Teaching a reliable stay is the bedrock of most training programs, including obedience, agility, herding, hunting and more.
It's one of the first things most folks teach their dogs. It's not a particularly difficult or complex behavior. So why do so many dogs have so much trouble keeping their little fannies where they were left? I think it's because handlers are in way too big a hurry to get far away from Rover, so they skip all the little steps that produce secure stays. I also think this exercise is more difficult for dogs who lack confidence. If you have such a dog, you'd best plan on doubling or tripling the time it takes to teach the stay, or you'll battle this exercise forever. I'm not going to differentiate between sit, down and stand stays here. The principle is the same.
I'm going to start by reminding you about one of the most critical factors in all competition obedience training: dogs do not automatically generalize learning. That means you mustn't assume that a dog that can stay reliably in your living room can repeat this behavior in your back yard, much less at a dog show. Stay must be taught and re-taught in as many different contexts as you can think of. Initially, you must go all the way back to Step One of your training program every time you take Rover to a new location. So, if Rover is doing splendid ten minute stays in your kitchen, when you take him to the park for the first time or two (or more, depending on the individual dog and how many exciting things are going on in the park), you will only require him to stay for fifteen seconds, and you will remain very close. This brings us to a second major factor in successfully teaching a dog to stay. You must be sure to keep the environment safe for your dog, and only expose him to potentially disturbing things (kids on skateboards, noisy traffic) very slowly. The more insecure and/or noise sensitive Rover is, the slower you must proceed.
I'm very fond of Dawn Jecs' (of Choose to Heel fame) method of teaching stays to beginning dogs, because it both addresses the safety issue and works on the dog/owner relationship. At all stages of this program, the dog is rewarded frequently with food or a tug session. In my interpretation of her method, I start by having the owner get down on the floor and gently hold the dog in position, with one hand on the chest and one on the back. There is no petting while the dog is being held. If Rover is really rambunctious, you can kneel or sit on the leash to prevent unauthorized escapes. The dog must not only allow himself to be held close to the owner's body, but must relax and not strain to get away. Once the dog accepts the restraint, another person comes up and challenges him to stay there, with chatty conversation, petting, toys and treats (but not all at once). This proofing takes place in different settings and with different folks doing the proofing. As the dog learns to relax and not try to get to the proofer (or to get away, in the case of a shy dog), he becomes ready for the next step which Dawn calls "the hover". When the dog is calmly allowing himself to be held despite different challenges, the owner lifts her hands (hovers them) about two inches away from the dog. The dog is challenged again by the proofer. As the dog starts to move toward (or away from) the proofer, the owner simply clamps her hands back on the chest and back. You can tell the dog to stay during this process, though Dawn is never in a hurry to apply words to behaviors. It's too easy to forget that just because you know what a command word means and have said it a few times to the dog, that doesn't automatically mean Rover will now understand the command.
When Rover will stay without being held, we move on to "the freeze". The dog is still hearing the stay command, or whatever word you've chosen, throughout this process. The names of the different stages are only used to clarify the steps for the handler. It's best to start this with a sit. In the freeze, the handler gets in front of the dog, and with one hand on either the dog's shoulders or chest, pulls gently but steadily on the leash with the other hand. The hand holding the leash should be very close to the dog's collar and the leash should be parallel to the floor. The dog must lock into position and physically resist being pulled out of the stay. As the dog catches on, the handler takes her hand off the dog's shoulders or chest and sloooooowwwly begins to move away from the dog. Perhaps you failed to notice my emphasis on slowly. Notice it. It's critical that you not rush this part. The leash remains tight for quite a while. The same types of proofing are applied in this phase of the training. Rover can receive treats while she is frozen; the pressure on the leash doesn't interfere with the dog's ability to eat. The freeze should be done on both sides of the dog and from behind the dog. When you first start side and rear freezes, help the dog stay by putting a hand on her shoulder or back. You'll soon figure out that Rover can't physically resist the leash pull as strongly from the side or the rear as she can from the front. Lots of dogs don't like having someone immediately behind them and will get up and turn around as you try to circle behind. For these dogs, try taking just one step toward the rear, freeze with the leash, reward and release. Then take two steps, and so on. Your goal is to get to the end of your six-foot leash, maintaining steady pressure, while the dog resists both the pull of the leash and whatever proofing challenges you set up. When you've gotten to that point, move close to Rover again and begin to relax the leash for a few seconds. Freeze her as you approach with a treat, so she gets the goodie when you are ready to give it to her, not before. Slowly (there's that word again!) extend the time the leash is slack, always being ready to resume the freeze if you see Rover starting to move. Act as soon as you see her shift her weight or pick up a foot. Don't wait until she is in the next county to make a correction. Other than occasional words of praise, try not to babble at your dog as she is learning this exercise. Babbling makes dogs, like children, tune you out.
