Better training through parameters

photo 1 (2)“Stay.”

It’s one of the first things owners learn in puppy class. It’s also deceptively difficult to train.

On the surface, “stay” doesn’t seem too complicated. After all, the dog simply sits in one spot and refrains from moving. But few owners are willing to bet $50 that their dog will do a reliable sit-stay at the dog park, or when someone goes to the fridge to prepare dinner. Those who do place the bet may find themselves out $50 unless they’ve properly trained their dogs to “stay” using certain parameters.

Before I go any further, I want you to try a little experiment. Sit on a chair in your kitchen and stare at one spot on the wall for five minutes. Don’t move, don’t avert your gaze, and don’t reach for your phone. How long can you sit there? Is it easy? This is a difficult task for most of us.

When you were sitting in your kitchen, what did you notice? Perhaps the sink dripped. Maybe the phone rang. Something appeared in the window. Perhaps a child or a dog solicited your attention. Or maybe you just got bored.

The same things happen to dogs. The fact is, it’s difficult to “stay.” Dogs want to investigate their environment, pursue smells and scurrying objects, and attend to high-value toys and treats. The entire world is competing for your dog’s attention, tempting your dog to explore, sniff, and do anything besides sit in one spot. It’s unfair to train your dog to ignore competing motivators, stay put for a long period of time, and do this in multiple locations, all at the same time. It’s just as unfair as teaching someone algebra, geometry, trigonometry and calculus simultaneously.

Four words describe why “stay” is difficult: Distance, distraction, duration, and environment. These are called “parameters” in dog training, and are critical when training “stay,” or any behavior for that matter. Just as a person builds muscle memory when circuit training at the gym, you need to build your dog’s “learning muscle” through many repetitions of the behavior, in different environments, at varying durations, with varying distractions.

The technical term for this process is “proofing.” The reward for all this work is reliable behavior. “This is called generalizing a response. The dog does it anytime, anywhere, no special conditions necessary,” writes Jean Donaldson in The Culture Clash. 

Dogs do remarkably well with incremental training plans that focus on one parameter at a time. A puppy will not be able to do a five-minute sit-stay at the dog park on his first day of training. But he can do a three- to five-second sit-stay in a quiet room, with minimal distractions.

Once you’ve got the behavior, play around with some simple distractions. The first and simplest distraction could be a bit of food dangling from your fingers. You might work up to a favorite toy, or tossing a ball across the room. Each dog has an internal list of distractions that are easy to ignore, and a list of distractions that are incredibly difficult. By exercising your dog’s learning muscle with the easy list first, you develop a history of successful repetitions, allowing your dog to work up to the more difficult items in a gradual, efficient process. (Remember: Algebra before calculus.)

When juggling parameters, it’s important to remember your rate of reinforcement, or how often you give your dog a paycheck. If you make things too difficult too soon, he may go on strike for better wages.

Once you’ve tackled some simple distractions, return to the duration parameter. Increase the length of your dog’s “stay” in small increments: 10 seconds, 15 seconds, even 30 seconds. The entire time you’re increasing the duration, keep distractions, distance and environmental change to a minimum. Why? It’s important to focus on one parameter at a time when building behavior, instead of doing everything simultaneously (remember the mathematics example above). The latter option builds inconsistent, sloppy learning. The former builds consistent, accurate behavior.

Once you’ve spent some time on duration, play around with distractions.

Once you’ve tackled duration and distractions, take the behavior out into the real world: The dog park after your dog has had a long play session, or a quiet area in your backyard. When introducing a new parameter, keep in mind that you  have to ease up on the others. For example, if you’re trying “stay” for the first time at the park, keep the duration shorter and minimize distractions. This will ensure more successful repetitions, keeping your dog motivated to learn and keeping your training effective.

The lesson in all of this is that training with parameters is like a lever and pulley system: When working on one parameter, ease up on the others, and once you have focused on all of them individually, you gradually combine them in to real-life scenarios. If you ask too much of your dog too soon, you risk inefficient, frustrating training. Instead, take things one parameter at a time.

– Maureen Backman, MS, CTC

Maureen Backman, MS is the owner of Mutt About Town dog training in San Francisco. She is also the founder of The Muzzle Up! Project. To get in touch, email her at