How To: Teach a Dog to Stay

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This information has been taken from the “stay” lesson in the basics course, but it’s here for your reference as well, since I think training our dogs is such an ongoing and fun process that it bears repeating!

People often asked me how I had Journey posing by 8 or 9 weeks old. The truth was, I didn’t.

For the first 2-3 weeks of his life with me, he was either leashed to something in the background, and I removed the leash in editing (as with his first photo ever above!). And this is totally fine! I will often shoot client’s dogs on the leash, either because they’re young puppies, or they don’t have a stay, or the photoshoot is just way too exciting. I make sure to use a light/thin leash that is easily edited out in Photoshop.

 

Or, Journey was on a log or rock – this is a GREAT way to start getting your dog to stay, as the log or rock can provide a natural “barrier” that will stop them (temporarily) from moving. Just be sure you or the owner are close enough that the dog can be continually rewarded for waiting there. Whenever I’m shooting dogs for clients or if my boys are being models for a photographer, I insist on rewarding the dog. They are working so hard, they don’t know why they’re being told to wait, they’re having to pay attention but not move, there can be a lot of stress and pressure on them. Please consider them, and make sure they’re paid well for the job they’re doing!

This was one of his earliest images, taken just after he’d learnt to lie down, and with him lying on a log, and my wide-angle lens on so I could be very close to him and feeding him constantly.

 

Another option is to take more candid photos, as you’ll notice in Journey’s earliest pictures with him free and running about being a puppy, while I would just try and keep up with my camera and hope he would pause long enough to get photos of him posing appropriately.

How To Train It

So, how did we get from naughty bouncy puppy to professional model? With a client’s dog, you’re probably not going to be able to fix a lack of stay in the session. So make do with thin leashes, check out the editing tutorials in the Photoshop Course and in the Member’s bonus area (if you’re a member!) on how to remove them in editing and pop them on logs, benches or rocks to keep them still. Expecting a dog with no stay to magically learn a stay within an hour or two (without completely stressing it out and exploding its brain) is just not reasonable.

If you’re reading this as a pet owner and you want to improve your own dog’s stay, that is an entirely different matter!

There is no magic solution, no quick fix. I think that’s what people are often looking for when they message me about how well my dogs stay for photos. But at the end of the day, the solution is…

Training.

Training, training, training.

Every day. Multiple times a day. 

 

Here’s one way to do it. I use positive methods of training, and believe this works for every dog, with patience and consistency… but I do have border collies with a very strong will to please. Dogs all learn at their own speed and in their own ways, so you really need to look at your individual dog and consider how he or she will learn best. Consider all training situations as problems to be solved. Imagine how you want the “end picture” to look, and think about the steps to get there. Always be asking yourself if you are helping or hindering the process, analyse the progress you’re making, and re-evaluate the training if you aren’t seeing results after a few sessions – but don’t give up immediately! For a dog with a broken stay behaviour, this can (and probably will) take a lot longer. 

