Will your dog stop on cue when trotting, loping or full-out running away from you? I consider it an essential tool for any dog that is ever off leash. (When I say “running away,” I mean “running with their faces turned away from their humans, not “running away” as in packing up their dog beds and leaving home.) I can’t imagine having a dog who won’t stop right away if he or she is regularly off leash. Frankly, I’d be a nervous wreck on walks if I didn’t know my dogs would stop when told if they flush a deer from the brush. But wait, no I wouldn’t, because I simply wouldn’t let my dogs off leash if I wasn’t confident that my dogs would stop when I said “Stand.” It’s something I work hard on, because the more control I have, the more freedom my dogs have. Gotta love one of life’s beautiful ironies.
Here’s me asking the dogs to “Stand” in the back yard. It is, of course, not the perfect video, or the best video, but darn it, it’s a video. (My skills at doing anything while videoing it at the same time are, uh, limited.)
Is it possible to stop every dog, of every breed, to stop on cue if chasing a deer while using positive reinforcement? I doubt it; it’s important to be realistic here, both regarding the breed, and the dog’s level of training. I didn’t let Skip, already a highly-trained sheepdog, off leash on our country walks until I’d had him for a good three or four months or so, after training and testing and training and testing. I have friends who have wisely never let their hounds, adopted long after puppyhood, off leash in an open, unfenced environment, and I say “Hear Hear!” to them.
But it’s a wonderful tool to have in your tool box, and it’s easier to teach to some dogs than many might imagine. I fell into training it as a matter of course a bit sideways. It evolved because I learned early on that yelling “Come” to a dog who is moving fast away from you was more successful if it was preceded by a Stop signal first.
That makes sense. If a dog is moving away from you, and can’t even see you, it has to first stop it’s forward motion, turn around, and then come back to you. That’s three separate behaviors. So why not train them one at a time, and help your dog succeed at each stage? Here’s the way I go about it.
STEP ONE: Decide on a good cue, not to mention the meaning of it. A ‘flying lie down” is a great thing to have, but again, that’s asking a dog to do two things to one cue–stop or slow way down, then lie down. I’ve learned that just stopping them is the easiest to teach, so it’s the best place to start. My definition of Stand is simply that: Stop and Stand Still for a moment. Define it however you want, but be clear about what you expect from you dog.
Choose a word that you don’t use in another context, and that doesn’t begin with a syllable that sounds like another cue. Take a tip from sheepdog handlers, and use just one word so you can get it out fast.
Last word on the cue–use a low, strong voice. Working sheepdogs teaches you that the pitch of your voice has a huge impact on your dog. When I call Maggie away from the sheep she doesn’t flick an ear if I say “That’ll Do” in my usual high, squeaky voice (sigh). When I think to consciously say the same in a still quiet, but lower voice, she flips around like a gymnast.
STEP TWO: Decide on the reinforcement. You know your dog, and you remember, of course!, that it’s the student who defines what is reinforcing, not the teacher. Saying “good dog” or giving Stella a pat on the head may be punishment to your dog, so be very thoughtful about what your dog gets for stopping when asked.
Example: I start teaching a Stand with some kind of great food, but quickly move on to using the dog’s desire to run to the sheep/barn as a distraction, and a reinforcement. Once we’re at that stage, all I have to do is say “Okay” once they stop. Usually nothing makes them happier. However, note in the video that Skip choose to run back to me rather than to the barn. Context matters: I had tried it just before but didn’t get it recorded well, so Skip was a bit confused about what was going on. He always comes to me if he is unsure, so that’s what he wanted to do.) Another example: Recently Skip’s nose went up on a walk off the farm, we heard crashing in the woods (deer) and Skip took off. He was about 40-50 yards ahead of us, but I belted out STAND! and he did. Needless to say, I couldn’t reinforce him by letting him chase after the deer, so I ran backward calling “Skip! Skip!” and gave him a bunch of treats from my pocket when he caught up to me.
STEP THREE: Start training. The trick is to understand that calling a dog to come to you, if they aren’t facing you, is a different context than if they are. So you start with your dog literally one step in front of you, facing away from you, in a low-distraction environment. Wait for your dog to walk forward one or two steps, and say your cue. Most dogs, when close by, not too distracted, and hearing an unfamiliar word from you, will stop. Immediate mark the behavior with a Good! or Yes! or a clicker, but make it even better by backing up away from your dog. Reinforce with something truly wonderful, whether it’s a ball throw or a piece of chicken, whatever works best for your dog.
Gradually increase either the distance the dog is in front of you or the level of distraction (but not both). Actually, there’s a third factor, which is how fast the dog is moving away from you. Your success is going to be dependent on how well you balance these factors, understanding what distracts your dog, and how powerful your reinforcements are.
This one step could take months, depending on how responsive your dog is, how much training you do, etc etc etc. I can tell you that the biggest mistakes people make are going too far too fast and not realizing how behavior in one context doesn’t translate, without training, to another. If your dog is 99% solid in your fenced backyard, you still have to start at the very beginning in any other context. If there are two dogs, you have to work on one dog at a time at first.
This step is tricky for me to write about, because it’s the part where the details of you, your dog and what you expect are critical to your success, and generic advice begins to not be enough. But let me stress again, go slowly and set up success. Over a week or two, ask your dog to stop at 2 feet away, then 4, then 6, then 10, if it’s going well. Don’t push the boundaries if you don’t feel confident. Create situations where you know your dog wants to move forward, but not so much you know he’ll fail. Make stopping on cue the coolest thing your dog has ever done, but be careful not to overwhelm them by gushing so much they turn their heads away. Again, be very very thoughtful about what you do for your dog when they comply.