The final step is "the aerobic hover". With the dog off leash, stand over her and hover your hands as described above. Start at the dog's side, and move around to the front, the other side and the rear. If Rover starts to shift her weight, clamp your hands back on her body or take hold of her collar and do a brief freeze. Continue to be creative in your proofing. Each step must be repeated in as many different environments as you can find.
That's enough for now. Next, we'll cover building time and distance, leading to successful out of sight stays.
Above, I explained the first steps in teaching solid stays. You'd think the next steps would involve building time and distance, but you'd be wrong. Sort of. Before worrying about time and distance, I want to build the dog's confidence while being left alone. I do this by using another of Dawn Jecs' techniques: tie-outs.
Dawn uses tie-outs for lots of things, including stopping dogs from jumping on people, preventing them from guarding territory in a training area or at a show site, and more. Here's how tie-outs work. Using a six-foot leash and a buckle collar, tie Rover to something sturdy like a sofa, a post or a door knob. When using a door knob, it's sometimes easier to slip the leash handle over the knob on the other side of the door and then pull the door closed. This makes for a very secure anchor. Don't tie your Terv to anything that's going to move, like a small table or chair. The idea is to anchor him, not scare the bejeezis out of him. Run your hand down the length of the leash from wall to collar and say calmly, "I'll be back" or words to that effect. Don't use words like "wait" or "stay", as the dog is allowed to move around in this exercise. Walk about fifteen feet away and stand with your back to the dog while you count to ten. If Rover's been quiet, return, but do not make eye contact. Walk past him to the door or wall or sofa, turn around and wait for him to give you an eye contact. If he ignores you, try squatting or kneeling. When he looks at you, praise lavishly and give him a cookie. If he doesn't look at you after about five seconds, quietly call his name and reward him for an eye contact. If he still won't look at you, just leave again and stay away a bit longer. Be sure there is nothing in the immediate area for Rover to play with. Try returning again. If Rover jumps on you as you return, put your hands on his shoulders and firmly push him off. Again, avoid eye contact at this stage. If Rover goes totally wild when you come back, leave again and go whack yourself on the head with a rolled up newspaper. Chances are, you've been greeting this dog emotionally on a regular basis and then getting upset because he jumps up on you and everyone else.
If Rover barks or whines while he is tied out, return calmly (there's that pesky word again) to the door or sofa, not to the dog. Run your hand down the leash and quietly squirt breath spray or lemon juice into Rover's mouth. You can tell him "Quiet" if you'd like. Then leave again, with a relaxed "I'll be back". When Rover can just hang out for ten seconds, slowly begin to extend the time he is in tie-out. Don't rush this process, or I guarantee it will come back and bite you in the posterior. Introduce other conditions. Sit down where he can see you, and read a book or watch the tube or work on the computer. Don't get so involved in your activity that you either forget about Rover altogether or ignore his barking or whining. Set a timer, if necessary. Since dogs don't generalize learning, practice tie-outs in lots of different places. Have other people walk up to you and shake hands. Bring a friendly dog into the picture (on leash, of course). When Rover is as bomb-proof as you can make him, begin going out of sight for no more than two seconds. Return to the wall, wait for the eye contact, feed and praise. Again, gradually build up the time you can stay away without Rover becoming frantic or noisy until he will chill for ten minutes. Now, you are not only ready to work on out of sight stays, but you'll both breeze through that part of the CGC test.
