ClickerSolutions Training Articles

The Myriad of Workable Ways to Teach a Stay

It's so interesting to read of the many creative and very workable ways to shape a good solid stay. I have experimented with this in many dogs, to see if one way really worked better than another for me. Though I have little solid data to share, I can say that no matter how I chose to teach the stay, with clicker, without, delivering food while the dog was in position or not,----they all worked splendidly when consistency and incremental tiny steps were used.

I think this is the wonderful thing about having a full positive reinforcement toolbox at our disposal. We can try what feels right with the particular dog we are working with, and know that there are many workable variations if one does particular way does not seem comfortable to us or the dog.

That rock solid stay is one of the most essential behaviors we have to have at our disposal in service work. Before our dogs go out in public as a working service dog, they have to be able to do a three minute out-of-sight stay in an extremely distracting environment. This may include in park settings, with off-leash dogs, cats and kids running wild, or in a busy department store with carts rattling by, kids with sticky fingers reaching to pet the dog, or in an airport where luggage, humans of every shape, size, nationality and age bustle by in haste, and jets shake the floors.

They key to success in any variation of how we teach is, I believe, in consistency and keeping the dog's attention while the game is being played. Obviously, this means we add duration very incrementally, never asking the dog for too much, too soon. If the dog "breaks" his stay, it's not the dog's fault, it's trainer error. Too much has been asked of the dog too soon.

What's too much? We may have "lumped" instead of "splitted"---by asking starting the dog at staying for a few seconds, then jumping to 30-40 seconds the next session. It's a recipe for failure, because the dog is still learning the rules of the game.

Or, we may have added too many distractions too quickly, before the dog had come to accept and be comfortable with the ones we have already added, and begun to generalize those distractions in new environments.

This is why, no matter how we approach teaching that stay--we remember to move consistently in a very incremental manner, and to allow time for the dog to generalize the stay in changing environments before adding more heavy distractions and duration.

I work for duration before adding ANY distractions. My first distraction may be just to step backwards one step. Then two. Then to slowly move my way around the dog. Then to make wider and wider circles around the dog. Then to move away in the distance a ways, and then to move out of sight.

Once the duration has been built with these mild distractions (movement from the handler) I take that on the road and start teaching it again in different neutral environments (outside the front door, outside the rear door, in an empty parking lot with hubbub in the distance, but not close to us, etc.

Once the behavior of remaining in place is generalized and comfortable for the dog in mildly distracting situations, we go back to the training center and start upping the criteria.

We may first add dropping a soft item while the dog is staying in place. And then a harder item that makes a sound when it hits the floor. Then a louder item--maybe a plastic cup, and then a clipboard or book that makes a louder OOMPH! when it hits.

We then raise the criteria by moving a bit closer to the dog and dropping the items while they remain in place. Then moving to one side and the other, and doing the same thing. And then in back of the dog.

Stepping over the dog while the dog remains in position is another excellent distraction, but can be a very scary and threatening one if the dog has ever been stepped on, or if the dog is small. When I start having people walk over my dogs, which are tiny Papillons, I start with a very low criteria--just getting close to the dog, raising the foot an inch, two inches, three inches, stretching out the leg over the dog's back, and finally placing it on the ground on the other side of the dog. This may take a week of sessions, where adding loud distractions may have taken only a couple of short sessions.

I always let the dog tell me what their triggers are, their fears, and then I back up to always work right on the edge of that fear, without tripping the dog's trigger completely.

In the advanced service dog classes, it's totally amazing to me to see 6 dogs lying quietly on the floor with the owners all out of sight, while the assistant handlers are whizzing between the dogs on roller blades, pushing shopping carts, dragging noisy pull-toys, tossing down clip boards, pots and pans, metal urinals, pushing wheelchairs, using crutches, walkers, scooters. Other assistants are dancing, hollering, laughing, clapping hands, making squeaky noises, or flapping their arms like birds as they move between the dogs in a down-stay around the room.

The dogs become so ho-hum about these distractions, and come to expect the unexpected. But the work is not done--it's still just in progress. Those same dogs now have to do the same thing in more and more distractive environments: in that park where the squirrels are darting past the dog's nose, where kids with lolly-pop-sticky fingers are trying to catch the dog's attention, where cats may saunter by. Or in the grocery store in front of the meat counter or in the dog food aisle or in the restaurant. Or in a busy hotel lobby by the entrance door.

There is no fast way to teach a rock-solid stay, because it just takes time for the dog to generalize that behavior when any of the criteria changes. But the more we can teach the dog in ever-changing environments, and ever-upping distractions, the more solid the behavior comes.

It's no wonder that while the dog can quickly learn to flush a toilet or open and shut a door in a host of distracting environments in just a few short sessions, ---learning that rock solid stay in distracting environments is still one of the most challenging behaviors to teach to fluency. And it just takes time and consistency and incremental movement toward the final goal.

I think it works with a clicker, without a clicker, ---that this is not the most important part of teaching this particular behavior. It's consistency, slow upping of all criteria, and never pushing the dog past its limits or triggers, but always working right at the edge of it.

The same approach works for me when I'm trying to learn something technical. It really doesn't matter what technique the teacher uses to teach me. I can adapt to the slight differences. What matters is that the teacher moves slowly enough to keep my interest, to keep confusion at a minimum, and never pushes me past my overload limit. If that happens, I'll quit. But if the teacher moves me through the learning stages--especially the early learning stages--very incrementally, always building on my success in each area until I know it forwards, backwards, inside and out--then I am hooked, I'm part of the game, I'm engaged and I'm enthusiastic.

Keep up the good work, listmembers! It's so nice to see fresh faces, and the enthusiasm of learning to work in harmony with our animals. It's such a dance of joy when we remember those simple basics of rate of reinforcement, slowly upping the criteria, always watching the dog's body language and never tripping the dog's triggers.

Debi Davis
copyright 2001 Debi Davis


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