Okay, I’m about to write an entire dog training book here, so, on to the next . . .
STEP FOUR: Test your success. This is actually part of Step Three, but it makes it cleaner to divide it up. Always be asking yourself “Will it work now?” “Will it work here?” When Skip came, I trained both on leash at home in fenced areas, and on leash off the farm. For about a month I’d ask for a stop and reinforce while he was on a leash, then a long line. Once I had 100% compliance (yeah, I did get it to that level, but in part because I set up success), I put him on a long line and asked when he was farther away. After weeks of that, I dropped the line and let it drag. I saw all this as a constant combination of training and testing. The few times he didn’t stop when on a leash or a line I simply went back to asking when he was closer, and making sure my reinforcements were motivating. (I always mix reinforcements, so he got high quality treats, chasing me and Jim as we ran in the other direction, or a toss of a toy.)
STEP FIVE: Never stop “training”. It’s not practical for me, or necessary to give my BC’s a treat every time they stop when asked. Especially since they are sheepdogs, and have to stop and lie down when I say while working sheep. But that doesn’t mean they don’t need occasional reinforcement. I’ll reinforce a great response, for example, while walking off the farm with a treat from my pocket. I’ll say “Atta boy” while working sheep when Skip slows down and turns into the sheep, and let him fetch them to me at whatever speed he’d like to use, as long as he’s not beginning to chase them.
I should confess that I’m not a fan of constant reinforcement for something a dog knows well. I use the example of someone praising you every time you brush your teeth. It becomes almost an irritant rather than a reinforcement. Even a piece of chocolate would lose value after a while, right? But don’t make the mistake of many, and assume that your dog is “all trained” and you’re done for the next ten years.
LAST THOUGHTS: It breaks my heart when someone ends up with a tragedy because they thought their dog was reliable off leash, when it wasn’t. Thus, this training is not for all dogs. However, it can be useful for dogs when on leash too. It’s just a handy cue to have in your pocket. And, of course, dogs can get “off leash” by accident–the leash pulled out of your hand, etc. Or, the leash not stopping anyone, including you —
In an ideal world, every one would train some version of Stop!, and it would be included in dog training classes. But safety first first first. I never let our Great Pyrenees off leash away from the farm; Tulip and Bo Peep spent much of their time outside with the sheep, and I didn’t take the time to train them like I did the BCs. One of the most common GP jokes is “What do you call an off leash Great Pyrenees?” Answer: ” A Dis-a-Pyr!” So . . . be realist.
In that ideal world I mentioned above, I would have a video for you for every stage of the training. But I’m not living in that world today, so forgive my lack of extensive videos. Life is just like that sometimes. I hope the one video and what I’ve written is helpful, and would love to hear your thoughts and experiences related to the topic.
MEANWHILE, back on the farm: It’s been a week, I won’t sugar coat it. Last Friday Jim got an MRI for a rotator cuff injury he sustained three weeks ago. We’re waiting to hear what the sports med doc recommends, surgery or just PT. Either way, it’s a many-months long recovery, and well, you know, we live on a farm and it’s spring. (Translation: There are a gazillion things to do that require strength and two arms.) The good news is that my Pilates is helping me be stronger, we have lots of wonderful friends to help, and we still feel crazy lucky to live where we do and be as healthy as we are.
Last piece of yuck: I had a trauma-related set back after the two shootings, resulting in what was quite literally the worst most horrific nightmare I’ve ever had in my life. It took a few days to recover, although I can’t say I’m 100% back to where I was. Good news here though too: I know what to do (threw out my To Do list, forgave myself for being imperfect flawed snappy, bought two beautiful house plants, watched comedies, and hugged Jim a lot. A whole lot.) My heart goes out to people who have more severe cases of PTSD; they are truly heroes for just staying alive. I am in awe of them. (If you don’t know the back story here, it’s in my memoir, The Education of Will.) I bring this up not for sympathy, I’m really, truly fine, but in hopes of bringing awareness to the profound effects of trauma, and how important treatment can be for it.
The week was also full of wonderful things, including a delightful trip to Galpaca Farm. After mentioning their lotion bar in a post about frost-bitten paws, the owners generously sent me some more of their products as a thank you for all the orders they got as a result of my mentioning their Queen Bee’s Lotion Bar. I was surprised and delighted, and so called to thank them. That resulted in a oxytocin-fueled visit to their farm, where Jim and I spent a perfect morning in animal heaven.
Who couldn’t love a face like this?
The photo below is of Mindy, who co-owns the farm with camera-shy Linda. Mindy is sitting beside the new love of my life, their hard-working livestock protection dog Barney, also the sweetest, dearest, friendliest dog on the planet.
I pretty much could have pet and cooed to him all day.
Jim and I got to feed carrot snacks to the flock.
Nobody spit on us, but the alpacas would spit at each other when competing for carrots. It’s a silly, quiet spitting sound that cracked me up.
Alpacas frolic like lambs when let out into their pasture. I only got one good shot of it, but trust me, it was beyond charming.
Other wonderfulnesses of the week included the first daffodils of the spring and fun with crocus:
I hope your week included lots of wonderfulnesses (is that a word?) too. Let us know about them, and if you have a Stop or a Flying Lie Down cue for your own dogs. We’d love to hear.