When working with dogs that display behaviour problems such as aggression, chasing or attention seeking, it is rare that I see dogs that can sit with distractions. Yet a solid sit with distractions so often makes managing any behaviour problems easier, and this seemingly simple behaviour goes a long way to preventing many issues developing in the first place. So a solid sit with distractions is one of the most important behaviours every dog should master.
At this point you may be thinking, “there’s no need to read on as my dog sits”. But there is a big difference between sitting when the dog chooses to do so, and sitting when someone is running, jumping, bouncing a ball or entering the house. Most dogs will happily sit when they want to, but the mastery needed is when the dog sits as signaled to do so, no matter what is happening around it.
Once the dog can sit with distractions, we then want the dog to sit so we give one signal and the dog stays put for at least 20 seconds, no matter what is going on. Once this is mastered then you can always find a new distraction, so really sit training never ends.
The easy part is teaching your dog to sit without distractions. For that you just need a piece of food, and then hold this in your hand close to the dog’s nose. Then move it up and over the dog’s head, so the dog follows it backwards. The dog will then sit to follow it. Once the dog sits, give the food to the dog. Now you just need to practice this in 5-10 minute sessions, a few times a day. Once this is working well, just say the dog’s name followed by the word “sit”, before you move the food up and over the dog’s head. The dog will then quickly learn that when you say “Fido – sit!” that you make a weird hand movement over the dog’s head and food often appears. So now the dog sits.
The next stage is to build in some duration between when the dog sits and when you feed the dog or give any other reward, such as praise or attention or a ball. To do this, count in your head “Good Dog One” for one second, and build this up to 20 or 30 seconds before giving the reward. To do this you need to yo-yo the time duration up and down, and always feed the dog before the dog breaks from the sit and before the dog shuffles back, sniffs or barks. Otherwise the dog will learn to do these extra behaviours to get the reward.
Finally, we need to add some distractions. At first this just means giving the signal “Fido – sit!” then stepping away and then back toward the dog, and rewarding the dog before the dog moves. It is all about timing, but by repeating this small movement in incremental steps you can increase how much movement you can make before you feed the dog for not moving.
Once you can step away from the dog, then progress to stepping away more quickly and then try walking around the dog. The key is always to move at a rate that does not cause the dog to break from the sit, and to reward the dog before this happens.
Once you can move away easily, then progress to skipping, or running and jumping while rewarding the dog before the dog breaks the sit. Try bouncing a ball, or playing catch with a ball between friends if you want a challenge. If you like yoga or other home exercises then ask the dog to sit and then begin your activity, but reward the dog occasionally for staying put.
With your sit with distractions mastered at home, then repeat this on walks. You may need to stand further away from distractions such as dogs or runners but the principle is the same. The difference is that you cannot control other people or dogs, so that means moving away from these distractions to a point where your dog can sit. Then do this every day in the same location and gradually you will find that your dog just sits and waits for the treat, no matter what is happening around you and your dog.
You’ll soon find people stopping and staring, and asking questions about your well-behaved dog; another distraction for your dog to master while sitting!
If you struggle with controlling your dog and cannot teach it to sit with distractions, there can be many reasons for this including pain, fear and training methods so you should seek assistance from a qualified clinical animal behaviourist. To safeguard the welfare of your pet and to be confident that your own concerns are treated respectfully, DEFRA and the Government refer to the Animal Behaviour and Training Council (ABTC) with respect to trainers and behaviourists. You can find them at www.abtcouncil.org.uk and within this organisation you will find members of the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors, the Association of Pet Dog Trainers (UK), the Canine Behaviour and Training Society and ASAB Certificated Clinical Animal Behaviourists. These organisations can also be contacted directly via their respective websites.
Graham Thompson is the Technical Editor of Trail Magazine. He also an Msc in Companion Animal Behaviour Counselling and is a Full Member of the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors, a Certificated Clinical Animal Behaviourist and he is on the Animal Behaviour & Training Council Register of Clinical Animal Behaviourists.