Golden Retriever Training: Teaching The “Sit” Skill


The “sit” skill is one of the basic skills that all Golden Retrievers should learn. For most Golden Retrievers, it is an easy skill to learn quickly. While being a relatively easy skill for most Golden Retrievers to learn, it is an essential foundational skill to learn. The sit skill is the set-up position for most of the other more complicated skills that follow. 

The “sit” skill teaches your Golden Retriever to sit down upon cue. “Sit” helps put a dog in a calmer state, and it lays the groundwork for learning other more complex skills such as “down,” “stand,” and “stay.” “Sit” is the natural default position for most dogs, making it quite simple to teach.

Sitting is typically not a difficult skill for your dog to learn. For most dogs, sitting, followed by laying down, is their natural default position (some Golden Retrievers, like our Bailey, do both as a default). So, getting them to sit is usually relatively easy, and they catch on quickly. 

“Sit” also has the added benefit of putting the dog in a calmer state. Therefore, the “sit” skill becomes a useful tool in situations when you need your dog to be calm and under control.

For example, maybe a guest is coming over. Then, the “sit” command becomes useful in putting your Golden Retriever in a calm and controlled state before greeting your guest.

The “sit” skill most often utilizes lure training.

I discussed lure and capture training in my article on teaching the “look at me” skill. If you need a refresher on that concept or are brand new to lure training, I suggest taking a few minutes to check out my post: Golden Retriever Training: The “Look at Me” Skill.

The Training Session

So, let’s start training.

Remember always tell your dog when you’re starting the training session and when your ending.

Start with something like “okay, let’s start” to begin each session. To end the session, you can say something like, “okay, we’re done.” Pick phrases that work for you. 

I recommend starting each new session by reviewing a few repetitions of a previously taught skill that your Golden Retriever is proficient with. A few repetitions will do it. In doing so, you start the session with a few wins, which helps reinforce previous learning concepts and builds confidence. 

The Basic Progression: The Sit Skill

  1. Sit, kneel, stand, or squat in front of your Golden Retriever.
  2. Hold a treat between your thumb and index finger, so your pointer finger is sticking out (lure hand). 
  3. Make sure your dog sees the treat and it’s very close to its nose. 
  4. Move the treat (lure) over the bridge of your dog’s nose slowly and upwards, so your dog follows the treat upward and slightly back. 
  5. As your dog’s head tilts backward, it should naturally go into a sit position. 
  6. As soon as the dog’s butt hits the ground, say “Yes, sit” and reward. 

Add The Verbal Cue

Remember, we don’t say the verbal cue in the initial first six steps because we want the dog to understand the concept first.

Once your dog understands what you want (the behavior you’re looking for), then adding the word “sit” begins the process of conditioning the word with the desired behavior. 

So, follow the steps outlined previously, but now after step 3 you will:

  • Move the treat over the nose and upward, say “sit” (verbal cue), and once the dog’s butt hits the floor, say “yes” and reward the dog. 

Once your dog can reliably do the “sit” with the verbal cue, you can now fade the lure.

  • With no treat in the lure hand, repeat the process as before, and when your dog sits, say “yes” and reward the dog from your other hand. (Your dog is now responding to verbal cues and hand signals, not the food lure).

Fear not; the video below does a great job of showing how this is done. You’ll notice the trainer using a clicker in the video, which you can incorporate in your training if you desire. 

The clicker is the marker, just like the word yes. Dogs learn faster – up to 10 times faster with clickers, but it can be a bit more difficult to phase them out, which is why I prefer to use verbal markers instead. 

Plus, verbal markers are just more convenient – you never have to worry about forgetting your voice.

Proofing the Skill: Duration, Distance, and Distractions

Once you have successfully taught your dog to sit, your dog now gets to graduate with increased difficulty using the Three D’s.

Hold up. Don’t know what the Three D’s are?

No problem, I outlined the Three D’s in an article written on the “leave it” skill. Take five to get up to speed on the concept if you need to. You can find that article here: Golden Retriever Training: The “Leave It” Skill.

Duration 

First, ask your dog to initially sit and count to one or two seconds and then say “yes” and reward. Then, increase the time you ask your dog to sit by one-second intervals and increase accordingly with successful attempts. 

Remember, as the intervals get longer, start using your intermediary marker of “good.” So, as your Golden is patiently sitting, we say “good,” wait a few seconds and say “good,” and so forth. “Good” is telling the dog to hold the behavior until we provide the reward.

Distance  

Ask your dog to “sit, step back with one foot, pause a second, say “yes,” and then step back to your dog and feed the treat. 

Next, take two complete steps back, then return to your dog for the reward. Continue slowly, adding only one step at a time. As you add steps, your also increasing duration as a byproduct, so it’s reinforcing that skill as well. Remember to use the “good” marker to let your dog know to hold its position.

