How To Teach a Shelter Dog to Sit

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How To Teach A Shelter Dog to Sit
Illustrations by Susie Duckworth

The dogs relinquished to your shelter for “jumping up on people”or “acting wild”can’t master the rules of human etiquette on their own; they need a little help from those of the two-legged persuasion. But you can teach them good manners, stimulate their minds, and reduce their stressall while you’re feeding, walking, or grooming. Read on to find out how you can have your canines sittin’ pretty when prospective adopters approach.

1. Make Training a Treat
To make the experience pleasant for both of you, choose a dog who’s friendly and not overly frightened, and take her out of the kennel area and into a place with fewer distractions. Start by holding a treat in front of the dog’s nose, and slowly move it back up between her ears, keeping the treat at about nose height. At first, the dog may be confused, walking backwards or jumping up for the treat. But with just a little bit of time and patience on your part, she’ll get the idea. Once she starts to catch on, reward her with a treatbut only while her rump is grounded. When she’s reached a full sitting position, release her from this stance by saying “okay”and praising her profusely.

2. Quiz Your Puppy Pupil
Now that your eager student knows what you want her to do, it’s time to test the extent of her knowledge. Hold a jackpot of treats, stand still with your hands at your waist, and just wait for her to figure out that you want her to sit. When she does so, reward her again with a treat and plenty of praise. Once she sits for you, allow other staff members or volunteers to try the method. If your poochy pupil doesn’t “sit”right away for the others, they can simply go back to Step 1. The goal is to teach the dog to sit for anyone who is standing in front of her.

3. Distraction Action
Once your friend has mastered steps 1 and 2, it’s time to introduce some more complicated scenery. While the dog is sitting, allow her to nibble on a treat from your hand as you “march”in place in front of her. Move only your feet and knees, keeping your upper body straight and your hands at your side. If the dog breaks out of the “sit”position, stop moving and stop feeding. Ignore all inappropriate behavior such as jumping, mouthing, and clawing. If she starts any of these activities, simply fold your arms across your chest and look away. Soon enough your friend will get the picture and plop her bottom back on the floor.

4. A Test of Endurance
All this sitting business will be more effective if you make it stick for at least a few seconds; otherwise you may have a jack-in-the-box on your hands. To train the dog to maintain some sitting staying power, start slowly by having her sit for one second before rewarding her with a treat. Next, wait two seconds and reward her for remaining in a “sit”position, and so on. Work your way up to longer periods of time.

5. Jumping Jack Flash
Repeat the process: Allow the dog to offer you the “sit”position and reward her with a treat. Allow her to sit for a few more seconds, and reward her again. Start waving your arms in front of her; if she remains seated, reward her with a treat. Progress to jumping jacks, and don’t stop there. Practice creative body dancing, jogging in place, waving your arms up and down, and making lots of noise. If the dog remains seated for any kind of distraction you make, reward her for holding the “sit”position. If she keeps getting up, go back to the distraction sequence.

6. Ready to Graduate
Before you know it, you’ll have a poochy prodigy on your hands, and you can apply the same methods to all interactions. The dog will now want to be sittin’ pretty any time a person approacheswhether it’s to open her kennel door, put on her leash, pet her, or walk her out of her kennel and into her new life with adopters who have fallen in love with her charming ways.

This is the first in an occasional series of How-Tos based on the methods of Sue Sternberg, a nationally known trainer who boards owned animals and shelters homeless ones at her Rondout Valley Kennels in Accord, New York. Sternberg’s seminars have inspired shelters around the country to start their own in-house training programs.

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