Does your dog run out the door the minute it opens? Does he charge the food bowl even before you put it on the floor? Does he sit when you ask him to, but immediately pop up and run through the house?
Impulse control is such an important skill for dogs to have. And no force is needed to teach it effectively. In fact, the more joy you can build into your lesson, the more enthusiastically and quickly your dog will learn.
There are a number of impulse control behaviors to teach. This post will focus on ‘stay’ and ‘release’. Stay literally just means you hold your place right there UNTIL a release cue is given. And that release cue can be anything you want to use. Whether you use ‘potato’, ‘release’, or ‘ok’, it really doesn’t matter because the word acquires meaning when you pair it with a behavior. What is important, however, is that you choose a release word that you don’t use often in normal every day conversation.
Teaching stay and release from a sit (or it can be down or other position)
Always begin training a new behavior in an environment without distraction first. Remember, you are not testing your dog to see how long you can get him to stay in position before he gets up on his own. What you are teaching him to do instead is to stay put until you give him the release cue because really great things can happen if he does.
I do not start incorporating the cue ‘STAY’ UNTIL I feel like the dog is committed and understands the lesson that he is to stay where he is until told not to.
So, in the very beginning to build value for sitting, I ask the dog to sit and I remain very close to him. I will give him high value treats very quickly, one after the other in the beginning (maybe 3 or 4), then give him the release cue and encourage him to get up.
Next, I have him sit and continue to give him treats, waiting increasingly longer increments in between treats – first maybe a couple seconds, then 5 seconds, etc. BUT ALWAYS, I give the release cue BEFORE I see any body movement signaling he is about to get up. (IMPORTANT NOTE: Your dog’s body language should be your guide as to how long you can go. If you are working with a dog that pops up quickly, that is feedback to you that he doesn’t understand what you are teaching him. In that case, you need to go back a step to having less time in between treats and less time before giving your release cue. It is up to you as your dog’s teacher to set him up for success by managing opportunities for mistakes while going through the lesson.)
What you want your dog to learn is that ‘if’ he stays in position, ‘then’ he will receive valuable reinforcement. When the dog can sit in position for about 10 seconds, only then will I try to move a leg while watching his body language. Is he staying put? Then I click and treat. Then move in another direction and do the same thing.
Then I’ll try to take a step backwards. Is he staying put? If so, then I will click and treat him.
I can also add distractions. While he is sitting, I may roll a ball by. And the minute I put the ball on the floor (before he even thinks about getting up and chasing it), I will click and give him a treat – teaching him that good things happen if he doesn’t move while something goes by.
Keep in mind that each time you add difficulty; you may need to decrease the time in between giving your dog treats. I also add in breaks to the lesson for a little mental recharging. Every couple of minutes when I release the dog, I’ll ask him to do something else – play, chew on something, etc. (Remember, when you do this, you must also use your release cue to call him from that activity.)
When I feel like he really understands that I want him to remain sitting after I cue him to sit until I cue him to be released, then it is time to add the ‘stay’ cue.