My Dogs Don’t Know Sit!

What if your dog’s cue for a behavior is not what you think it is? Can you be sure—absolutely sure—that the dog really understands what you want?

That’s another place where punishment-based training can really go awry. How often are dogs punished for failing to perform when they just don’t understand? I think it’s much more often than most people realize.

My dogs are pretty good at sitting. But their cue for sit and stay is not what I intended it to be. Luckily I figured that out. I know exactly where the problem came from and how to fix it, should I decide to. And perhaps by sharing, I’ll help some others who might be in the same boat.


The Three D’s

Dog trainers often talk about the “three Ds” in training: duration, distance, and distraction. Each of these represents a set of challenges for the dog.

When working up a stationary behavior such as a sit/stay (or even a moving behavior such as walking on leash, but let’s limit the discussion to stationary behaviors for now), you need to gradually work up the length of time the dog can do it. That’s what we call duration.

But even if your dog can hold a sit/stay for 60 seconds while you are standing right there that doesn’t automatically mean she can do it if you park yourself 10 feet away. That’s distance. Distance needs to be specifically and gradually taught. It’s a challenge for several reasons. Principal among them is that for most dogs’ early training, the reinforcement usually happens right there on their person or close by. They will tend to follow you when you move away.

And even if your dog can hold her stay while you quietly stand 10 feet away from her there is another challenge. Distraction. Can she stay if you drop your treat bag? If another dog in the family trots by? If you go sit in a chair (surprisingly hard, since dogs often associate that with the session being over)? If the doorbell rings? If her best friend comes in the room? If you toss her favorite toy in her direction? You get the picture.

Most trainers train the three Ds in roughly the order above. Get a little duration first before introducing the other challenges. Then train distance, then distraction. (Distance is just a particular kind of distraction, anyway.) But what happens if you jump straight to the other challenges early on? You’ll see in the movie.

My Achilles Heel: Duration!

When teaching the very beginnings of duration, one usually silently counts seconds. There are different protocols for going about this, but the idea is to gradually lengthen the amount of time the dog stays in position without being released. With behaviors like holding a dumbbell, you usually have to start with increments of 10ths of a second to get that first bit of duration. With sits and downs, the dog can generally already perform the behavior for a second, maybe two, so you start there and work up.

I get terribly bored just standing there teaching duration, so my most common error as a trainer is starting to move around too soon. What has happened as a result is that my moving away has become part of the cue for “stay.” Oh-oh. If I don’t move, they don’t believe me. You can see that in the video.

Here’s how long each dog lasts on her sit/stay when I just stand in front of her.

  • Clara: 4 seconds until she breaks position to nudge my hand, and 4 more until she stands up.
  • Summer: 1 second until she goes into a down.
  • Zani: 1 second until she goes up into “sit pretty,” another 2 seconds until she goes into a down.

That’s pretty embarrassing. But also note in the video that when I move away immediately after giving the cue, they can hold their sits successfully through duration, distance, and distractions.  They can all last several minutes when I do that, with distractions including tug toys dropped in their vicinity, my walking around or actually leaving the room, and all manner of food placed out to tempt them. Again, their cue to stay is my movement much more than my verbal cue.

Edit, 2/9/16: In the movie, I dubbed in the word “Fail” when each dog broke her stay, to mark how fast that happened. A viewer’s comment caused me to realize it sounds like I’m using a No Reward Marker. I wasn’t. It’s only in the voiceover, not from the training session. And in case it’s not clear: the failure is never theirs. It’s mine.

Link to the movie for email subscribers.

What Did They Do Instead of Staying in a Sit?

Each dog switched to a behavior that had been recently and heavily reinforced. Summer went into a down on the rug. She had a tactile cue (soft surface under the butt) to perform her mat behavior.  Zani tried “sit pretty,” which we have been working on in that very place, before Cue giving pawtrying a down as well. Clara tried a stand, which we have also been working on in that area of the house.

