Wouldn’t you just love it if your dog automatically knew how to behave in certain situations? If, for example, while out for a walk, he would sit politely when you stopped to chat with a friend?
Instead of telling your dog to perform a certain behavior, such as sit, every time you want him to, you can train your dog to automatically perform the desired behavior in certain situations. This is what’s called a “default” behavior, and it makes for a very well-behaved dog.
Think about it this way: Basic manners and social protocols tell us humans how to behave in both new and routine situations. We teach small children to look at people when they are speaking, to extend a hand to meet new people, to be quiet in libraries and churches. Training your dog to perform a “default” or “automatic” behavior provides a similar outcome — a dog who appears polite and is more manageable.
Defining Default Behavior
So what, exactly, is a “default” behavior in dog training? The term is short for “factory default settings,” and comes from the technology world. According to Merriam-Webster, default is “a selection automatically used by a computer program in the absence of a choice made by the user.” So, we could also call these “automatic” behaviors.
Of course, your dog is no computer! Rather, the idea is to help the dog understand that his humans value a particular behavior.
The most commonly trained default behavior for pet dogs is “sit.” If that is the behavior you want, help him understand that automatically sitting really pays off. Then, when he is unsure of what to do, or when he really wants something, he is much more likely to offer that behavior.
Why Default Behaviors Are So Helpful
All dogs know how to sit even before we train them to sit on cue. The first training that dogs get is usually helping them know to put their cute little bottoms on the ground when we make a certain gesture or say the word. When we reward them with treats and praise, they make an association between our cues and the behavior. Good dog!
A reliable cue is a great thing, but it requires us to ask them to take that position. While that is not terribly difficult, there will be many times when you are engaged in conversation or some task and will find it very helpful to have the dog take the “default position” without you having to cue it.
Ever have the problem of trying to get a leash clipped to the collar of an overexcited dog? Or, does your dog dash out the door, dragging you down the steps on the way? Dogs trained with the automatic sit will offer that sit when they are excited about going for a walk. The reward of the walk easily reinforces the sitting while you clip the leash and open the door.
What about when you’re talking on your cell phone while out walking your dog, and you come to a curb and need to wait for traffic to pass? A dog with a well-trained automatic sit will be safe and stationary while you continue your conversation.
The automatic sit also is very valuable for young or exuberant dogs who tend to jump on people who come to your home. With training, your dog can learn that he only gets petted while sitting. If he enjoys petting and you are consistent in your training, the behavior problem — jumping on people — goes away!
Many people equate the automatic sit with “saying please.” If a dog understands he will not get a treat from your hand until he is sitting, he will “ask” for the treat politely by taking the sit position. At this point, we have the dog thinking! He can learn to offer the sit when he wants something. The more often we require the sit for him to get things that he likes, the stronger this behavior will become.
Teaching Your Dog A Default Behavior
How do we you make the transition from a dog who knows the “sit” cue to a dog who offers a “default” sit? Start with a hungry dog, really high-value treats, and a quiet space without too many distractions. (If you have a multiple-dog household, work each dog separately at first.)
These five simple steps will get you on your way:
- With yummy treats in hand, ask your dog to sit.
- Reward the dog quickly — as soon as the butt hits the ground.
- Repeat three to five times.
- Next, remain in front of your dog with treats in hand. Wait. (NOTE: Keep waiting. Don’t say a thing! Really. Wait!)
- When the dog moves into the sit position, reward quickly and generously.
We set the stage for success by starting with the behavior the dog already knows. The key in this part of the training is step 4 — the human must give the dog time to think about what it just got rewarded for in steps 2 and 3. If the treat is rewarding enough and there are not too many distractions, the dog is very likely to offer to sit without a cue after having just seen it work several times. Essentially, he anticipates your cue and offers the sit.
If the dog doesn’t sit after a couple of tries (or if you get too much barking instead of sitting), take a break. Make sure he doesn’t need to relieve himself, put him in his crate or a boring room, and pull out better treats, or wait until he is hungrier. If he is wandering off, put him on a leash. If he “mugs” you by jumping or nudging your hand, ignore him and see step 4. If he barks, turn your head to look away and see step 4. If the dog does not offer a sit, repeat steps 1 and 2 several times, then see step 4. Repeat the steps.
One of the biggest problems with helping owners get this behavior is that they feel the need to talk to the dog, give the cue, or scold them if they haven’t done it yet. Just wait.
To apply the automatic sit to other situations, take a similar tactic. Let’s say you want the dog to sit before getting petted. You’ll need a dog on leash, a person the dog is motivated to get to for petting, and your patience. Hold the leash at a point that would not allow the dog to reach the person until he is very close, and start with the person at a distance that allows the dog to listen to you, his handler, without distraction. (This might take a little bit of experimentation to locate the optimal distance.) Ask the dog for a sit, and reward with a treat. Ask the person to take one step toward the dog. If the dog gets up, repeat the cue to sit. As long as the dog remains sitting, the person can walk forward. Once the dog gets too excited and stands, the person should back up. You can provide instruction for the person, but the person’s movement will begin to reward the dog when he is “right.” When the dog stands, the person moving away from the dog should make the dog stop to think about what is making the person leave. Just let the dog observe this process. If the dog wants contact from that person, the picture will become clear. (Note: When the person gets very close, have he or she move quickly to pet the dog. Otherwise, you sometimes get an awkward moment when the dog jumps up at the last minute. Good timing by your petting person will help avoid this).
Both humans should remain calm and focused on the training. Extraneous conversation or distractions will make it harder for the dog to crack the code. Ask the approaching person to respond immediately to the dog’s sitting or getting up. That lets the dog see that his behavior is causing the resulting action by the person. If it helps to focus the dog, the approaching human can reward the dog with treats when he holds the sitting position. But be aware that adding the treat may actually make it harder for some dogs to concentrate!
This kind of training takes consistency and patience. Don’t give in by allowing the dog to get the reward – the treat or the petting – without the required behavior. You may think you are being kind, but you would actually be confusing the dog’s learning process. Sticking to the “rules” of the game actually makes it easier for the dog to catch on.
It also helps to work in short sessions. Dogs do best when we train in sessions of five minutes or less. You may string together several sessions to get more done, but put short games of fetch, tug-of-war or some other favorite activity between the sessions to give your dog a mental break. It is easy to use a phone app or a kitchen timer to remind you to take the breaks.
If you prefer, you can train the dog for an automatic “down” position, or to stand, or other necessary behaviors. Just be careful what you reward as the “factory default” behavior, because you are likely to get a lot of it once the dog understands the process!