ADDING TIME AND DISTANCE
Please refer to Part 1 to review "the freeze". Using the freeze, you will gradually move away from Rover, maintaining pressure on the leash to remind him to lock into the sit or down. As you sloooooowwwwly increase distance, continue to apply the various proofing protocols described last time. Put a long line on Rover and prevent him from making mistakes. Don't wait til he's up and in the next county to tighten the leash or line and remind him to stay. Watch him closely, and be ready to stop his movement as soon as you see him shift his weight or move a foot. Go back and reward frequently. If he gets up or changes position, calmly put him back with a quiet reminder to stay. Shorten the leash for a while. As you move away from the dog a few feet at a time, start relaxing the leash and later the long line a little bit. Now, pay attention here. "A little bit" does not mean going from the taut line to leash on the ground or leash removed altogether. It means relax it a little bit for a few seconds and see what happens. If the dog holds position, go ahead and reward him, stepping into him to hand him the cookie. If this action makes Rover start to get up, go back to practicing feeding Rover while he's frozen until he figures out that an approaching cookie is not license to exit, stage left. Somewhere along in here, I introduce the return around the dog used in the ring. Increase the time your dog stays with the leash loose, paying attention to the kinds of challenges that are most likely to make him break. Is it a friendly person, food, a toy, another dog or some other type of activity? When you present Rover with those tough challenges, move closer and if necessary, tighten the leash again. When Rover gets that look on his face that says, "I get it! This is a trick! And I'm not moving!", then the leash/line can lie on the floor and eventually be removed. When he can hold both a sit and a down without moving anything but his head for five minutes (obviously not at the same time), you are ready to move on.
This is when I begin going out of sight. I usually start with the dog in a down, as it seems more secure to me that the sit. With the dog in a familiar setting, I go out of sight for one second. I turn right around and return to Rover (you can do this from the front; you don't have to return around to heel position) and praise and reward. I tell him to stay and go out of sight for another second. When I have done this about three or four times, I return, reward and release. If everything went well and Rover was not unduly stressed, I sloooooowly begin to increase the time I'm out of sight. When I take Rover to an unfamiliar area, I go right back to exits of only one second. By the way, if you have to practice this in an unfenced area, either tie Rover out on a loose long line or surround him with baby gates for safety. I cannot stress enough the need to do this gradually and to be sure the dog perceives his environment as safe, especially at the early stages of teaching this exercise.
I'll conclude with some ideas on fixing broken stays.
FIXING BROKEN STAYS
If you're pretty sure you're not dealing with a confidence problem, as described in the previous two articles, the most common error dogs make on the Long Sit and Long Down is changing position without written authorization from the handler. They lie down on the sit or get up on the down. Lying down on the sit is the more common problem, but they are both really frustrating and can be hard to fix. Pretty much every dog I know, even the ones with umpteen zillion High in Trials, has gone down on the sit at least once in his career. And then, of course, there's the redoubtable Zeb, who simply got up and walked away from the Long Down on several occasions. If it's an infrequent problem, fixing it should not be a big deal. I'll get into options for doing that in a minute. If it's a chronic problem, however, we need to look at it differently.
CHRONIC STAY PROBLEMS
My first concern in addressing a chronic stay problem is to find out if it's mental or physical. Dogs that are short-coated or thin-skinned (Whippets. Dobes, Chihuahuas) or dogs with bad hips, or even bad elbows, may find the Long Sit or the Long Down uncomfortable. Before making any corrections, be sure to have the dog thoroughly checked out by a competent veterinarian. This may not be Ol' Doc Jones, who only sees overweight pet dogs and has no idea what's required of a performance dog. Your options are to educate Dr. Jones through demonstrations or videotapes, or to ask around at shows to find a vet who does understand your dog's special needs. Sometimes, you can luck out and find a vet who is training her own dog, and will really understand what you need to know. Once you've ruled out obvious health issues, it's time to look at relationship issues. Yeah, yeah, you're tired of reading about relationship issues, but they can rear their homely little heads in the oddest places. Your dog may not be holding the sit or the down because she just doesn't think she has to. That was certainly part of Zeb's eternal quest to run for higher office in my little pack. He was bored, and simply got up to look for more interesting ways to pass the time. If you believe this is the case, then, in addition to all the Tough Love things I've talked about in previous articles, you need to make it clear to Rover that the sit or down is a big deal, and they'd darned well better shape up. One of the ways you can convey this message is by tying it to something important to Rover, namely food. Rover must hold a stay - whichever you choose - in the middle of the kitchen or living room while you prepare her breakfast. When you are ready, put the food bowl down in its usual place, and release her to eat. If you don't think she'll stay on her own (a clue perhaps that your training has not been as thorough as it might have been), take ten seconds and put the little darlin' on leash. Once you've gotten compliance on a daily basis, take the dog's meal, in her dish, to class or to a match and convey the message there as well. If you have one of the rare Tervs who is not motivated by food, tie the stays to something else your dog values like going for a walk. Have the little princess hold a stay while you get dressed or talk on the phone, or engage in some other activity which she has never before connected with being obedient. Years ago, well known trainer Marly Whiting suggested having the dog hold a sit while perched on a pillow, a soft chair or even a bed, making corrections as necessary. That has cured a number of problem dogs I've worked with. Another way to proof a dog on the sit is to leave her in a slightly uncomfortable position, with her feet stretched out a few inches in front of her. If she lies down, you'll have an opportunity to make a correction.