It’s a beautiful example of the dogs’ reinforcement history taking over when they are unsure.  I didn’t give what to them has become the “real” cue for a sit/stay: for me to move away and start doing random things and providing distractions. So each dog gave up but each tried something different: what has most recently been reinforced in that context.

This kind of thing happens all the time. Frequently we don’t actually know what the cue is for the dog. And in the absence of that special cue, they revert to guessing and expressing their reinforcement history.  It is often a reason people think their dogs are “giving them the paw.” That’s very sad, since what the dog is doing is trying to get it right in the face of unclear instruction.

Contributing Factors

There were several other reasons for their failure to sit and stay. As I mentioned, reinforcement history contributes. A lack of confidence in verbal cues in general (because I don’t always work hard enough on cue recognition and stimulus control with them) is another. The fact that I generally encourage them to offer behaviors is yet another; they have nothing to lose from guessing. And finally, though I hate to mention this, I don’t use a “stay” cue. I’m not a good example of that practice, which can work perfectly well when one is clear about the cue to begin with! But adding in a “stay” could probably make up for some of my other frailties as a trainer.

Edit, 10/23/20: I wrote a follow-up post about another contributing factor, more important than all the rest. Because when I stopped doing it, the dogs held their stays the very first time. 

Can They Really Not Do It?

Of course they can hold a sit/stay with me standing right there. I’ve mentioned before that I do a lot of my training following Sue Ailsby’s Training Levels. One of the early steps of sit/stay (Level 2 Sit) is to work up to 60 seconds when you are standing in front of the dog. All of my dogs have performed that stay many times, starting early on in our training relationship. But in the course of life, I don’t use that behavior much. I don’t ask my dogs to sit for long periods, especially with me standing right there. I use down much more often, so the sit/stay breaks down.

Summer Zani sit stay

But it takes only a few minutes to get that sit/stay duration back if I want it. Even in the course of filming the above “failures,” the dogs started working up their duration again. I could have a minute-long sit/stay from every one of them after a couple of training sessions. But honestly, I’ll probably let it lapse again.

In case you would like to see a lovely “real life” sit/stay, here is Zani doing a short agility run (in which we won first place, I might add). Being parked in front of a jump standard is another clear cue for her to hold a sit/stay.

The Map of Reinforcement

I’ve mentioned my concept of the “map of reinforcement,” something I started to see once I learned and really internalized that behavior was driven by consequences. I wrote about this at length in my post, “What Dog Training Really Taught Me.” What the dogs tried instead of sitting and staying showed a map of what had been reinforced. And here’s something related: my dogs’ behavior is also a map of my behavior. Yep. Whenever all three of my dogs have the same “failure,” it’s a pretty sure bet that it is something that I am consistently doing. An experienced trainer could look at the movie and know exactly what I did when training to cause my dogs to break their stays as they did. I know what I did, too. The fact that I don’t always fix stuff like that is perhaps why I’m a writer and not a dog trainer!

Care to share situations where you found out that the cue for the dog was not the cue you thought you were giving? And has anybody else done this particular silliness with duration behaviors?

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Copyright 2015 Eileen Anderson

11 thoughts on “My Dogs Don’t Know Sit!

  1. I’ve accidentally trained dogs to lie down when I stepped back from them, which was tricky for me to figure out how to undo! The funniest for me though, was when I found after having babies that my dogs all know I’m right handed! We had to retrain all our cues to be followed whether given with my right or left hand so I didn’t have to jostle babies around to get my girls to listen.

    1. Those are two good ones! I tend to dole out treats with my left hand, so at least one of my dogs looks at me funny when I give her a treat from my right hand. She keeps looking at the left hand, as if the good treats are all over there.

  2. Yes, the “wrong hand treats”. My other dog won´t even take the treat if given with my left hand. Well at first she did not. And I realised some time ago that the cue to sit is me lifting my chin up. Not the word sit. I so should film myself, I tend to do all kinds of weird movements. Is it in general more easy for dogs to look than to listen?

