Teach Your Dog to Sit… Without Treats!

Kate Naito
by Kate Naito
Integrate “life rewards“ into your dog’s training to encourage polite behavior without the need for treats.

One of the common misconceptions about positive training is that you have to give your dog treat rewards every time he sits for the rest of his life. While there are some situations that may require long-term food rewards, there are also many others that rely on other kinds of reinforcement for good behavior.

Life Rewards

The main principle of positive training is that polite behavior such as sitting is rewarded, making it a win-win for both dog and owner. Failure to do the polite behavior generally results in the owner withholding a reward. Therefore, only polite pups get what they want. But who says the reward has to be a treat? Enter life rewards, calorie-free reinforcement that gives your dog access to everything he wants… as long as he sits first.

When to Use Life Rewards

When teaching Sit for the first time, the average dog will learn more quickly and smoothly if you use food rewards. This is because you can easily lure him into the sitting position with food and then reward him for plopping his rear on the floor. But once he has learned what “sit” means, it’s time to incorporate life rewards. Your daily life provides numerous opportunities to practice polite behavior.

  • Barkley wants you to throw a toy? Sure, but he’s got to sit for it first. No sit, no toy.
  • Sparky wants you to put on his leash and go for a walk? Great… but only if he sits while you clip the leash. The moment he breaks the Sit, you walk away for several seconds before starting over. (Yes, this is tedious in the beginning but stay strong!)
  • After the leash is on, Sparky has to sit while you open the door, too. Any attempts to door dash will be thwarted by you closing the door before he reaches it.
  • Doggie dinner is a perfect time to require a Sit while you prepare the food. If Delilah stands or jumps up, you walk away from the kitchen for a few moments.
  • Access to the couch must be earned. Sadie can ask for permission to join you on the sofa by sitting and waiting for your invitation. Should she jump up uninvited, she will find herself back on the floor (gently please). Note that this only applies when you are already sitting on the couch.

How to Implement Life Rewards

Let’s use the example of sitting while the leash is clipped, as it is often the most challenging.

  1. Stand near the leash. Ask your dog to sit, only once.
  2. If he doesn’t sit within 5-10 seconds, don’t repeat the cue. Instead, walk away and try again a few seconds later.
  3. The moment he sits, grab the leash and calmly put it on. Off you go!
  4. If he gets up at any point during this process (and in the beginning he will), put the leash away and turn away. He just lost his chance to go outside. Wait a few seconds before starting over.

This activity teaches your pup a few things: 1) when you say “sit” once, you mean it, 2) it is wiser for him to respond the first time rather than waste time jumping and barking, and 3) sitting is his ticket to walks and other cool stuff, so it will become a default behavior. And all of this is accomplished without either treats or punishment.

Now it’s your turn. Make a list of the things your dog wants access to, and always ask him to “sit” for them!

Kate Naito
Kate Naito

Kate Naito, CPDT-KA, is a dog trainer at Doggie Academy in Brooklyn, NY, and author of the training book, "BKLN Manners." She draws upon her experience as an educator and dog trainer to apply positive training techniques to a challenging urban environment. Kate is a rescue advocate drawn to special-needs dogs and currently has two Chihuahua mixes, Batman and Beans.

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