  1. Decide on a set of rules and stick to them. The moment you are inconsistent is the moment your dog gets confused and won’t stay any longer. My rules are: You don’t move until I say “break”, no matter what I do. 
  2. Start small and easy. Don’t spend 2 minutes teaching your dog to sit for their dinner bowl and then expect them to be able to stay at the dog park while you run 10m backward to take a photo of them with your long lens while you’re making silly noises. Realistic expectations.
  3. Choose a release word. In a nice, quiet, distraction-free location, with all your dog’s breakfast, ask for a sit or down – whichever they prefer. Reward them in position. Give them 3, 5, 10, 4, biscuits in a row. Then, release them with your word. 
  4. The reward should come from the PLACE, not the release, for the most part. Don’t release them then feed them. Think: what are you rewarding then? Feed them mostly in position, and occasionally for the release. 
  5. Repeat. Reward for longer and shorter intervals. Wait a bit longer, then a bit shorter before delivering the treats. Release. Be sure you are releasing on your WORD only, not because of some movement or gesture you make. Be sure they are releasing on that specific word, not because you’re saying things (remember, we need to be able to make silly noises and for them to stay for photos). 
  6. Repeat repeat repeat, until your dog realises how rewarding and easy it is to just lie around and be fed.
  7. Start making it a bit harder. When increasing difficulty remember: duration, distance, distraction. And aim to make only ONE element harder at a time.
  8. For example, when working on duration, make the stays a bit longer, but don’t do that from far away and in the middle of the city! 
  9. Or, if working on distanceonly do very short stays, hurrying back to reward quickly and often, and do this in a quiet and distraction-free environment.
  10. Or, if working on distraction, in exciting locations, keep stays short, and be close by. 
  11. Eventually begin to mix the 3 Ds. So a bit longer duration in a distraction location, but being close by. Or longer distance and duration but in a less distracting environment. The goal is to give them as many experiences of successful stays as possible. For every successful stay (eg., they don’t move until you say so) give yourself 1 point. For every fail because the situation was too difficult, deduct 50 points. 
  12. Gradually increase difficulty. Test your dog. If they make a mistake, just say: “oops!” and set them up, and learn from it. Test, test, test. Always rewarding. Test if they truly understand their release word by simply saying it with no movement or hand gestures – as people we are notoriously bad at not “helping” our dogs by moving when we release them, or using our hands. We want them to move ONLY on the word we say, NOTHING ELSE. Here, some fails are acceptable – as you’ll see in the video. I make it a game. Can I make you fail? If so, no big deal, I win that round. I ONLY really start testing them like this when I’m very confident that they KNOW their job.
  13. Proof it. Everywhere. All the time. On walks, at home, anywhere. Keeping in mind the 3 Ds. See what they can handle. Can you throw food near them. Can you do cartwheels? Squeak a toy? Run away? Run around them in a circle (this is hard!). Can they have a puppy bouncing off their back and still hold their stay??
No puppies were harmed in the making of this image. (Loki looks fierce but he's about to play)

But I repeat:

there is not a quick and easy solution!

Training a solid stay, to the point where your dog will sit or stand or lie placidly while you play with settings, change your position, reframe, shoot a bunch of photos, where you can make silly noises or say their name or throw a toy off into the bushes… all that takes time.

Of course, if you’re shooting photos for a client, you may need to keep the dog on leash, or pop them on a log or rock and have the owner quickly get out of the way. If it’s your own dog and you need to be taking photos while you’re training this, then go for it, but I recommend using a wider-angle lens so you can be constantly feeding the dog quickly and often. And I recommend you release your dog before it releases itself. As soon as it learns that you’re not really serious about this whole stay thing, and that it can really just wander away (or worse! that if it releases itself and goes to play, that the world is wayyyyy more interesting and fun than your dumb stay game), then you have an uphill battle ahead of you to fix it. 

Stay training shouldn’t be a bore – for either of you. My boys and I make it a game, a challenge. How many crazy things can I do to try and trick you into breaking before you’re allowed? BIG rewards if they don’t fall for my tricks, laughter and light-heartedness if they do, and we try again. I’ve hit Loki in the head with a thrown tennis-ball before, to see if he’d break (once he caught it and I couldn’t decide if that was against the rules or not. Technically he didn’t move….). I say: “ORANGE!” for Loki (his release is “OK!) in the same tone of voice as his release word. I say: “BREAKFAST!” for Journey. These are all tests, and all games, and all reinforcing the “rule” that you don’t move until you hear your specific word. 

Here is Part 2 of the video, where I start to take our “stay” games to the next level. I want to reiterate that your dog should have a very good understanding of a stay before you begin this kind of work!

Eventually, though, you’ll have a perfect stay, and be able to take gorgeous photos with a dog who LOVES his modelling job, because staying and posing has been SO rewarding. Journey  began pushing in so that I’ll take his photo instead of Loki’s by the time he was 6 months old, because he had a 4 month history of fun and rewards from posing. The other thing I am constantly doing is after they’ve posed, is have a super reward. For Journey that’s a big game of tug. For Loki, it’s a scatter of food on the ground. Make them love staying, and love posing by making it worth their while. 

And of course… you can still pose them on rocks, if you want to. 

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