Saturday, June 25, 2011

"Sit" Does your puppy really know what it means?

Somehow we all seem to teach our dogs to sit for their food bowls. Whether by luring: placing a morsel of food close to their nose and moving it a tiny bit so their nose goes up, their hind end goes down; or by capturing it: We see the dog moving into a sit and we mark the behavior and then reward with their dinner bowl. Every day, sometimes twice a day, our dogs are fed, we practice sitting, we add the word 'sit' and we assume they understand sit.

But do our dogs really know what sit means? What is their cue to sit? Positioning themselves in front of us? Seeing a food bowl in our hands? In the kitchen? Next to the counter? Dogs are very visual and may learn that sitting occurs only in these contexts. So do they really understand the verbal cue to 'sit'?

I have been focusing on teaching 15 wk old Java early on that correct responses to all cues should occur in all scenarios. I did help Java out by luring a few times. I also captured the action of sitting when he would randomly sit thru out the day. Click and treat each time he did and rather quickly he began to move into the sit position. I waited until Java was offering to sit for a click and treat before I added the verbal cue to 'sit'. The hand signal to sit comes built in if you lure the position. We practiced outside, we practiced inside in several different rooms. We practiced with the food bowl in my hand, and with my hands empty. We practiced with the lead on and the lead off. We even practiced at a farmers market this past weekend!

Every time I changed the place I was training at I lowered my expectations a bit. Sometimes I did lure him to help him out especially in a distracting situation . But I quickly moved away from the treat in my hand, to an empty hand, and then just the hand motion. When adding the verbal cue I would say the cue, pause, and follow it with the same movement of my hand that I had used to lure him into position. Sometimes I would see Java lowering himself into a sit, and I would add the word 'sit' as he was performing that action. Click and treat when he was in a sit. Using the clicker helped speed the learning process. Java has begun to offer behaviors in order to get a click which is then followed immediately with a treat.

Sitting at my side, instead of in front of me seemed to be challenging for Java. So I broke the behavior into tiny increments until he got the idea. When he knew the verbal cue to sit from in front, I moved slightly (think inches) to the right and asked him to sit, click and treat when he did. He was now sitting slightly crooked in front of me, think of it like a slice of slice over from center. Several reps were repeated at this angle until he was fluent in his movement to a sitting position when cued to do so. I then moved a bit more to the right each successive training session until he was sitting at my left side. I repeated this sequence for him sitting at my right side. Things moved more quickly once he understood that sit happened in places other then in front of me.

We practice each step of this on different surfaces: grass, carpeting, asphalt etc. We practice in different rooms of the house and different venues. For instance, at the farmers market I lowered my expectations. So much was going on, so many things to look at. I helped him out by asking for a few sits with him in front of me. That was a skill he knew fairly well in several different venues. Click and treat for each sit. I then turned my body ever so slightly and cued him to 'sit'. He did and got a jackpot, several treats in a row. Java was taking tiny steps towards learning how to respond to the cue to 'sit' no matter where he was in relation to my body.

Can Java sit with my sitting in a chair, sitting on the ground? The first few times I helped him by luring him into a sit. When he was beginning to offer to sit with me in this new position, without me luring him, I added the verbal 'sit' as he was moving into position to sit. I gradually moved the verbal cue to slightly before he began to sit. He now can sit on verbal cue with me sitting on the ground, in a lawn chair and to my left and right sides.

Does he know the verbal cue to 'sit' in all contexts? Not yet, but we are building a solid foundation to our final goal. I will also repeat all these tiny steps with the cue to 'down'. As Java learns to respond to various cues in different scenarios the learning will go faster. He will learn to generalize much more quickly. Until then, I will take each step slowly, always making sure he enjoys the training process.

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