2-minute dog trainer, Tempest’s first rally-o lesson

Tempest is just over 4 months old. My intention is to enter him in a local obedience trial in 2 months, asking him to stick with me for three novice rally performances.

“That’s a lot of pressure for a young puppy,” one of our campers said.  “If you know Marsha you’ll know she doesn’t put any pressure on her puppies, or her adult dogs,” Bud responded.  That made me feel good, that my husband recognizes my generous attitude towards the dogs I train and run.

Okay, so today I resolved to start working on Tempest’s STAYS (stay-for-walk-away, stay-for-walk-around, in a sit, down, or stand).  First, some history …

With my first puppy, Banner (born 1996), I wasn’t allowed to take her to classes until she was 6 months old. While I was waiting for the opportunity to get her into group classes I worked at home, alone, on heeling, automatic sits, and stays.

At Tempest’s age, Banner came with me to the horsebarn twice a day and worked on sit-and-down-stays while I fed my horse. My feeding routine had me walking in and out of the barn door, or in and out of the stall, and Banner had to get used to the idea that she’d sometimes lose sight of me.

When Banner was able to join group classes she had tons of opportunities to practice her sit and down stays. Our instructors would return to dogs who changed position and correct them, and this made a huge impression on Banner.

She learned really steady stays while I was in-sight, as well as out-of-sight.

With Dash (born 2000) I was learning clicker training, he had no confidence, and I struggled to get an extended stay from him. I tried tiny increments but he tended to “hunker-down” if I asked for even 30 seconds in a sit stay.

Another clicker obstacle was that Dash got excited about offering behavior and I liked the confidence-building benefits of this process. But he offered behaviors so quickly, so rapid-fire, that it was difficult to isolate the sit and to get him to expand his sit-stay.

Every time I tried to get Dash to sit and stay, he experienced what I laughingly referred to as “stress-induced narcolepsy.” He’d start licking his lips, his eyelids would droop, he’d glance nervously about his environment, and, within a few seconds, would drop to the floor.

I relate his stress to the feeling I get when I know I have a long drive ahead of me. If I can start first thing in the morning I’m fine.  I get prepared before bedtime, I get up and go.  If I have to start mid-morning or after noon, however, I get very stressed. The more stressed I get, the more tired I get. Just thinking about a long drive makes me tired and sleepy.

So Dash has always struggled with any sit-stays over a few seconds. His ASCA Companion Dog title was earned at age 4 with his typical stressy heeling scores, and sit-stays that were on the edge of failure every time.

His AKC Companion Dog title was earned at age 10. His heeling was stressy, but I spent nearly 4 months having him do long sits after his breakfast and dinner, while the other dogs were finishing their meals. We built his skills gradually, with me returning to him after just a few seconds at first, and building to 5-6 minutes.

Additionally, I’m moving around, in-and-out-of-sight, hoping that this training will help him be calm and confident. His recent obedience performances have featured the same stressy heeling skills, but Dash has achieved a steady sit-stay about 75% of the time.

With Tempest, I want to see if I can fix my past mistakes without having ANYone correct my dog for moving on the sit or down stays. So we’re starting early.

First I set my criteria and created a mental picture of the sit-stay I wanted.  No slouching to the side — a nice, tight, tucked sit.  No loss of attention — staring directly at me.  No shifting to watch me moving around — holding steady for me to walk away from him, or walk around him, in any direction and at any distance.

Because I start every exercise with a clicker session, I decided to combine clicker work with another method I’ve used for years. I was introduced to this method by Leslie Nelson, a fantastic obedience trainer who gave a seminar I attended many years ago, with my new puppy Wizard (so it must have been in winter ’97-98).

Leslie set up a pile of treats or kibble, in a spot where the dog can see it, and the puppy in a sit facing the pile of food.

One treat at a time, the handler carries food from the pile to the puppy’s mouth. If the puppy breaks his sit, the handler makes a big deal of returning any food to the pile, re-sets the puppy’s sit, and begins feeding again.

I’m combining Leslie’s method with my clicker. I have a bowl with Tempest’s kibble, in a spot where he can see his reward. I have him sit, nice and tucked, then I cue “stay,” reach into the bowl, get a piece of kibble.  If Tempest stays I click and feed him the food.  If Tempest gets up, I make a big deal of returning the kibble to the bowl, and put him back  in his sit. Then I cue “stay” again, reach into the bowl, click and feed.

In our first training session Tempest began offering every behavior in his relatively vast repertoire. He was throwing me everything very fast, and it took me a few seconds to calm him and get him to successfully sit for a second or two.

The key to this training, for me at least, is to stay calm, be patient, don’t prompt or lure, allow Tempest to think and learn, take deep breaths, and wait.

After he achieved a 5-10-second sit-stay with me nearby I began walking to his left and right, walking ahead of him, in one and two-step increments.

Within just a few minutes Tempest was able to maintain his stay while I walked away, while I walked around him, while I stood still nearby.

I plan to continue with this training while adding heeling and automatic sits to Tempest’s program over the next few weeks.

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