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Teach your dog new concepts in small steps

One of the biggest mistakes I can make with my dog is expecting too much too quickly. Although I have high expectations for Ace, I still take things in small steps so success is easier.

When I adopted Ace, he was a year old and did not know a single command. I’m not even sure if he knew his name.

I have a hard time controlling or tolerating a dog that can’t follow basic commands such as sit, down and stay, so I began teaching my dog in short sessions they very day he came to live with me.

A good example of training in small steps is teaching a dog to stay. Many dogs do not understand the word stay because their owners do not take the time to teach a dog exactly what it means.

Many other dogs do understand it, but they have learned they don’t have to take their owners seriously.

Each owner wants the word stay to mean something a little different, and that is fine as long as she is consistent.

I taught Ace that stay means he does not move his feet until I release him or give another command. It’s pretty simple, and he gets it. Is he perfect? Absolutely not! But he is better than most dogs I know.

I’ve had people watch me working with my dog and then say something like “You’re lucky you have such a laid-back dog” (little do they know how hyper he really is!) or “I wish my dog could do that” or “Labs are so easy to train.”

Um, what?

If only people understood their dogs can easily become as trained or more trained than Ace. It just takes a lot of time and patience.

The stay command is a good example of why you need to teach your dog in small steps. Many dog owners expect their dog to get it right away simply by giving the stay command and then backing away several feet.

Of course the dog is going to follow. He has no idea what stay means. The owner might try the same thing three or four more times before giving up saying her dog “just doesn’t get it.” Well of course the dog doesn’t get it. He hasn’t been shown.

There are many ways to teach a dog to stay. Every trainer and book will have a slightly different approach, and most of them are effective. But any good trainer will say to teach a dog in small steps.

Just to show how many steps it can take, below is an example of the process I used for teaching Ace to stay. Each step took anywhere from a few minutes of practice to days or weeks of practice.

These are the steps I chose to take with my dog, but there are hundreds of other possibilities. What works for one dog might not work for another.

The point is, each dog learns at a different pace, but every dog needs to start small and then practice repetitions no matter what they are learning. One dog might need three or four repetitions before he gets it. Another dog might need 200. By now, Ace and I have probably practiced “stay” 1,000 times.

Remember to work in steps no matter what you are teaching your dog. Here are the steps I took while teaching Ace to stay:

1. Before I could teach Ace to stay, I had to teach him the sit command.

I worked on this the day I adopted him. He learned it after a few repetitions, probably because his original owner had made some effort to teach him.

But even the sit command should be taught in steps, slowly increasing the time from a few seconds to 10 minutes or more in many locations and with many distractions.

2. I taught my dog a release word.

This was to teach him it is not acceptable to sit and then pop right back up. He is expected to sit until I say OK.

3. I began using the word stay but remained at his side.

This taught Ace that stay means to hold still. It would’ve been too challenging for him if I were to take even one step away at that point.

4. I increased the time he stayed, but I did not leave his side.

I started with just five seconds or so, then increased the time up to a minute or longer.

5. I told him to stay and then pivoted to face him.

This was the first time I had actually moved after telling him to stay, but at that point it wasn’t a big deal to him because he had already learned to stay at my side for a minute.

6. I took one step back.

Once he was successful staying while I took one step back, I increased the time up to a minute again.

7. I took two steps back.

Then I took three. Then out to the end of his leash, etc.

8. I walked in a full circle around Ace.

This taught him to stay sitting and facing one direction even while I was moving around him or directly behind him. He could turn his head but not his body.

9. I practiced all of these things in many locations.

Just because a dog knows a command in one spot doesn’t mean he will remember it in a new location.

That is why I practiced with Ace in the kitchen, in the living room, in the grass, on the sidewalk, in a parking lot, etc. And with many, many different distractions.

10. I kept his leash on, but walked several yards away.

11. I started working with him off leash and increasing the distractions.

12. We haven’t quit practicing!

Some people will reach that point where their dog is good enough. And maybe that is OK. For me, I will always be working with my dog. That means practicing the stay command with more distractions.

For example, I have never taught Ace to stay in one spot when the doorbell rings. He currently charges the door barking at the sound of the bell or a knock. I need to teach him to stay on his bed in the corner of the room until I release him.

There are several other examples where I would like to enforce his staying such as at agility practice and the dog park. My dog will never be perfect, but he and I can always get better.

What have you taught your dog that required steps? When did you fail by moving too quickly?

Lindsay Stordahl

Wednesday 10th of August 2011

Yes. And regardless of intelligence, some dogs have an easier time concentrating around distractions than others. My dog Ace has a strong desire to make me happy so he does really well with training, even with distractions. My foster dog Cosmo doesn't care so much about making me happy and he tends to get distracted easier.

Still, they both learn through lots of consistency and repetitions on my part.


Wednesday 10th of August 2011

I couldn't agree more to the small steps approach. Constant reinforcement and not trying to go to fast or expect too much too soon is the best approach I have found that worked for me. Thankfully my dogs intelligence level was pretty high and she caught on to most things I tried to teach pretty quickly. Certain breeds do have a tendency to pick up on commands easier than some others but all breeds can be taught and will learn necessary commands as long as you stick to your guns and don't get frustrated and give up.

Saint Lover

Thursday 23rd of October 2008

Small steps is the best approach. Good article Linds


Monday 20th of October 2008

This is a great post. Especially working with a stubborn and independent breed like, say, a kuvasz...

It is too easy to get frustrated by expecting the entire behavior and when the human gets impatient the dog gets frustrated - ("What exactly are you asking me to do??").

And your point about knowing in your head what the command means, is an important one. I couldn't decide what I wanted Biggie to do with "where's Daddy" and so we failed miserably.

Cynthia Blue

Monday 20th of October 2008

Stay is a hard thing for dogs to learn, it doesn't come naturally. No dog is born knowing any human word. So we have to teach them what the words mean. it's amazing that people think dogs should just know!