The quickest behavior to get under control is a sit. With a good sit comes a solid stay. After all, what good is it if your Chihuahua hits the floor like a champ, but can’t hold it long enough for it to be a useful skill? But first let’s see how you can teach a Chihuahua to sit.
Puppies as young as six weeks, as well as adult dogs of any age, can attain this baseline behavior within days. It quickly becomes a great way to direct your new Chihuahua’s behavior to appropriate solutions for a long list of bad manners. If your Chihuahua is sitting when new friends approach, he can’t jump. If he is sitting and paying attention to you while someone passes on the street, he is less likely to bark like a banshee, or chase dogs or kids on bikes and scooters.
You have given him something else to do, and dogs don’t really multi-task. If he is sitting on his mat during mealtime, he cannot rudely solicit tidbits from your guests at the dinner table.
If you get the behavior, mark the behavior, and reward the behavior, the dog will repeat the behavior. Once he is repeating the behavior you can teach him to only offer it on cue, something called stimulus control, and then use the sit in all those situations you need your Chihuahua to be calm, settled, attentive, and out of trouble!
You can start to teach your Chihuahua to sit with a variety of methods. One of the easiest ways, though, is to lure the dog into a sit and capture it with your clicker! Start by holding your food lure, usually a tiny tidbit of chicken or cheese about the size of a raisin, directly in front of your Chihuahua’s eyes and move it slowly and steadily toward the back of the pup’s head. Your hand position is important, since holding it too high will cause your Chihuahua to jump, and moving it too fast will cause him to just back up.
As your Chihuahua lifts his nose to follow the lure, his weight will transfer to his hind legs, and he will sink back into the sit position. Keep your hand still until your Chihuahua sits, and then mark the behavior with a click and give your treat!
When your Chihuahua hears that click will jump up. Don’t worry – holding the position for any length of time comes later. Now he’s in position to do another repetition of sit, so lure him right back into sit position again, click and treat. Do not tell the dog to sit or stay at this time; giving him too much verbal chit-chat can distract him. Be patient, and let him figure out that following his nose up, and folding his back end down, is what results in the reinforcement.
After the first five to ten reps your pup should start to offer the sit for you, sometimes called “recycling” the behavior. Now, your Chihuahua clearly understands what is getting reinforced and is purposefully offering it to get you to click! Once the puppy is recycling the behavior, you can start to make your hand motion smaller and begin to use an empty hand to signal the sit motion. You don’t want to condition the dog that you must be holding a food lure over his head for him to sit.
An alternate method to teach the sit position is to shape the sit by waiting for your Chihuahua to do it on his own. Hang out in the same room as the dog, but just ignore him as you read the mail or check your e-mail, keeping one eye on your Chihuahua. He will get bored and eventually sit. Capture this behavior by immediately clicking and then throw him the treat.
Your Chihuahua will immediately jump up and get excited that you’re playing a game, but you can just go back to ignoring him again. When he gets bored again, he will sit. Capture this one, too. Within a few minutes the dog will be recycling the sits, trying to make you click. This method is called free shaping a behavior, and will leave you one less step to fade out, namely, hand luring, before you move forward to true stimulus control.
Whatever method you use, after a few sessions of capturing the behavior with the clicker, the puppy should be confidently offering a working version of the sit. Now is the time to assign it a verbal or hand cue that you can use to signal that he should sit to get the reinforcement. Once your Chihuahua offers the behavior only on cue, you will have true stimulus control.
The most straightforward way to help the dog get to this stage is to label the recycled behavior he is offering. Say the cue word or show a hand signal, a slow upward motion of the hand with your elbow held a waist level, just as the pup has moved into sit position. You should time the cue just as he does the behavior, wait a second or two and then click and treat.
You will label the behavior for your Chihuahua for several sets of repetitions, usually at least thirty times. For the next set begin to say or show the cue to the dog a millisecond before he moves into position. When training the sit, this would be after his back end starts to sit back, but before his rump hits the ground. Then slowly back up the cue until the cue is coming one second in front of the behavior.
By now, you should have established a cue that elicits the behavior. Once you have established this conditioned cue, and it elicits the behavior consistently at least 90 percent of the time, you will stop reinforcing the behavior when it’s not cued. Your Chihuahua should stop offering it freely and start to respond only to the cue. Just don’t drop out the reinforcement too quickly. If the dog is unsure because your cue was conditioned too weakly, you could extinguish the behavior altogether. Go back to repetitions of labeling and reinforcing each sit for a few sessions to clear up your communication.
Initially, just get one cue, either verbal or a hand signal, under control and fluent. If you say the verbal cue while giving a hand signal at the same time, you run the risk of overshadowing or blocking, two common phenomena that are byproducts of unclear conditioning.
Overshadowing occurs when you present too many stimuli in the equation, and one that is unintended is linked to the behavior you’re trying to get under control. For example, you lure a sit with a hand motion, and at the same time you say sit, while you are standing up, making eye contact, and leaning toward the dog. Which of these cues do you think the dog is learning means sit? Probably not the verbal one. More than likely it’s the motion when standing up and making eye contact, or it could be the hand movement or leaning toward the dog.
Can you blame the dog for being confused? You are not clearly indicating what cue should be linked to the behavior. Beginner dog trainers have to learn to pay attention to all those extra body cues they throw into the mix, and then quiet their bodies, making their movements clear and deliberate and their verbal cues consistent.
Blocking refers to what happens when the handler is presenting a new cue, maybe a word, at the same time as a known cue like a hand signal. If you present them together, the dog blocks out the relevance of the new cue and just responds to the known cue. Instead, remember that you must present the new cue before the known cue.
For example, if the dog has initially learned to follow a hand signal to sit, you would say the verbal cue, immediately but separately use the hand signal, and then reinforce the result. Then as your Chihuahua starts to anticipate and respond to the new verbal cue, you can drop out the use of the hand cue. Of course, you can retain the hand signal by reinforcing hand signal sits during other repetitions. Just don’t use both cues simultaneously.