Sit, Stay, Good Dog!

January 2012 / Centre Daily Times / State College, PA

There are several benefits to teaching your dog how to Sit and Stay. First, the training process itself constitutes a healthy activity that can be shared between owner and dog while the owner shows leadership through positive reinforcement. In the same way that you would teach your child how to follow basic rules within the household, you should teach your dog to follow basic commands reliably. And, in the same way that positive reinforcement can produce dramatic learning among children, such positive incentives can teach dogs how to respond appropriately.

The Stay command is also a great exercise for teaching self-control. In other words, to teach a dog she has to Stay in one place before being allowed access to a reward is a calming, control-building exercise for many dogs and teaches a dog to look to you before impulsively grabbing at or running toward the various enticing things in a dog's world. 

To teach the Sit/Stay, begin by luring your dog into a Sit position by holding a treat over her head and very close to her nose. As you move the treat over her head, she should be prompted into a Sit position through her desire to keep her nose and mouth on that treat. Once her rear hits the floor, praise and deliver the treat. Repeat this several times. Once you see her rear about to hit the floor on the next trial, say "Sit", then praise and treat when she sits. Notice how you are waiting for your dog to sit first, using your treat as a lure, before you begin issuing the command to Sit. It's almost as if you are labeling her behavior for her first by saying "Sit" as she is in the process of sitting.  

Over trials, begin to say "Sit" just a moment earlier in the sequence, and begin to hold back on your treat prompt by keeping your hand a bit further from her nose each time, while still bringing your arm over her head to prompt the Sit. Your goal is to thus move in small increments toward being able to say "Sit" while she is still fully standing and toward being able to use a gestural cue of your hand in front of you without holding a treat right to her nose. 

Once your dog can Sit on command, begin teaching the Stay. Use an open palm up at your chest as a gestural cue and say "Stay" as you immediately deliver a treat with your other hand. Over the next few trials, continue to say "Stay" with open palm, but pause an extra second on each trial before delivering the treat. Building the duration of your dog's Stay is the first step toward a reliable Stay.

Once your dog can stay for 20 sec or so without getting up, begin to build the dimension of distance into her Stay. To do this, begin by saying "Stay" and taking one baby step away from her. Immediately return to her, praise and treat. On the next trial, say "Stay" and take two steps away from her before returning to praise and treat. If she gets up before you praise and treat, you may issue a no-reward marker such as "Sorry" while turning your back for 10 sec. Then return to her and ask again for the Sit/Stay. 

You should move through these steps slowly enough that your dog is successful on at least 80% of trials. If you find yourself saying "Sorry" more than 20% of the time, you are moving too fast, and you should break your training steps into smaller ones so that you are always building on her success. 

Once your dog can Sit and Stay for a few minutes and while you move all around the house (in and out of sight), you can focus on the third dimension of basic obedience success – compliance in the presence of distractions. To do this, begin to issue the Stay command and then pick up the telephone, turn on the TV, drop a toy or ball, or walk out the front door to greet a guest. These systematically arranged distractions will help your dog learn how to perform the Sit/Stay in all sorts of naturalistic situations down the road. 

A dog who has learned how to obtain positive reinforcers through her own good behavior is a happy dog and one who will bring years of joy to her human family members!