Distance Position Changes
Even though you think your dog sits fairly reliably, he probably will not sit if he is at a distance. In fact he probably will not sit if there is any variation in the training scenario. If you turn your back on him and ask him to sit, he probably won’t. If you lie on your back and ask him to sit, he probably won’t. If you ask him to sit in heel position as you continue walking, he probably won’t. But don’t worry, your dog is not being disobedient. Rather, like all dogs, he is an extremely fine discriminator and has only learned precisely what you have taught him — to sit if he is right in front of you, or if he is by your side in heel position. So, you need to teach him to sit in every possible situation and especially, if he is at a distance and distracted.
The dog’s failure to comprehend is difficult for owners to understand at first but teaching dogs is very different from teaching people. A person will generalize from one training scenario to all others, whereas a dog only learns exactly what you teach him. To teach a dog to sit in every possible situation, he needs to be trained to sit in every possible situation.
Before you can teach distance commands, you must make sure that your dog’s verbal comprehension is at least 90% reliable when he is right next to you. Why? Well, if your dog does not sit promptly and reliably when verbally instructed to do so when standing right in front of you and staring at your face, what makes you think he would sit when forty yards away and chasing a squirrel or charging another dog. When your dog is running away from you, or even when his head his turned, he cannot see your handsignals or body language (which are really easy for him to understand) and so, verbal commands are the only way to get him to respond. So, first you must check that your dog understands verbal commands when he is close to you before expecting him to respond to verbal commands at a distance.
And why should we bother teaching distance commands? Well, because when an owner has reliable distance control over their dog, the dog may now enjoy a quantum leap in terms of quality of life. The dog need no longer be confined when family and friends visit the house and the dog may be allowed off-leash in dog parks and on walks in safe areas, because the owner is secure in the knowledge, that the dog will sit when requested to do so. And let’s think about it; sitting promptly when requested will prevent or resolve pretty much every behavior problems there is. A dog cannot jump up, chase cats, chase his tail, or run off if he is sitting. (See Sit List) This is why teaching your dog an emergency distance command is so important.
So first, let’s check how well your dog understands proximal verbal commands. Go for a short walk and every 10 yards verbally instruct your dog to perform a S-D-S-St-D-St sequence until you have completed 20 sequences. Use verbal commands only; no handsignals or unintentional body language. Keep track of how many verbal commands are required before your dog responds with the correct body position change. Maybe have somebody film this exercise so that you may accurately score your dog’s performance afterwards. Then for each position change, e.g., Down from Stand, divide the number of position changes (20) by the number of verbal “Down” commands that you gave, multiply the number by 100 and this gives you the percentage reliability for this verbal command. For example if you said “Down” 43 times to get your dog to lie down on the 20 attempts, then your percentage reliability is 20/43 x 100 = 47%. Not good enough yet, so keep practicing. Once your dog’s reliability exceeds 90%, we can easily teach him distance commands.
Once your dog has a good comprehension of proximal commands, we can now teach distance commands. When teaching new and additional commands, the sequence is always the same — we follow the new (unknown) command (the one we are trying to teach) by the old (known) command, which serves as a verbal lure to prompt the desired response. In this instance, first we ask the dog to sit from a distance and then immediately afterwards we ask the dog to sit from close up. Because the two commands always occur in the same order, the dog learns to anticipate, or predict, the known proximal command every time he hears the unknown distal command. So, after a few trials he begins to respond as soon as he hears the distal command.
Ask your dog to “Down-Stay,” take one step back and then say, “Sit.” If he sits, praise him profusely and offer a couple of treats. If he does not sit within a second, quickly step back to stand toe-to-toe in front of your dog and say, “Sit.” This time he will probably respond. Praise and offer a piece of kibble. Now take a step back with him in a sit-stay and this time instruct him, “Down.” Praise and reward him profusely if he responds correctly and if not, simply step back and ask him to lie down again.
Please remember, he is not being dumb or disobedient, he just doesn’t understand distance commands yet. But after just six to eight pairings of the distance command followed by the proximal command, he will soon start to respond as soon as he hears the distance command. Now training speeds up and you will find he quickly learns to sit when you give the instruction from two yards away, then three yards, then five, ten, twenty, and so on.
To get your dog used to working in different environments, first practice with your dog off-leash indoors, in your yard and in friends’ yards. When on walks, practice asking your dog to sit when he is at the end of his leash. Then practice with your dog on a long line, or Flexi Leash. Now, you are ready to practice with your dog off-leash in dog parks and other safe areas.