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Building a Solid Sit Requires a Release Cue

Most people I know can get their dog to sit on cue. It may not always be pretty. Often it takes several tries or various techniques; but nearly everyone can request, maneuver, or cajole their dog to into putting bum to ground. Most of the time, that is where the behavior ends. The sitting dog either gets a small celebration of sorts for complying, no recognition for sitting at all, or worse, punished for getting up too soon. Yet, rarely is a sitting dog ever released. Think about it, isn’t that completely nonsensical? Poor dogs. They must wonder, “When is ‘sit’ over? What does sit actually mean?” Herein lies the problem.

Very few people have dogs with a solid sit. This is largely due to two factors: They haven’t generalized the training of the behavior of sitting to multiple locations and situations, nor have they ever taught their dog a release cue. Want your dog to sit right away every time, everywhere? Practice makes perfect. Want a better stay? Release the hound!

At first it may seem counterintuitive to teach your dog to release in order to get him to stay. You may think, “My dog already knows how to get up and leave. I don’t want him practicing breaking position.” However, I assure you this technique of teaching an opposite and incompatible skill will work not only for a sit or down-stay, but also will help loose-leash walking and barking, among other things.

OK, so let’s talk sit. People tend to teach sit at close proximity and with the dog placed directly in front of them. To the dog taught in this fashion the “sit picture” is just a placement in relation to the human. The dog will not generalize the action of sitting to other placements in relation to a person’s body, such as sitting side by side facing the same direction, as one would expect in a heel position, or sitting far away from the handler, say, across the room. The dog will only sit in various circumstances if you practice in as many different places and placements you can think of as places you might someday want your dog to sit on cue. The front door, for example, is an excellent place to practice the sitting behavior.

Additionally, a dog taught to sit without a release cue hasn’t properly been taught any duration for the behavior of sitting and therefore really doesn’t understand how to stay. Most of the time when we ask our dogs to sit in training practice, we only mean for them to sit briefly, and then we reward right away. To us, the exercise seems complete, and the implication clear: stay seated for as long as I want you to sit. But really, how long is that supposed to be, and how the heck is the dog to know if you don’t clearly tell him when the exercise is completed? They just try their best to work it out by trial and error.

Without a release cue, in real life, most dogs just eventually get up, generally sooner than later, and most of the time, we say nothing, and the dog is none the wiser because we aren’t paying attention. Then, when we really do need our dog to sit still for a period of time, say, at the vet, greeting a person, or again, at the front door, we are frustrated because our dog doesn’t stay put. But the onus is on us.

In order to ever get a sit-stay, you’ve got to make sure to very gradually teach your dog to keep his bum on the ground for longer and longer periods of time. At first just ask your dog to sit and quite literally count the seconds. One good dog, two good dog, and … free! Add additional seconds as your dog improves.

If your dog doesn’t automatically get up when you say free, it is because he doesn’t yet know the release cue and is trying so hard to get sit right. You may have to entice him to get up by clapping your hands or making kissy noises after you say your release word to encourage your dog to move. Alternately, if your dog isn’t staying seated long enough for you to release him, you are waiting too long. Shorten the duration of your stay and build more slowly.

What you are doing here is making things crystal clear to your dog by setting expectations and boundaries for the exercise. The final piece of the puzzle to train your way to a stellar sit-stay is consistency. It is essential to always require your dog to sit until released and to never forget or leave your canine partner hanging or to release himself; this just breeds confusion for the dog, and he’ll likely keep breaking his stay in an attempt to figure out what sit means. That, by the way, is not disobedience, but rather, sleuthing. So please for the sake of sit, tell your dog to be free.

Kelly Gorman Dunbar is director of the Center for Applied Animal Behavior, where she recruits and trains the instructors for the Dunbar family business, SIRIUS® Puppy & Dog Training. She is the creator of the SIRIUS Sniffers scent-detection program. Kelly is also founder and president of Open Paw and consults on various matters.