Why won’t my dog stay when I ask him to?
One thing that I feel very lucky for is that I learned how to train dogs differently than I train today. I learned to train with more traditional methods and have changed over to methods that are progressive, effective and very dog friendly. I am grateful for this because I don’t only know why my methods work, I know how other methods work, or don’t work.
When I initially learned to train dogs we used treats but we also used “corrections”. By corrections I mean using leash pops to get the dog to do what we want or to punish for errors the dog made. Which brings me to today’s blog topic, which is why won’t my dog stay still? It brings me right back to my early training days and how I was taught to teach “stay”. We would put the dog in a sit position, give him a hand signal and a verbal cue to “stay” and then we moved away from the dog. If the dog moved, he was corrected and told again to stay. That part alone makes me cringe because now I recognize how unfair it is to ask a dog to do something he didn’t know how to do and then physically punish him for getting wrong when I am the one who set him up to get it wrong! But, I digress. Once the dog had managed to figure it out and stay, we would then do longer and longer stays. We would look at the dog, we would punish the dog if it got up and make it go back and do it again. Once we were ready to release the dog from the stay, we said “good boy” and made a big party, offering praise and treats. Take a moment to think about this scenario and ask yourself what we could have been missing and why it took so long to get reliable stays.
In the above situation, we were actually training the dogs to want to get up! There was NO reinforcement whatsoever, other than not being physically corrected, for staying in position. So, we caused dogs to sit and stay for fear of getting corrected, but highly anticipating the big party when they were allowed to move, get praised and get treats. We taught them to dislike staying and want to get to the good part, getting up! For the people with resilient dogs, with good timing and who were able to deliver a leash correction hard enough to matter to the dog, they eventually had some success. However, they still had dogs who anticipated getting up, who got smart in the competition obedience ring that they could not be corrected and they hated the staying part. It was kind of a mess.
Now, let’s talk about how I train stay now. Regardless of the dog’s position, whether it be a sit, down or stand were are going to reinforce the dog while he is staying, NOT afterward. If the dog is not in the desired position, I will cue it by giving the verbal cue, let’s say “sit”. I will then very calmly and verbally praise the dog by saying something like, “good boy”. Then, I pause and immediately offer the dog a treat. I wait another second or two, then offer another treat. If the dog is not moving, I might step back with one foot, not a full step back, just a half step, then offer a treat. If the dog stays put, I will take a full step back, then step back to the dog and offer a treat. If at any time the dog moves, we take a step back to where the dog was successful. Sometimes with young puppies I have to not step away for several reps and that is absolutely fine. I then continue to build up duration of time and distance moving away at the dog’s pace and as the dog is beginning to understand the behavior. Any “mistake” on the dog’s part is actually my own mistake for taking too big of steps in the process.
The key is that we are building a positive association with staying, not getting up at the end.
A few important things to remember:
- If the dog gets up, do not offer the treat, simply try again but make it easier for the dog the next time.
- Always return to the dog to deliver the treat, do not ever have the dog come to you.
- Be generous with the reinforcement while the dog is staying in position.
- Know that your body language can be a cue to the dog to get up, for instance if you reach into your pocket or treat bag, bend over or kneel down you may be accidentally cuing the dog to move towards you.
- You may need a few reps for any time the dog finds it difficult to stay. In other words, if moving, reaching into your pocket or moving your feet causes the dog to move, you must reinforce them for not moving when you do that so you learn it.