Dogs don’t generalize very well. They need to learn cues all over again when context changes occur. Your dog may ‘sit’ in your living room, but look totally confused when someone else tries to command them to ‘sit’ at the vet’s office. ‘Sit’ just doesn’t have that broad of a meaning…yet. They don’t understand that this other guy’s ‘sit’ cue means the same thing as the ‘sit’ cue that you’ve been practicing at home. I kind of like it when my dog refuses to respond to strangers, and it is especially endearing when he spits out their treats! His shy guy act is easily overcome, a demonstration of a simple trick the stranger can replicate results in his sudden ability to respond to the stranger. You might be surprised by how murky your dog’s understanding of the word ‘sit’ actually is, especially when too many context changes occur. Varying the sequence of your commands, the environment in which they are given, and proofing until your dog can generalize concepts will result in much more reliable obedience. Each time your dog masters the cue in a new context, they are closer to generalization, and actually understanding what you mean when you say ‘sit.’
Try giving your dog commands while you are seated in a chair or lying down… suddenly your dog doesn’t know ‘sit,’ eh? But, by practicing giving cues while seated, then standing up to give them the familiar cue 2 seconds later, you can teach your dog that ‘sit’ means ‘sit,’ even when you are seated while giving the cue. Soon, your dog will sit before you stand up to remind them, reward them lavishly when they do, and forevermore you will enjoy not needing to get up from your chair to get your dog to listen to you.
Repeat the same exercise to teach them to respond to cues given while you are lying on a bed, or on the floor. Lie down, cue your dog to ‘sit,’ then sit up 2 seconds later to remind them what to do. Your dog will notice that this strange new supine ‘sit’ cue is always followed by your regular ‘sit’ cue. Combine this exercise with your ‘go find mom/dad’ cue and you’ll have yourself a real life Lassie in an emergency, instead of a regular old Labrador, licking you while you’re down.
Having trouble? You can teach these new seated or supine ‘sit’ cues by starting from scratch, luring your dog with a treat, just as you did when you first taught ‘sit.’ When you are teaching an old cue in a new context, use this simple formula:
1: Give your cue
2: Wait 2 seconds
3: Help your dog by offering more body language, luring, or using a familiar cue, if necessary.
4: Mark with ‘yes!’ and reward your dog
Still think your dog knows this ‘sit’?
Let’s try switching up your dog’s own body position. Ask your dog to ‘sit’ while they are lying ‘down.’ If your dog didn’t look up at you, totally puzzled, and actually sat up, then your dog’s understanding of the ‘sit’ cue is above average. Now, try cueing your dog to lie ‘down’ while they are standing. Did you need to use a lure to get them to sit first, then bend over to help them all the way down? If not, then your dog’s understanding of the ‘down’ cue is above average. The vast majority of senior dogs still need to be shown what to do. They just don’t recognize the cue in this context. They have always practiced ‘sit,’ then ‘down,’ in that order. They have never been asked to ‘sit’ back up while they were lying down. They have never practiced lying ‘down’ without first being asked to ‘sit,’ and when you finally do it, you will blow their mind.
Time To Hit The Gym & Do Some Puppy Push-Ups!
These intermediate training exercises will help proof your obedience and bring your cues under stimulus control. Practice each cue in as many locations and situations as possible to ensure their clear understanding of the concept.
Teach ‘sit’ from a ‘down’ position by luring from their nose upward. Often, simply drawing their attention upward by moving closer is enough… or stand right above them and talk excitedly, invitingly, maybe even touching their toes lightly. Say ‘Yes!’ and reward them when they sit up, then repeat, doing several in a row. Your dog must use their core strength to ‘sit, down, sit, down, sit, down, sit, down,’ and we all know our dogs need exercise!
Teach ‘down’ from a ‘stand’ by pushing a treat into your dog’s mouth, moving toward the back of their neck and then downward, which drops the elbows first, followed by the rear end. You can also encourage your dog to crawl under something, such as your outstretched leg, and mark the moment they lie down to begin crawling. These methods will get your dog to drop down nose first, followed by elbows, followed by butt. Teaching your dog to go ‘down’ elbows first is ideal because your dog can drop down much faster, and it prevents forward movement for perfectly polished obedience.
Cue (and lure, if necessary) your dog to ‘sit, then stand, down, stand, sit, stand, down, sit, stand, sit, stand, down, stand, down, stand, sit’… you get the idea! Switch it up and do a lot of it so that your dog can learn to discriminate between your cues.
I have met dozens of dogs that think ‘sit’ means: ‘sit, down, shake-a-paw’ because those 2 cues always follow the first, and it has become a chained behaviour. I have seen a hundred dogs that look absolutely baffled when they are asked to ‘sit’ on the sidewalk. There is no magic to having a dog who responds obediently in every environment. The secret is to practice in as many environments as possible, adding one context change at a time, until your dog is able to generalize, and actually get this ‘sit.’
So? Does your dog know their ‘sit,’ or what?