By Lisa Benshoff, CPDT-KA, Talbot TTouch llc, Easton
One of the most useful behaviors to teach your dog is to just stand still for a few seconds. This isn’t a formal Stay, where Rex needs to be in a Sit or a Down for several minutes. It’s like hitting the pause button so you have a moment to do what you need to do. It also teaches impulse control, an essential skill that every dog really needs--and can—learn.
Here are some situations where a Wait comes in very handy.
1. Going for a walk: Putting on the harness and leash, opening the door without being dragged outside, and getting calmness and/or attention before stepping off the front porch.* Once your walk is under way, Wait allows you to more safely cross the street, allow cars to pass on a narrow road, collect the mail or newspaper, get out a bag and pick up deposits, and give another pup a chance to do her business if you have two or more in tow.
*If pulling is a problem, note that these moments of stillness will contribute to having a more pleasant walk.
2. Coming back inside: Wiping those muddy paws, towel drying, removing harness and leash.
3. Going for a ride: Moving items or getting the crate or car harness ready before Rex jumps into the car, and making sure he can safely jump out of it.
4. Manners: Putting the food bowl or toy on the floor with no premature grabbing, waiting to be invited up on the couch with you, and more.
If you’ve been trying unsuccessfully to get your dog to Sit before any of these activities, you will find that standing still is easier for him because excitement or fear causes muscle tension, making it physically hard to sit down.
If you’ve been trying to hold him still with the leash, well, you already know that doesn’t work very well. Being held tightly makes your dog feel like he has no control and no choices, which can cause more struggling and only adds to any emotions already present (especially in the presence of distractions and triggers).
Why not just ask for a Stay? You can, but I find it’s clearer to use Stay only when you’re going to walk away, even out of sight, and want him to remain parked in a Sit or Down. Remember that dogs never know how long a Stay may last, which can be stressful. And whenever we can be very clear about what we want, it’s easier for dogs to understand and comply. So if you use both cues, Stay means: Settle and don’t follow me. Wait means: Just keep your pants on for a moment.
Wait is pretty easy for dogs to comply with because it’s so brief—and being released to either do or have something they want is a powerful reinforcer. Behaviors that are reinforced grow stronger. So while you may need treats to teach this, you don’t need treats to maintain it because the reinforcer is the real-life reward of going for a walk, going outside to play or run after squirrels, resuming a walk, jumping in or out of the car, getting food or a desirable toy, etcetera. And many dogs actually like being toweled off, though having paws wiped is another thing. Use treats for that one.
How do you teach Wait? Like any other new behavior, it works faster and better by getting the behavior first. If you begin with a cue (any cue) the dog doesn’t understand and then try to teach what it means by repeating it over and over while pushing or prodding, your dog will certainly be confused. And as you train, be sure to generalize the cue by practicing it in different scenarios.
You can start by using the hand signal you use with Stay, but don’t introduce the cue Wait until you’d bet $50 that your dog will actually stand still. For some dogs, that may take about two minutes. For others, it may take two or three short training sessions.
And just as with Stay, Sit, or Down, always give a release, so it’s clear to Rex when he is free to move about the cabin. Common releases are Okay, Free, and Release. Choose one and start this exercise by releasing quickly, before he can release himself. With practice, he will quickly understand this rule. If he remains stuck in place, resist the urge to say Come. Just encourage him to move by turning your body and sweeping an arm in the appropriate direction. Leaning away and leg patting may work too.
Here’s a link to one of my favorite clicker trainers, Emily Larlham (kikopup on Youtube), teaching Wait on leash. You can practice this technique indoors with any clear line, with or without a leash, using a clicker or verbal marker (such as a tongue click or YES!) and treats. Try an interior doorway, the edge of a rug (a tactile line), or put down about 3 feet of colored painters tape on a bare floor.
When you’re training Wait at an exterior or car door, make opening the door contingent on Rex remaining a couple of feet back. If your dog already understands and responds to the new cue, say Wait. If not, give the hand signal and add the cue when you know he is going to respond. Then reach for the handle. As long as Rex stays where he is, the door starts to open. If he takes a step forward, the door shuts. (That’s why he shouldn’t be standing too close.) Don’t say a word. The closing door is perfectly clear. At first, you may need to release him when the door is halfway open. But with more repetitions, you can gradually extend the time so that he can remain still with the door wide open until you give the release.
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