Bailey holding a sit for about 45 seconds (duration). I zoomed in for picture quality but I was standing about 15 feet back (distance).

Distractions 

Asking for a sit and especially a sit for duration or distance become much difficult with distractions. So often, dog owners will say things like, “he sits so well at home, but once we get to “x” (fill in the blank), our dog seems to forget everything.” That’s because dogs are poor at generalizing to other settings, and new smells, sights, dogs, or people just compound that further. 

It is essential to have a strong foundation of the “leave it” skill taught first with duration and distance before adding distractions. 

Always start with a more manageable setting that is less distracting and easy for your dog to work within. Then, work your way up from there to more distracting environments. 

The backyard is often the best place to start with if you have one. Moving to the backyard offers a familiar environment while adding an increased but manageable distraction level. 

You start by first reviewing the “sit” skill in the new setting without duration and distance. Once your Golden is successful with that, you add in a longer duration and finally distance. Always move sequentially only after your Golden is adept at the previous skill. 

Then you might slowly progress to the front yard, the sidewalk, the park, and so forth, repeating each progression in each new setting. 

If you do not have a backyard, then find a relatively distraction-free setting outside. You may need to do a few visits to this location initially to acclimate your Golden to the new environment first. 

Common Problems 

The most common problems are that your Golden will jump up to get the treat when luring him into the sit position, or he stands up from sitting during the duration or distance progressions. 

 If your dog jumps up to get the treat, it usually means you have it too high above its nose. Say “nope” calm and casually, and don’t reward. Reset and try again, but this time with the lure closer to the nose. You’ll see when the butt starts to slowly move towards the floor that you have the right angle. 

If you can’t get the dog to sit using a lure, then try capturing. Make sure you have some treats available and wait for your Golden Retriever to sit, then say “yes” and reward. Of course, the problem with capturing is that you have to be around for it to happen, and you need to have treats available when it does.

If you use capturing, try it when your dog is a bit tired after playing or exercise, and do it in a quiet room with no distractions (like a bathroom). You’ll find your dog is relaxed in this situation and is more likely to sit, especially if it wants out of the room (should sit at the door). Then you can quickly capture the behavior more easily.

I find capturing works better as an adjunct to lure training, but it can be effective if your dog is not getting the concept with a lure. It just takes more patience and timing.

The other issue happens during duration and distances. If your dog stands up during the duration or distance progressions, it just means you’ve asked too much from your dog. 

Take a step back and reintroduce the progression at a point where your dog was consistently successful and work upward from there more slowly. That might mean half-second increments or half-steps. 

If issues occur during distraction training, consider that normal. Just continue to train the skill in all progressions and settings where your dog can successfully do the behavior.

Distraction training will take the longest. If your Golden is having difficulty with more distractions, then move into a less distracting environment and keep repeating the behaviors.

How Long Does It Take To Teach A Golden Retriever Sit?

It should not take long for you Golden Retriever to learn sit. Golden Retrievers are highly intelligent and catch on very fast. 

On average, your Golden Retriever should learn the “sit” skill in about 5 to 10 repetitions. Then, continue to reinforce learning through repetition once your dog learns the initial behavior. The goal is to ingrain the skill in both muscle and mental memory, so it becomes automatic. 

Keep in mind, however, that some dogs catch on slower than others. That’s normal for them, and you’ll just need to spend some extra time and effort making sure they understand. 

Often there are a few things that can impede the learning process, so be conscious of the following:

  • Moving too quickly for the dog – go slower. Be methodical and deliberate in your training.
  • Asking too much of the dog or expecting too much – break it down into smaller steps.
  • Training in a distracting environment – find someplace quiet and distraction-free. 
  • Not exercising or playing with the dog before a training session – you need to burn some of the excess mental and physical energy to prime the dog for training.
  • Not communicating correctly – build communication through eye contact, voice tone, cues, and body language. 
  • Make it fun – a bored dog is an unattentive dog. 
  • Reward with enthusiasm – let the dog when it did something you wanted, and you’re pleased. 
  • Multiple short training sessions are most effective – three to five, 5 to 10-minute sessions per day will do the trick.
  • Capture behaviors when they occur spontaneously – reward the dog for sitting even when not asked.

Remember, repetition is the mother of all skills. Consistency, practice, and time will be the key to faster learning.

Next Steps

In the next training session, we’ll focus on the down skill. Down is a little more tricker to learn, but it flows nicely from sit. So you’ll ask your dog to be in a “sit’ while teaching the down skill, which makes it easier for your dog to learn.  

The “down” skill is the second of the basic skills. Again, like sit, we’ll be using lure training, and we’ll also be teaching down with both verbal cues and hand signals. 

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