Do you want to know the secret to a relaxed down stay? The ones where the dog just lays down and snoozes while you carry on with your activities? Let me tell you…
Reduce reinforcement. Get rid of the treat. No more cookies during the stay!
If the dog knows there are no cookies coming, he’ll take the opportunity to snooze. He won’t be staring at you and offering behaviors to try and earn a treat.
Rewards Build Value
When I’m teaching the stay behavior, either on the ground or on a station, I am building value by rewarding. The dog definitely gets reinforcement during the learning process.
But when the dog is reliably going 30-60 seconds in between treats, I start training down stays without reinforcement. From this point on, I no longer reward during down stays or on stations, when my goal is a relaxed stay.
Relaxed Down Stays Reinforcement Strategies
I’d like to point out a few things about reinforcement. First, I continue to reward my dog for getting on the station and laying down, or for laying down when I cue. I put the treat between the dog’s legs on the station. However, that is the only treat the dog will receive during the stay.
Second, I have a very specific procedure that I follow. It starts with me cuing the station or lie down. Then I mark and reward on the station (which does not have to be done every time). I don’t look directly at the dog during a stay.
When I am ready to release the dog, I stop moving, make direct eye contact, and say my release word. When my dog releases and comes to me, I will ask for a very simple behavior, like sit or touch. I mark and reward that behavior. This teaches the dog that after the stay is over it will be time to work, which will lead to reinforcement. By doing this the dog is learning that the stay will be rewarded by the opportunity for work.
If the dog makes a mistake during this training, simply re-cue the dog or gently place the dog back on the station. Don’t give the dog a reward for the position, but it’s fine to quietly praise. As always with stays (and dog training in general), but sure you’re building on success!
Video Examples of Relaxed Down Stays
Here is a video of Excel doing a down stay while I’m moving about the room. He’s not 100% relaxed here, but he’s getting there! I did not reinforce at all during this stay. You can see how I release him.
In this video, Excel is on a station. You can see signs of him relaxing on the station while I ignore him.
There are situations when staying on a station or holding a down stay is extremely difficult for the dog, such as in a very exciting environment. For Excel, staying on a station while dogs are running agility in front of him is very tough. My goal for these times is that Excel simply stays on the station, and I know that actually relaxing is out of the question.
During these sessions, I am giving him frequent rewards for staying. When he someday gets to the point where I trust him to stay on the station without rewards, we can start working on reducing reinforcement, but at this time I am still working on teaching him a simple stay in that context.
Once you start reducing, and eventually eliminating, reinforcement during the stay, you’ll see your dog start to relax as he figures out he’s not working for food. After all, there isn’t much point to staring at you intently and offering behaviors if there isn’t going to be any reward!