‘No Free Lunch’ Means Sit, Be Calm, and Polite

The first obedience exercise most dog owners teach is ‘sit’.

There’s a reason for that; it’s easy to teach and dogs quickly learn the exercise. Sit is much more than simply assuming the correct position, however; it can also be a means of teaching your dog some self control. By asking your dog to sit for anything he wants, he learns to work for you, to cooperate with you, and when he does, he’ll be rewarded by those things he wants. Many dog trainers call this training technique, ‘No Free Lunch.’ Although this has benefits for most dogs, it can be particularly effective for overly active or pushy dogs (or puppies).

Make Sure Your Dog Knows ‘Sit’

Your dog needs to have a good understanding of what sit means before you begin ‘No Free Lunch’ because the only way the dog can succeed in this program is by sitting. Refresh your dog’s knowledge of sit by going back to the basics and repeating the early steps of your dog’s training. It doesn’t matter what technique you used to teach sit, just review it, reward each sit, and make sure your dog knows it well.

Ideally, your dog should sit for you on your first request and then wait until you release him (tell him he’s done). If he’s not that good at the exercise though, don’t worry. You can start ‘No Free Lunch’ and work on your dog’s sitting skills as you go along.

Begin With ‘No Free Lunch’

Create a couple of verbal cues to help communicate with your dog. For example, when my dogs make the right choice, I tell them, “Thank you.” I say it in a sincere, happy tone of voice that they immediately understand. However, when one of my dogs chooses not to cooperate with a known exercise, I simply say, “Wrong answer.” This is not a correction (it’s not said in a mad tone of voice); if anything I may sound a bit disappointed. By using these two phrases, I better my communication with my dogs, and as such alleviate any potential confusion.

If your dog doesn’t sit with your first request, tell him, “Wrong answer,” put the treat back in your pocket, and walk away from him. No amount of begging, looking cute, or even sitting will result in a treat right now. He blew it (for the moment). However, a few minutes later, try again. When he does sit on the first request, reward him, and then release him.

You Stay Calm and Avoid Being a Treat Dispenser

One of the hardest parts of this training program for some dog owners is to restrain yourself from becoming forceful, confrontational, or angry. This is all about the dog learning how to gain these rewards for himself. If you force him to sit, he’s not going to learn the lesson. However, if you offer something he wants and then when he doesn’t cooperate, you take it away, he will learn. Ideally, you will remain calm and persistently cheerful. If you find yourself getting frustrated, put your dog in his crate or a safe place outside and give yourself a few minutes away from your dog.

In addition, as you begin this program, stop rewarding every little thing your dog does. Don’t reward him for being alive, cute, or looking at you with those big eyes. Rewards such as these soon become meaningless and your dog will think of you simply as a treat (or reward) dispenser.

Reward Calm and Polite Sits

Begin teaching this technique with a half dozen high value (favorite) treats. Let your dog see and smell a treat and then ask him to sit. When he sits and remains in the sit for a couple of heartbeats give him a treat, praise him, and then release him from the sit. Although this might be how you taught your dog to sit and how you practice it, that’s okay. This is a good place to begin.

As your dog learns that he must sit and be still for a treat, then you want to focus on rewarding calm and polite sits. For example, if your dog sits but is barking at you, stop rewarding those sits. If he’s technically sitting but is wiggling and squirming, stop rewarding those sits, too. You can stop rewarding them by putting the treat back in your pocket, saying, “Wrong answer,” and walking away. Whereas in the first training steps you rewarded any sits; now you are rewarding calm, polite sits.

Depending on your dog, you may have to focus on quiet (non-barking) sits first and then work on still (non-wiggling) sits later. Work on changing one issue at a time.

Sit for Other Rewards

When your dog is sitting nicely for high value treats, then have your dog begin sitting calmly and politely for each of his meals. If he doesn’t sit calmly and politely, simply place his meal back up on the counter and walk away. Try again in fifteen or twenty minutes. Don’t give in and give it to him when he’s not cooperating.

When meals are going well, teach him to sit nicely for hooking his leash up to go for a walk, to sit before going outside and coming inside, as well as before jumping in the car or out of it. Have him sit nicely before you pet him. Ask him to sit before you invite him up on the sofa next to you. When he brings you a ball to throw, ask him to sit.

You know your dog best and know which activities are the most important to him. Use those as rewards for his growing self control.

‘No Free Lunch’ is Not Punishment

The purpose of this training program is not to make life difficult for your dog. It’s not punishment and it’s not designed to turn him into a robot.

Instead, this program is designed to help you gain your dog’s cooperation as he learns to control his own actions. By learning to sit quickly, to hold that sit, and to sit calmly and politely, he controls his own rewards. This actually gives your dog a measure of power over his own life. He’s looking to you for guidance and help, of course, but he can also choose to cooperate for the things he loves. That’s more power than most dogs have and it’s wonderful.

Meet the Author: Liz Palika, CDT, CABC

Liz Palika is a Certified Dog Trainer and Certified Animal Behavior Consultant as well as the founder and co-owner of Kindred Spirits Dog Training in northern San Diego county. Liz is also the founder of Love on a Leash therapy dogs; her dog, Bones, goes on visits on a regular basis. A prolific writer, Liz is also the author of more than 80 books. Many of her works have been nominated or won awards from a variety of organizations, including Dog Writers Association of America, San Diego Book Awards, the ASPCA, and others. Liz shares her home with three English Shepherds: Bones, Hero, and Seven, as well as one confident and bossy orange tabby cat, Kirk. To relax from work, or to take work on the road, Liz and her crew travel the West and PNW in their RV. If you see an RV on the road named "Travelin' Dogs", honk and say hi!

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