Improving the Stay: Adding Distractions


In the last newsletter, we described an effective method for teaching your dog to Stay. To review, the method involves working separately on the three variables of every Stay, which we refer to as the Three Ds: Duration (the length of the Stay), Distractions (what's going on around the dog during the Stay), and Distance (how far away you are from your dog). The most common mistake people make when training Stay is making it too difficult too soon: just because your dog can hold a Stay in the kitchen doesn't mean he can hold a Stay in the field, in obedience class, or in the vet's office. So take your time. Start with duration; when your dog can hold a Stay reliably for a minute or so, in a quiet location with you next to the dog, only then should you start adding distractions. In this issue, we'll describe how to add distractions gradually and systematically so your dog can learn to hold position when faced with a friendly stranger, another dog, a squirrel, or other enticing distraction.

Kinds of Distractors. Distractors tend to fall into a couple of general categories. Visual distractors include people (especially unfamiliar people), balls rolling across the floor, kids on bikes, squirrels in the yard, and the like. Sound distractors may include barking dogs, the electric can opener, and (the biggie for many people) the doorbell. To train a rock-solid Stay, you'll need to train around a wide variety of these stimuli.

Be a Thinking Trainer. The key to successful distraction training is to increase the intensity of the distraction very gradually. For example, a dog barking far away is a less intense distractor than a dog barking in the next room; a ball rolling slowly across the floor is less intense than one rolling quickly. How you vary the intensity of the distractor depends on the distractor, and how quickly you increase that intensity depends on your dog. If your dog breaks his Stay more than one in 10 trials, you're trying to move too fast. Stop, reassess what you're doing, and take smaller steps You want your dog to be successful as many times as possible. When teaching Stay, make haste slowly.

Let's look at an example of how distractor training works in practice. Most owners want to be able to put their dogs on a Stay when company comes to the door, but for many dogs holding a Stay in the presence of a new or unfamiliar person is the hardest thing they're ever asked to do. So here's one way to train this important skill:

  1. Start with the doorbell. Tape-record the sound of your doorbell being repeatedly rung-maybe a couple of minutes of ring (pause), ring (longer pause), ring (shorter pause). Ask your dog to Stay, then start the tape at very low volume. Give a food reward each time the bell rings and the dog chooses to continue Staying. Gradually increase the loudness over several trials until the dog can hold his Stay even when somebody rings the actual doorbell.
  2. Next, have a family member come in the door. Familiar people often aren't as exciting in this situation as strangers, so by starting with family or some other familiar person, you're being a thinking trainer and varying the intensity of the distractor. Have the familiar person come in quietly and go out again, for several trials. Then have the person greet you, quietly at first, then more excitedly. When your dog can handle this, have your confederate come in, greet you, then greet the dog, first quietly from a distance, working up to coming over to pet and speak to the dog, who's smiling and wagging, but still holding his Stay!
  3. Finally, repeat step 2 many times, with increasingly unfamiliar people until genuine strangers can come in while your dog holds his Stay until released.

Some final points. First, don't use anything that may be scary to your dog (the vacuum cleaner, for example) as a distractor. As his trainer, you're asking for your dog's trust that he's safe when you ask him to Stay. Second, remember to reinforce during the Stay, not afterwards. In fact, ignore him for a few seconds before the next trial so that Staying is more fun than anything that happens afterward. Finally, use the dog's name and a release word (we say, "Cooper, Go Free!") so he knows the Stay is finished and it's OK to move.