You sit at a dog park chatting with your best friend while your pup plays happily at your feet. As you solve all the world’s problems together, you notice a group of people approaching. One person asks if they can give your dog a treat.
As you agree, your new acquaintance grabs a treat and says, “Sit.” The dog’s rear plops down in perfect compliance. The stranger praises the dog and gives them a treat.
They then go back to their group conversation, leaving your dog sitting and staring expectantly after his new friend while licking the remnants of biscuit from his lips.
As you watch your dog’s face, you see a hint of confusion. It’s almost like he’s saying, “O.k. So now what am I supposed to do?”
Eventually, your pup gets tired of waiting and politely excuses himself to go sniff an interesting fire hydrant. O.k. I realize that dogs really don’t care about decorum. However, they do care about clear communication.
Wouldn’t it be nice if we had a word that told this poor dog, “O.k. You can resume being a dog now. We are done with the human interactions for the moment.” After all, this would eliminate any awkward anticipation on the dog’s part.
From a human perspective, it’s like a goodbye handshake at the end of a meeting. You know you can go back to doing your own thing and don’t need to keep standing there awkwardly after the interaction waiting for something more to happen.
Why not give your dog the same courtesy?
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Why a Release Word Instead of the Stay Command?
There is actually a great training solution to alleviate this human and canine impropriety: training a release word.
When you tell your dog to sit, you have given them a command with a definite start and end point. If you think about it, you never really want to teach a dog to sit or down, and then get up whenever they please. That should never be an option in their minds.
You are the leader. You decide when the exercise is over.
The perplexing component of teaching your pup a separate stay command is to imply, “O.k. I know you’re used to sitting until you feel you’re done with the exercise, but I really mean it this time! Don’t move!”
It’s adding an extra layer of complexity that really isn’t necessary.
When you give your dog a command to sit or down, you’re telling them to hold a position until you say they are done. The stay should be implied as part of the previous command, not in addition to it.
When you use a release word, you put a start time and end time on the entire command. It actually simplifies things for the dog.
Your pup knows that anytime a sit or down is required, they must wait for you to tell them what to do next. They aren’t left to try to remember if you said “Stay!” this time or if they can just release themselves. Do you see how much simpler that makes things for the dog?
Why is it Important to Teach Stay is Always Implied?
The simple answer is this command gives you control. Imagine if you could tell your pup to down, and they would quickly obey and not get up without your permission.
This could be useful if your dog is about to run out your front door into traffic, is gearing up to jump on grandma or trotting toward that chocolate cake your friend decided to leave on the floor.
Teaching your dog to remain in a sit or down position until you tell them they can move gives you the ability to keep them safe. Everyone should train their pups to master this command. It could save a dog’s life!
Choosing a Release Word
Your release word is like the period at the end of the sentence. It informs your pup that their immediate task is over and they can take a breather.
You can pick any word that makes sense to you for a release word. You just need to use it consistently anytime you’re releasing your dog.
You can also interweave your release word with other commands. For example, in our household we use a release word when our dogs are waiting to go through doors or jump out of the car. We even use it with heel commands or to end any training session.
Our dogs understand their release word means they are free to follow their own impulses. It’s imprinted in their brains not to move through or jump out of things until we tell them. They always make eye contact to ask permission. It adds an additional layer of safety for our dogs.
Some examples of universal release words are “O.k.” “Free!” or “Yes!” However, you can always create your own, as long as the meaning stays consistent.
Using Your Release Word
Dogs, like humans, understand inflection and tone just as much as the actual word. Therefore, you should also match the tone of your release word. You want this word to sound upbeat and identical every time you use it.
I like to think of the release word as an on-off switch, or an “at ease” in military lingo. When your dog is training, you want their full attention.
When you give them their release word, you give them permission to clock out of the concentration they were using to remain focused on your command.
Consistency is key! Every time you give your dog a sit or down command, you must also give them their release word to end the exercise.
