I was teaching a “teen dog” class last night, and we were working on the “stay” behavior. In the training center where I teach, we instruct the students on the “four Ds” of stay – distance, duration, distraction, and disappearance (the last one, very advanced, when the handlers can leave the room and their dogs will “hold” the stay). We teach that when you increase the difficulty of one of the “Ds,” you should decrease the others – so, in the high-distraction environment of the training center, with eight dogs in the class, to help your dog succeed, you should reduce the distance and duration of the stay you ask of your dog. So far, so good.
As the handlers and their dogs practiced, I noticed one dog doing exactly what my younger dog, Woody, does when we work on the stay behavior. Every time this dog’s handler gave the hand signal and verbal cue for “stay,” his dog turned her head away, jumped to her feet, and looked around for something else to do. Clearly, there is something about the stay behavior that she found either aversive or perhaps just far less rewarding than the other behaviors we practiced in class.
Woody Doesn’t Like the Stay Cue
In Woody’s case, he loves doing all the “action” sort of behaviors I might ask him for: sit, down, stand, back up, spin, go through my legs. And he enjoys the eye contact that we usually share while we are working on these behaviors. But, just as the dog in class last night, often, when I cue him for “stay,” his head will immediately swivel and he will look away, like, “Did I just hear the doorbell? Maybe I should go check!”
As an active dog, I think Woody finds the stay behavior extremely boring – and what’s more, it’s more difficult for him to do than the far more fun, active, exuberant behaviors. Not difficult physically – difficult mentally. To counter this, and keep solid stays, I really need to increase the quality and quantity of the rewards he gets for good stays, keep the length of the behaviors extremely unpredictable (if they are all long, no reward is good enough to make it worth his while!), and not over-practice. This is one of his behaviors that gets worse with more practice, not better, since he finds it to be extremely not fun.
Resist the Urge to Over-Practice!
It’s human to want to keep practicing the behavior your dog is not very good at – especially when she’s really good at almost every other behavior you ask for! But resist that urge! – unless you can find a way to change how you ask for or practice the behavior, so that your dog actually loves to hear your cue for that particular behavior. Woody loves to come find me when I hide, so I guess I will start cueing him to “stay” before I release him to find me (with a whistle, from my hidden location). I hope that will increase his interest in and desire to “play” the “stay” game.
Are there any behaviors that your dog hates being asked to do? How can you tell he or she doesn’t enjoy it? How have you countered your dog’s unhappy reaction to the cue?