Teaching STAY: A behavior with four legs

Dec. 15, 2012 @ 04:21 PM

Last time we talked about beginning to teach our dogs STAY by first of all helping them understand that STAY simply means: remain in position until told to move. We gradually build up the length of time — the duration — that Fido remains in a down stay by sitting quietly in a chair and randomly reinforcing him on a variable schedule. Since Fido never knows exactly when we might cheerfully tell him, "Okay!" and toss a special bit of food across the room, he tends to focus his laser vision on us.

We build "duration" into STAY with just a few training sessions using Fido's supper, his regular dry dog food for training paychecks. Adding a few bits of something unexpectedly delicious (string cheese maybe?) will help maintain Fido's interest in playing the "remain in position" game. We can build duration up to 1/2 hour or more this way — a really useful behavior during holiday confusion.

The next leg of the completed behavior is to help Fido understand that STAY also means: remain in position until told to do otherwise while the human moves. Let's call this "distance." We begin in exactly the same manner — seated in a chair with Fido lying beside us, getting pieces of kibble at random, always alert to hear our cheerful "Okay!" until he is confident in the "duration" part of the STAY game.

At first we add "distance" by simply standing up. If Fido remains lying down, tell him he is terrific and give him several pieces of food. If, instead, he jumps up when you stand, simply sit and wait for him to resume his lying by your chair before you stand. Eventually, Fido will realize that training paychecks only come his way when he remains lying down even though you are now standing. Your standing is literally the first step in helping Fido develop the impulse control he needs for you to create more distance by taking steps away from him.

Now, if your own laser vision is tuned to your dog, you will see at perhaps a distance of three or four feet that he has "got it." He realizes this is just that same old STAY game: remain in position until told to do otherwise even though your human is now moving around the room.

The time spent teaching duration and distance has ideally been in a quiet, calm enough environment to really set Fido up to succeed at each level.

You can begin teaching "distraction" (the third leg) by going back to the very beginning: ask Fido to lie down beside you as you sit on the chair, but this time there is another family member sitting in the room, ignoring Fido, but perhaps ruffling through the newspaper. Not much of a distraction you say? From Fido's point of view, his entire world has changed. He'll need some help (random reinforcement) in keeping his laser vision fixed on you.

As with the randomly reinforced duration and distance, we increase the level of distraction slowly in order to help Fido realize that it's still the same game, but with another piece added. If you've built duration and distance solidly, Fido will quickly realize that the rules for that old STAY game have now become: remain in place while lots of other things happen. Congratulate yourself for being such a patient, consistent owner; give Fido an extra treat.

The last leg you can add to the duration, distance, distraction formula for teaching STAY is "durability." Take your little show on the road at this point by going into other parts of the house and yard. Practicing with Fido in varying surroundings — in the car, vet's office, on walks — will help him maintain impulse control and confidence in both you and the rules of the STAY game for many happy holidays to come!

• Visit Maggie Blutreich at www.BravoMinoan.net