You can’t forget to use it. If you only use this word intermittently, you will have a harder time getting your dog to wait for you.
How To Teach Your Dog to Stay Until Released
As with any teaching exercise, make sure your dog is exercised and hungry enough to work for treats before beginning.
Here’s how to teach your dog to understand their release word.
- Give your dog the sit or down command.
- Once they comply, wait a few seconds, then bend down to encourage them to get up and come to you.
- The second you see their muscles tighten for their rear to leave that floor, say the release word.
- As they get up, praise and give them a treat.
- They will then begin to associate their release word with getting up as you continue with the training.
- Start using the word more and the body language less until they will get up when they hear their word without additional gesturing.
Troubleshooting a Common Release Command Problem
If your dog jumps up before you can mark their release word, just ask for the sit or stay again without treating. Once they comply, wait an even shorter period of time before releasing them.
I want to stress, it should be your idea for them to get up, not theirs. Only give treats when they respond to your command.
When they break their stay, they are telling you that you’re progressing too fast. They need to go back to a shorter time to hold the command.
Proofing Your Pup
Once your dog understands what your release word means, you can begin proofing them by adding duration, distractions and distance.
A stay gets harder for your dog the longer you ask them to hold the position (duration), the more fun or interesting the activities that are going on around them (distraction) and the farther you are away from them (distance).
In order for your pup to truly master this command, you must slowly increase the difficulty of their challenges.
Duration simply means extending the time you expect your dog to perform the command.
Once your pup has mastered the previous training of understanding what your release word means, you can add to this foundation.
- Give your dog the sit or down command.
- Once they comply, wait about three to five seconds.
- Slowly give them a treat while they are sitting or lying down.
- Make sure to offer the treat in a calm voice with relaxed movements so they don’t get up.
- If they are lying down, slowly put the treat between their two front paws. If they are sitting, bring the treat to their chest level. You don’t want the act of giving them the treat to make them get up.
- After the required time, say your release word.
- As soon as they get up, praise enthusiastically and give them a treat.
Remember, your tone should always be calm and soothing while they are holding a stay. When you release them, use an upbeat voice. They did so well, it’s time to party! You both can get excited!
As your training progresses, build your duration a few seconds at a time to a minute. Then, continue to add additional minutes to the time your dog waits. If they break their stay too soon, shorten the time back to a length where they were successful before progressing again.
If you are trying to teach your dog to wait more than five minutes, put them in a down stay so they can be more comfortable.
Dogs rarely sit for long periods of time. Most dogs prefer to lie down when given the choice.
Remember to make training fun and always finish on a positive note. If you add too much time too fast, which commonly happens, you will have more mistakes and your training will progress slower. It’s better to slowly build in the time at a pace where the dog is constantly successful.
Distractions are anything that would normally cause your dog to get up to investigate. Some common distractions are walking in a circle around your dog, bouncing their favorite ball or training them in a new area.
Remember to increase the intensity of your distraction slowly.
Here’s an example of how you could train your dog to hold their command with the distraction of walking around them.
- Give your dog the sit or down command.
- Once they comply, take one step around the circle and then move back to your original position.
- Calmly offer a treat if they don’t move.
- Release them and praise.
- The next time you try this exercise, walk two steps before coming back.
- Finally, you can build up to walking around them in a complete circle before releasing them. Just don’t expect your dog to sit for the entire circle the first time!
If your pup gets up, they are communicating that the distraction you offered was too intense for their current training knowledge. You need to go back to a level where they can be rewarded.
Put them back into the previous command, give them a lesser distraction that you know they can handle, and then release and reward them.
Remember that any change of scenery counts as a distraction. If your dog gives you a solid down stay in the house, don’t expect the same performance in the yard. Always adjust back down to basics when you add a new challenge.
Distance simply means that your dog will hold their sit or down even if you aren’t right next to them. To train for distance, you can follow this sequence.
