, a properly fitted collar will slide down your dog's neck - this is normal... 

You'll have to gently pull it back up every few minutes while training to keep it up high!

The Command

Alright, so you have your tools, and Rover's collar is on and in the tender zone, with the leash clipped.  Put a couple soft treats in your pocket. 

You'll want to hold the leash by folding up the one end in your right hand, held by your naval, and use your left hand to grasp the leash a few inches from the collar (depending on your dog's height). 

The collar shouldn't be pulled tightly, so move your left hand up the leash a little to make sure that it is loose.  This is called proper leash technique.

The photo to the right shows you how to hold the leash, and where your dog should be sitting once you've told her to sit (follow the steps below).

Notice how Justice's collar is up nice and high on her neck, and the small "J" in the leash where it clips onto the collar - the leash should hang nice and loose!

Training Your Dog to Sit in Heel PositionHeel position and proper leash technique when training your dog to sit.

So what's the command when training your dog to sit?  Don't...

  • say "sit, sit, sit..." - this teaches your dog to listen after a few commands, not the first!
  • say "sit down" - these are two separate commands, and you don't want to confuse him.
  • yell "sit!" with an angry voice, or you'll condition, or teach, him to listen only to shouted commands
  • pull up on the leash and sit simultaneously - you're not giving him a chance to listen before correcting him!  Instead, give him three seconds to comply first.
  • use your dog's name before sit - I like to use my dog's name to mean that it's a forward motion command (i.e. heel, come, stand), so for sit and stay, I only use the one word.

Instead, with your dog standing on your left side...

  1. Command "sit" in a firm but normal tone of voice (only say it once!)
  2. Wait three seconds to give him a chance to comply
  3. If he sits, give him some praise, but don't go overboard or he may get excited and stand up again
  4. If he doesn't sit, move your right hand and grasp the metal clip of the leash (without dropping the end that you are already holding), and let go of the leash with your left hand.  Move your left hand to your dog's rump.  Simultaneously, use 75% pressure to pop up on the collar for 1 second and 25% pressure to gently push his rump down.  A dog's neck is much stronger than his hips, so be sure to pop up firmer than you are pushing down!
  5. Immediately loosen the leash again and praise as soon as your dog is sitting.  Stand up straight and hold the leash as you were at the beginning again.


Important Tips to Remember When Training Your Dog to Sit!

Training Your Dog to SitTraining your dog to sit - Photo courtesy of Bev Goodwin via Flikr

Never let the leash and collar go tight for longer than one second!  Any longer than that and you are hurting your dog.  

If your dog lies down at some point in the exercise, you can't pop him up into a sit from there... this is much too harsh when a dog is "green", or still learning the ropes. 

Instead, use a happy voice and wiggle your fingers above his nose to coax him back up into a sit.

I said it before, but be sure that you put more emphasis on popping up with the leash than on pushing down on the rump! 

A dog's neck is the strongest part of their body - why do you think so many dogs pull their owners around the block at walk time?

Alright, so let's assume for a moment that you have given the "sit" command, and your pooch is now sitting at your left side. 

Sit means sit - so while on command, he's not allowed to sniff the floor, lie down, stand up, or even shake-a-paw.  He's allowed to look around by moving his head (not his rear end!) and breath.

Sound hard-core?  It is!  This is how you get a well-trained, reliable dog!  It's not being mean... in fact, it makes it easy for your dog as he knows exactly what he should/should not do.

In the case of Rover sniffing the floor for a stray treat, or starting to stand up or lie down, don't say anything!  Don't repeat the command to "sit", as you want your dog to learn to hold the first command that you gave him. 

Simply move your right hand with the whole leash in it to the metal clasp, loosen, pop straight up, and loosen again (remember, one second correction) in a fast, fluid motion. 

Simultaneously, use your left hand to gently press down on his rump and steer him into a straight sit beside you again. 

Then, praise him!  Stand upright and be ready to correct again if he moves out of a sit.

The "Release" When Training Your Dog to Sit

Hopefully by now training your dog to sit is moving along well.  You understand that sit means sit, and Rover isn't allowed to sniff, stand up, lie down, or shake-a-paw while "on command". 

But you're probably wondering, how do I release him from the command?

Training your dog to sit is really a two-step exercise.  You need to be able to tell him to disengage from the exercise as well! 

This is called the release command.  And yes, it's still a command... whether he wants to or not, your pooch does have to get up from the sit when you tell him to.

So how do you go about this?  Obviously, you need to have your dog sitting nicely at your left side to begin.  Wait until he is not trying to pop up right away, but is content to listen to you and sit quietly. 

You need to choose a word that you will use.  I use the word "Okay", but others use the words "Free", "Release", "Go on", or any other word you'd like! 

It really doesn't matter which word you choose, but keep it short, and be sure to always use the same word for this command to avoid confusing your dog.

Training your dog to sit is a great way to prevent jumping!  It teaches proper manners for greeting others.

Got your word picked?  Alright, let's take it away!  With your dog sitting nicely at your side, say your word in a happy, higher-pitched tone of voice. 

Why the different tone?  Well, you want Rover to be able to differentiate between when it's a command, and when you're simply talking to someone. 

You don't want to have to worry about accidentally saying that word in everyday conversation, so if you use a high-pitched, happy tone, he will only listen to that tone for this command!

Now, your dog may just sit there and look at you.  That's normal... he doesn't know what that word means yet. 

Wait 3 seconds to give him a chance, and if he stands up on his own, praise him.  If he stays sitting, open your left hand and give him a gentle push on the withers (area where his shoulders are) or under his belly (but not a belly rub!).  Praise him when he gets up.

On a release command, your dog is free to do what he wants, like a break time.  You, however, must keep your feet planted where you are, and hold the end of leash. 

Your pooch can go the length of the leash, so 6 feet around you if that's how long your leash is.  If you want to end the training session, give your release command and then un-clip the leash.

Practice Makes Perfect

Just like anything, the more you practice training your dog to sit, the more consistent and reliable he's going to become! 

You should get into the habit of practicing the sit and release command every day.  In fact, you'll see the most improvement if you do 30-40 random sits throughout the day, ranging from 10 seconds to 1 minute in length.

What is a random sit?  All that it means is that you don't take a half hour and make your dog sit and release over and over again 30 times in a row.  That is way too boring, and a young dog will lose interest very quickly in that!

So when is a good time to get your practice into your day?

  • whenever someone wants to pet your dog
  • before feeding
  • before entering or exiting a door
  • before entering or exiting the car
  • while waiting for the vet
  • before crossing the street

Keep in mind, always have him sit at your left side from now on, not in front of you.  Why? 

Typically, the next lesson for a dog is to heel, and that is done at your left side as well.  If you start reinforcing sitting in front of you, your dog will never get the hang of being at your side.  Again, it's to be consistent in training.

Follow these steps exactly, and you'll have no problems training your dog to sit!  See?  I told you it wouldn't be hard :)


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