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Training Your dog with the "Sit-Stay" Exercise

By: Diane Arrington

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Why the Sit-Stay Exercise is the Key to Leadership

There is no single exercise more effective at gaining leadership than the sit-stay exercise. If you must constantly coax, cajole, and ultimately bribe your dog to obey the simplest command, you're lacking in leadership. The sit-stay command, properly taught, can single-handedly reverse this unfortunate situation.

Think about why the sit-stay exercise might earn owner-leadership with a dog. If you can convince your dog to stay in a seated position, against his own wishes, regardless of what is going on around him, and you can persuade him to do this without the use of pain, fear or force, what does that make you? The Alpha Dog, of course, the one who is strong of mind. The sit-stay exercise will crown you as the pack leader. To learn how to train your dog to obey, see Clicker-training Your Dog or How to Teach Your Dog to Stay.

The sit-stay exercise makes specific use of language signals your dog is pre-programmed to interpret and understand. They are language tools used by the wolves and maternal domestic dogs, so your dog already knows them. From your dog's point of view, how much easier could it be?

From the human point of view, however, teaching the Sit-Stay may not be easy to begin with. Through learned behavior, adult humans are programmed to use nagging and force to get their way with dogs. We inanely repeat our words, push, prod, pry, pinch, choke and assault dogs to wring from them what we consider "obedient" behavior.

Wolves and dogs, however, are not capable of these physical manipulations; training tactics of pain, fear and force are not part of their repertoire when education is at hand. Canines must rely on encouragement, passive restraint, and passive intimidation to accomplish the education of their young. This is the basis of harness training.

Dogs talk to us in ways we must learn to recognize. A dog can easily put his rear to the ground and get a treat, or put his chest on the carpet to get a snack. He will do this whether you have leadership or not, simply because his actions serve to obtain one or more of his primary resources, in this case food. But for a dog to stay seated voluntarily at his owner's request with no goal objectives – food or touching – means that he acknowledges your position as his leader. By way of his behavior, your dog is saying to you, "I acknowledge and I accept your leadership at this moment. I see that you are my mentor, and I prove this with my willing cooperation," just as he would signal to a higher-ranking dog or wolf. For an owner to achieve this kind of leadership through one exercise alone is both appealing and astonishing. You earn your dog's respect. In turn, earning your dog's respect will cause most minor behavior problems to dissipate.

Keep in mind that stay is an abstract concept for a dog to learn and understand. Sit means put your rear to the ground; down means put your rear end and your chest to the ground; come means run to your owner; but stay ...? Technically, stay means nothing to a dog. There is no motor response to your request that he can act upon - it is essentially the absence of a motor response. When your dog at last figures it out, his self-confidence blossoms. Increased self-confidence in dogs resolves a myriad of behavior problems.

In teaching sit-stay on a harness, in fact in all obedience training with a harness, patience is the key to success. Patience is a virtue and wolves have an endless supply. Look how well their social system works. Their limitless patience is the reason. So learn patience, don't do anything you are not instructed to do, watch your dog learn to sit-stay in less than 10 minutes, and watch behavior problems disappear.

Editors note:

To teach Sit-Stay using a harness, simply apply upward traction to the lead attached to the harness. The harness will "tent" over the dog's shoulders. The dog will be amply aware of even gentle traction applied to its harness and will probably begin to look around anxiously, wondering what comes next. It may yawn (stress), it may lick its lips, thinking about submission, it may try to appear indifferent and try engaging in some displacement activity. You do nothing but wait. You certainly don't talk to your dog, look at it, or pet it at this stage. Basically, nothing happens. Eventually the dog gets fed up with standing there, unable to proceed, and it sits or lies down. Sitting is what you want so the tension would be released and the dog would be praised and petted. Lying down is not what you want, so the tension on the lead would remain. As the dog sits make a circular sweeping movement with your hand (a signal for stay). While the dog remains sitting, you keep bantering cheerfully to it and perhaps petting it. You could even give it a chest rub (massage). If he stands up again before being given a release signal, the tension is reapplied to the lead, and you become silent and aloof. This is repeated until the dog learns that sitting – and staying – is what you want. There is no way out for the dog. You mean business. But note, there was no yelling, no hitting, no forcing, no bullying – just time passing an patience – the essential ingredients of proper, non-intimidating training.

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