- Give your dog the sit or down command.
- Once they comply, take one step backward while still facing them.
- Take the same step back to them and calmly offer a treat.
- Release and reward.
- Gradually, you can progress to two steps back and two steps forward, and then continue adding steps in subsequent training sessions.
When training distance, remember that it is much easier for your dog to hold their sit or stay when you walk away from them backwards while still maintaining eye contact.
Once they are doing this successfully, you can try turning your back to them, but remember to shorten your distance.
Eventually, you can even progress to walking out of the room. When first introducing this, only step out of the room for a second and then build your duration as their confidence and knowledge grows.
Putting It All Together
Dogs do best when you add one aspect of difficulty at a time. With any new challenge, you have to take the previously mastered command back to the easy level so your pup can focus on the new test.
For example, if your dog has learned to down for five minutes (duration), only ask them to hold their stay for a few seconds while you bounce a ball one time in front of them (distraction).
Once they have learned to ignore the ball, you can slowly add back the time you bounce the ball before you release them.
Once they master this, you can walk away (distance) while bouncing the ball to increase the challenge even more.
Everything must be done in baby steps in order to set your dog up for success. While the steps to get to the final product may seem painfully slow, the more mistakes your dog makes when rushed, the slower their training will progress overall.
Training Stay – Tips for Success
- The number one reason people have trouble with this training is they expect too much, too fast.
- Remember to keep training short. Never more than 15 minutes when starting out.
- If you have a puppy or dog that is easily distracted, you may need to do a shorter training session. It’s better to do three focused five-minute training sessions throughout the day than one fifteen-minute session where you are fighting for your dog’s attention halfway through the lesson.
- Keep training varied. Don’t just work on sits and downs with release words. Work on other engaging activities such as retrieving or heeling so your pup isn’t just left in a sit or down the entire session. Keep it fun!
- Remember, patience and control does not come naturally for many dogs. Hyper breeds have trouble sitting still, so keep training varied and fun and slowly teach them the value of staying in one place until released.
- Don’t ask for a stay under bad circumstances. If you have a short-haired breed, don’t ask them to down on a cold floor. If you have a nervous dog, don’t ask for a sit in an area where they feel unsafe. If you are asking for a long down stay, make sure your pup has a comfy place to relax.
- Remember, with every new challenge you add, you will have to lessen your expectations for previous skills. If you are adding distance, shorten your duration. If you are adding distractions, shorten your distance until your pup has developed the control to handle it.
- Don’t ask for a sit or down and forget to release your dog. It will only confuse them and they will learn not to anticipate their release word.
- Add your release word for all normal daily activities. For example, make your dog sit at the door and then release them to go outside. Make going outside a reward they must offer an acceptable behavior to attain.
- Ask for a down when you put their leash on and then release them when you are ready.
- Never treat your dog if they break a sit or down before you give the release word. Imprint in their minds that in order to get the treat or praise, they must wait for their release.
- If they break their stay, simply ask for the command again and release them under an easier training scenario so they can properly earn their treat.
- Try to never end the training on a negative note. Make sure that your last command is one that will set your dog up for success.
Training your dog on a release word helps them remain laser focused on you during your interactions, because they know you will tell them when they can relax.
It also facilitates training communication. Most importantly, it gives you an extra layer of control to keep them safe.
If your dog understands the meaning of their release word, you will find yourself using it daily to help your pup know when you are giving him permission to move forward. Applying this training can also correct other bad behaviors such as bolting through doors or jumping up on guests.
Creating better communication skills between humans and their canine companions also facilitates a deeper bond with man’s best friend. It further establishes you as their leader and teacher in a positive way.
So give your furry friend daily training on their release word. You will soon notice your dog giving you a higher degree of focus, obedience and respect.
Before starting her full-time writing business, Sarah worked with a top pet food company as a consultant to veterinarians conducting weekly classes on canine and feline nutrition for the doctors and staff.
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