Adrienne is a certified dog trainer, former veterinary assistant, and author of the online dog training course "Brain Training for Dogs."
The Difference Between Straight and Sloppy Sits
Dogs, just like humans, develop different body postures and may develop a predisposition to sit in a certain way. When a dog is taught to sit, he or she may decide to sit straight with the legs tucked nicely under. Alternatively, a dog may choose to sit in a sloppy, lazy way, where the legs are spread out to the side.
While owners training their dogs to be simply companion dogs may care less about how the dog sits, those who have special ambitions—such as training the dog in rally obedience—may be a bit more picky about getting nice, square sits.
How to Train Straight Sits
If you have high aspirations and plan to compete with your dog in the future, it helps to reward only the straight sits while ignoring all the sloppy ones. It is much easier to train a correct behavior from the get-go than to correct one that has been allowed for a while to put roots.
However, if you own a dog that consistently sits sloppy, it is worth bringing this to a vet's attention as there can be muscular or skeletal causes such as hip dysplasia. You may also want to skip asking straight sits in a very young puppy. Puppies get better at sitting straight as they grow once their muscular-skeletal system is better developed. This is why trainers forego asking puppies for straight sits, explains respected dog trainer Pamela Reid in her book Excel-erated Learning.
Encouraging Straight Sits From the Start
Note: This is how a dog who has never been taught to sit can be trained to sit straight.
On the very first day, train your dog to sit using a treat as a lure. Allow the dog to sniff the treat by bringing it to the dog's nose and then lifting it towards the dog's head. As the dog follows the treat with its nose pointing towards the ceiling, as an opposition reflex, the dog's rump will touch the floor. Reward the action of putting the rump on the floor regardless if it was straight or sloppy.
The reason is that you need the dog to know that the rump on the floor is what you want. If you would reward only straight sits during this delicate moment, you would likely confuse the heck out of the dog. He may think ''So do you want me to sit, or not? Please make up your mind!'' The action of putting the rump on the floor is much more salient in a dog's eyes than whether the legs are tucked in under or to the side at this stage.
During this time, put the dog on a continuous reinforcement schedule, meaning the dog is rewarded for every sit. Then, once the dog has demonstrated to have grasped the concept of ''when I hit my rump on the floor I get rewarded," you may start reinforcing only straight sits.
This is when you will start putting the dog on a variable reinforcement schedule of excellent behavior, therefore, you will start selectively reinforcing only the most amazing responses'' as Pamela Reid explains in her book. (This is the part that may be of interest to those who have a dog already trained to sit but that occasionally does a sloppy sit.) Obviously, this is done over a short period of time, so the ''sloppy sit'' behavior does not have a chance to put roots and become a bad habit. This means that you would have your dog on a continuous schedule until he/she sits on command reliably.
Then you would quickly shift to rewarding only when the sits are straight. This is when the dog acknowledges ''Ok, I now understand you want me to sit, but now I also have to figure out the correct way you want me to sit." This also feeds the dog's desire to improve and you can see the pride in their eyes when they get it right. Personally, I like to put enthusiasm for a specific task before asking for perfection.
This method of training works because the wanted behaviors are rewarded, whereas the not wanted ones are not, causing them to extinguish over time. This is the main core principle of positive reinforcement training.
A Word About Lazy Sits in Dogs
Please note, should your dog still perform sloppy sits, it is important to first rule out medical problems. For a list of potential causes of lazy sits in dogs, consider reading more about why dogs sit sideways.
Correcting Established Sloppy, Lazy Sits in Dogs
Once medical problems have been ruled out, then you can try to ask for straighter sits. One way is to simply create the ideal environment to foster straighter sits. For example, you can train your dog to sit in a corner or between a pile of books in hopes of straightening it.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2011 Adrienne Farricelli