I love working in dog training classes. I have an absolute blast working with so many dogs and so many people–after 3 hrs of classes I leave energized because of how much fun I have. There are, however, moments that really irk me. I’m super even-tempered and am rarely rattled by people (for a dog-person I’m a very proficient people person, which isn’t always the case) but certain things just force me to smile and shake my head. I recently had a moment where I simply had to bite my tongue and walk away since they were clearly not having it.
We were introducing “stay” to the class. Our protocol calls for starting “stay” by simply standing in front of the dog and building up duration before taking any steps anywhere. Someone in our class put their dog into a down stay and proceeded to walk about 6ft away… the dog broke the stay. So the following happens…
Me: “You know, it’s really important that you set your pup up to succeed. Right now, we are trying to build up the time that the dog can stay, not necessarily the distance”
Owner: “We do this in the house all the time. He’s good at it. It’s okay, he’s fine. We do this at home.”
Me: “That’s excellent you practice at home so much, that will help you tremendously. But you still need to take a step back. Each and every time you let your dog break a stay by going too far away or asking him to stay for too long, you are teaching him that ‘stay’ has no meaning.”
Owner: “Well, he’s great at home”
Owner2: “I’m going to see how far I can walk away”
Me: “You should set him up for success, like I said, each and every time he breaks a stay it teaches him that he CAN break a stay and you may find yourself later really struggling with him staying.”
Owner: “He’s good at it and knows at home–he’s fine.”
Owner2 gets about 3/4 of the way across the room when the dog breaks the stay and the owner “eh eh eh eh!” the dog.
Me: “Stay is an important cue. It really can be a life-saving behavior. Right now, your dog is learning that when you say ‘stay’ that he can get up and move when he feels like it. It’s your call, but if you want him to learn to stay and not move until you release him, following our directions will build that behavior.”
After that I just smiled and moved on to working with the person next to them–the owners clearly felt they knew better and were not going to adhere to my suggestions. Next week I’m going to give the “if the dog breaks the stay, I roll up a newspaper and hit MYSELF in the head with it” speech.
What frustrated the heck out of me in this situation is that they are repeatedly setting their dog up to fail. I’m not bothered that they are likely going to fail at having a strong “stay” cue …. I’m not too bothered by the big picture of owner compliance…but what I’m most bothered by is that they have this awesome dog who is getting so confused because expectations are being set way too high and they having built the foundation of the behavior.
It is so unbelievably important for us, as dog handlers, to set our dogs up for success. Those repeated failures will simply confuse the dogs and cause more “failures.” If you want “stay” to have meaning, for example, you must make sure you set your dogs up to understand what “stay” means and part of that is making sure they don’t have the opportunity to break it. We do this by working toward the three D’s (duration, distance, distraction) ONE at a time, instituting a release cue, and starting small. It’s hard for a dog to break a stay when they are being reinforced and released after 1 second, 3 seconds, 5 seconds, 10 seconds when the human is standing right there. They have no need or desire to move since they are being reinforced and then cued to move (the release word) so quickly. They are able to be successful and rewarded rapid fire, this also allows them to really get a clear picture of the expectations since if they DO break the stay, the rapid fire reward/release stops.
It goes back to my Building a Strong Foundation post. If your dog cannot reliably complete the behavior under short duration, small distance, and low distraction, they cannot possibly reliably do that behavior during long duration, far distance, and high distraction. When a dog has successfully completed a “stay” hundreds and hundreds of times when none or only ONE “D” is cranked up, they probably have a super strong foundation and a clear understanding of what “stay” means (your expectations and how they can get rewarded). This foundation building is crucial to long-term success with a behavior… babies must first learn to sit before they stand…stand before they walk… and walk before they run–it’s about building the foundational balance skills for them, but once they have them, the sky is the limit for their mobility. Dogs are no different, they need a strong understanding of the basics before they move on to more difficult levels of that behavior.
Building that strong foundation, although boring to the human sometimes, is key to setting your dog up for success and ultimately setting you up for success.