    1. Funny how they learn left and right despite our teaching it, but what a challenge it is to assign names to those and put directions on cue! That’s a good question about looking vs listening. I don’t know. They can discriminate sounds really well too, so maybe the things we do with our bodies are just really “loud” to them.

  3. Oh yes, oh yes. Just the recent examples–my Flat-Coat, Nina, thought her cue to sit at heel was the very slight, un-noticed-by-me upward leash pressure I was applying. When I tried to set her up off-leash I didn’t get a sit very often, & my irritation (I mean she KNEW, right) showed in my voice, & turned the verbal cue into a punisher, & I stopped getting sits at all. Had to re-teach with a new cue. “Hup!” & she bounces into a sit, looking very happy.
    The next we are still dealing with. I have taught the Drop on Recall with a foot target, so that she could learn that behaviors that she performs away from me will be rewarded; the target clarifies the away-from-me part. She has learned this really well, & clearly enjoys smacking her target–I used a small metal cookie tin so I could tell from the sound if she’d hit it. Then I tried to remove the target. Then I noticed that she would drop at the target without a verbal cue 95% of the time, & drop without the target only about 10%. Oops. Since I don’t have a set of cookie tins in diminishing sizes (plastic lids are nose targets) I am trying to fade by changing the number of reps with & without the target, i.e. 4 with, 1 without, 3 with,2 without, etc. The jury is still out, since the weather has not been good enough for outdoor training lately. Another cue that complicates the issue is the presence of a toy on my person–she will drop like a stone if I have a tuggy around my neck, or God forbid, a tennis ball in my hand. The problem comes when I ask her to front before i throw the toy–she keeps dropping. I think her record was 7 extra drops. I keep telling myself that a dog who will slam her elbows into cold concrete in an Indiana December is a nice problem to have. Just a slight matter of stim control, ahem.
    Love your blog. I’ve been reading my way through from the beginning.

    1. Wow, what terrific examples! Isn’t it funny the challenges we end up creating for ourselves? Dropping like a stone when you have the tuggy. Hah! Yeah, a ball in the hand gets me all sorts of interesting behavior from one of mine!

      Thanks for reading my blog. That is very flattering that you are reading it from the beginning. Thank you!

  4. Our boisterous Obi came with a very strong “jump up and bonk you in the nose” greeting. We immediately started training Sit, and he quickly learned it. So we added highly arousing distractions, like jumping around and waving arms in the air, and his Sit solidified further. However… when visitors started coming by, we learned that HIS cue was no longer “Obi, sit”, but “Human jumping around and waving arms in the air”. Since visitors didn’t do that, they got nose-bonked in the face, and we had to retrain from the beginning.
    It’s now a year later. A few days ago, I thought to test him. When I started waving my arms and jumping up and down, his butt instantly plopped down. What a memory he has!

    Happy New Year, and thank you for all you share with us! I love “the good, the bad and the ugly” that you share, as it makes all the theory so much more real. You are a wonderful teacher.

    1. Chris, you won the Internet today. That is such a cute example! Thank you for your kind words, and Happy New Year to you too!

  5. I have also found that when I stand by my dogs and look at them, they tend to think it is free shaping, like I am waiting for them to offer behavior. If I give them more “hints” by placing distracting treats, or walking around them, they are quick to realize what we are doing. But since I have done quite a bit of shaping, they take my “waiting” as a cue to try stuff.

    1. Definitely mine, too! Funny story: once I worked so hard on “backing up” with both Zani and Summer before adding the cue that they would just start backing up anytime I stood and looked at them. And our shaping really tanked because of course “standing and looking” is also the unofficial cue for shaping. I had to do “shaping rehab” to teach them to move forwards again. Coincidentally, I did it by placing lots of objects around, like you mentioned.

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