If we had to choose one thing that is the very foundation of all the training we do, we’d have to choose teaching a dog to “stand still.” Standing still means being motionless while calm, focused, and quiet, and not just freezing for a second or two while quivering with nervous energy.
The bulk of learning takes place while a dog is still. Why? Because in order to learn, a dog has to be receptive to learning, and that means being able to focus on the lesson without being distracted. Any dog that is jumping around, barking, pushing, running in circles around you, or lunging at the end of a lead isn’t going to be learning much. It’s a lot like a class of grade school kids: There’s a reason they’re supposed to sit still at their desks during lessons. One rowdy child can distract the entire class, and then nobody is paying attention to the teacher or the lesson.
Throughout a dog’s life, there are many things that require standing still in addition to being able to learn. A dog can’t point a bird if he can’t be patient and stand still. A dog can’t honor another dog’s point if he can’t be still. Even on a retrieve, it’s hard to receive a bird from a dog that won’t stand still long enough to deliver it to your hand. If a dog is jumping around and out of control at the beginning fo the hunt, trial, or test, the trial or hunt is likely to reflect that and be less successful. In day-to-day life, or dogs need to be still and calm, whether it’s during training, riding in a vehicle, or living in the house. Nobody appreciates a dog that’s bouncing off the windows in the truck, running through doorways at high speed, and knocking stuff off the coffee table.
Your vet will appreciate being able to examine your dog while he stands still, too. A dog that is trying to crouch down, lean on you, push his head in your face, or struggle to get away is hard to examine. A dog that stands quietly, allowing you to pick up a paw or look in an ear without moving makes life a lot easier. When you have guests, wouldn’t it be great to have your dog stand quietly instead of jumping on them and begging for attention? And just imagine how nice it would be to have your dog stand calmly at the door so that you can wipe the mud off his paws before letting him in the house?
We’ve established so far that standing still is a good thing, but how do we get there? It starts when you bring that cute seven-week-old puppy home, or even earlier if the breeder begins when they’re born. Puppies love to be played with and picked up and held. The problem starts when their short attention span kicks in. Thirty seconds after being picked up, the puppy squirms and wiggles because he wants to be let down. If we comply, the puppy learns at a young age that struggling and wiggling get results and will continue to move and wiggle and struggle to get his way. The fix is an easy one: Pick the puppy up, hold him, and when he starts to struggle, keep gently but firmly holding him in your arms until he calms down. Only put the puppy back on the ground when he is relaxed and still. Through repetition, the pup will learn to be still.
Another good time to teach standing still is when a jumps up on you to get attention. Don’t pet the dog when he jumps up, since that rewards the negative behavior. Only pet him when he’s standing or sitting still. How on earth, you ask, are you going to get that energetic puppy to stand still long enough to be petted? By being patient and waiting for him to calm down. He will repeat whatever behavior gains your attention, and it’s up to you to decide what that will be. When he does stand still, don’t expect that moment to last longer than a few seconds, but be quick to reward the behavior. Since dogs enjoy being touched and petted, they’ll quickly learn that standing still earns them our hands. From the dog’s perspective he probably thinks he’s trained us to pet him when he stands still. That’s exactly what we want him to believe!
An excellent route to teaching a dog to stand still is using the chain gang. A dog restricted on the chain can’t do more than stand up and turn around, and he learns to give in and be patient. He also learns that the only way you’ll approach him, touch and pet him, and take him off the chain is if he stands completely still. This is pretty easy to accomplish if you tune in to the dog and only take a step toward the him when he is standing still, and take a step away if he moves. Since the dog wants our touch, he soon figures out that standing still brings us closer, while moving, jumping around, and complaining makes us get farther away.
The hardest part of this exercise happens when we finally get within touching range; that’s when a dog can get overexcited ad come unglued. At that point, we have to step away to prevent the dog from reaching us and wait for him to become calm again. The dog that is jumping around and anxious is not accepting us. Rather, that dog is making demands: Hey! You get over here right now and take me off this chain and pet me! If we give in to those demands, the dog learns to use that behavior to get his way and will do so in the future. If we’re patient, however difficult that may be, and wait until he dog calms down, he can begin to understand what he has to do to make us come near and pet him. From there it’s a short step to the dog becoming still and calm whenever we come up to him or put our hands on him.
If your dog spends time in a crate, whether in the house or in a vehicle, then make sure he is calm and still before you open the door. A dog that is pawing at the door is making demands of you, and if you give in to that, the dog is in charge. Wait for the dog to calm down. You should be able to open the door and have him stand there waiting for permission to exit. If the dog tries to rush the door, close it on him just as he starts to move toward the opening. It only takes a few repetitions of this before the dog hesitates as the door opens, and then you can give whatever cue you want to use to allow him to get out.
If your dog lives in the house, you’ll have multiple opportunities every day to work on “stand still.” Simple things, such as going through the door to go outside, require standing still until released. If your dog is one that tries to rush past you through doorways, it’s a simple matter to cut the dog off by using your leg to block. Use whatever command you want to release the dog once he is standing there waiting and watching you.
Feeding time is another opportunity. Don’t put the feed dish down until the dog is standing still, and then release him to eat. Food is a resource, and whoever controls the resources controls the pack. When your dog learns to be still, looks to you, and waits to be released, this is likely to carry over into work afield because you’ve established the behavior on a daily basis at home.
Eventually, standing still will be tested in the field, on birds, and you’ll be able to reinforce it with the “whoa” training you’ve done in preparation. Training a dog to hold steady on point and to honor another dog’s point are the goals in the field, and having a dog that will stand still in other situations makes this training much easier. The more your dog understands what you expect before you get to that stage, the better off you’ll both be. You won’t find a prettier picture than a pointing dog locked up like a marble statue, scent flowing through his nose and every muscle quivering – but he can’t hold that point if he won’t stand still.
Originally appeared in The Pointing Dog Journal. Written by Sharon Potter