Be careful not to get sloppy with everyday stays around the house. If you tell Rover to sit and stay while you open the door, get the mail or whatever, then be prepared to enforce that command. If he lies down the second your back is turned, you may have found the source of your problem in the ring. Same thing is true if you tell him to lie down and he wanders off several feet and slowly oozes to the floor, then gets up and moves a few times before he's released. By not paying attention to these things, you are telling your dog that "stay" is not very important.
Some dogs are surprisingly devious and manage to save broken stays for the show ring, never failing to hold a stay in practice. For these clever canines, practice stays longer than the requisite one to five minutes. If your dog can stay for ten minutes, the shorter time in the ring will be a cinch.
OCCASIONAL STAY PROBLEMS
Most non-chronic stay problems are related to lack of proofing. There are lots of elements to proof. Be sure to leave your dog in a good sit position (but remember not to adjust him in the ring - work this out in training). A dog that starts out slouching will be more likely to lie down than one that's sitting up nice and tall. Interesting smells on the ground can also lure first the nose and then the entire body down. Proof against this with food, toys, etc. A dog may also lie down when the dog next to him in line does so. This can be sort of funny, if it's not your dog that gets lured down by his neighbor. You can see the other dogs looking at the one who has gone down, and imagine them thinking, "Hmmm, that looks a lot more comfortable than sitting here." Practice having your dog hold a sit while the next dog is told to lie down. Frequently, two rings will have stays going on simultaneously, with the lines of dogs back to back. Be sure your dog won't be bothered by having other dogs only a few feet behind him, and that he will not lie down when the handlers in the adjacent ring give a "down" command.
Distractions may also cause a dog to break the Long Sit. In addition to food or interesting smells, noises can startle or attract a dog that is supposed to be sitting still. Spectators may drag chairs or baby strollers behind the line of sitting dogs. Children running amok may grab the ring gates and shake them. What really frosts me is watching the indulgent parents stand and smile at this bratty behavior! Dogs can learn to ignore just about any temptation to move from position. I've used all types of food and toys, a mechanical dinosaur that makes noise and rolls around, and people crawling around making strange noises. You'll get some funny looks, but your dogs will be pretty reliable on the stays. Be sure that legitimate activity in the adjoining ring doesn't cause your dog to move. Have someone practice recalls and retrieves behind your dog to simulate this type of situation.
Use your ingenuity to accustom your dog to all types of noises, from dropped chairs to fire alarms and the sudden blaring of a loud speaker. If you plan to show outside frequently, practice stays in the sun, wind, and rain. Also practice working in total silence. Often at a trial, things suddenly become very quiet and dogs will relax. Then, there will be a sudden loud noise (a slamming door or a baby crying), and the dogs will be startled from their somnolent state and jump up out of position. Practice stays after Rover has been running around, doing agility or herding or just chasing that dirty old tennis ball. Help him understand that even if he's a bit tired, stay still means stay. This will really be important if you plan to show at a two or three day trial, where many dogs are dropping like flies by the end of the last day.
For dogs that get sniffy on the Long Down, a little squirt of breath spray in the mouth during training will get the message across. I teach my dogs to go down in a particular position, so they have to think a bit harder about staying. My dog has to roll on to his right hip (so he stays as close to me as possible) with his left front foot tucked under. In order to get up, he has to untuck and unroll, which gives me time to prevent him from actually getting up. To teach the roll, put a cookie on the dog's nose with your left hand and turn his head sharply to the left as you tell him to lie down. Some dogs tuck the left foot automatically for better balance, or you can teach this by lightly tapping the toes with your hand or foot, and rewarding when the dog pulls his foot inward.