Written by Melissa Viera
Training long-stays has always been an exciting challenge for me. Training for the competition ring teaches you to become a very detailed trainer, especially for stays. Every dog should be trained a solid stay. As a young teenager, I had one too many embarrassing moments of my dog getting up during long-stay practice and deciding to check out a nearby table, obsess over a spot on the floor, or make friends with the dog next to him, to not become an expert at training stays. The more I practiced, the more I learned about what makes for a clean and solid stay.
The secret to having perfect stays, or as perfect as they can be, is to be very clear with your dog about the rules. Dogs should learn to always stay until released.
In my early years of training, the word I used to end stays or any stationary behavior was "ok". The cue "Ok" was my dog's release cue, but to make this even clearer let's call these cues or signals "finished signals". A finished signal tells your dog that they are finished with the exercise, which could be a stay, a step-up, or any other behavior.
Only when my dog heard the finished signal was he supposed to leave the stay. This means if I say "apples", begin tap dancing, or hamburgers fall from the sky, my dog should stay. Yet, if I so much as whispered "ok", my dog would get up because that was his finished signal.
Finished Signal Vs. Finish to Heel
When you are just starting out training the words, cues, footwork, and all of the other bits and pieces you are learning can become overwhelming, but you will soon find that all of these things become natural for you when you are training. Hang in there!
To avoid confusion, I want to explain the difference between the finished signal, and "finish to heel".
Finished Signal: It means the dog is finished with the exercise/behavior. If your instructor tells you "exercise finished", you give your dog their finished signal, for example, "break", and the exercise is over.
Finish to Heel- In Rally-o if you see instructions on a sign to finish right or left, or if your instructor tells you 'finish" in obedience or while practicing, this means your dog should move into heel position on your left side. The finish happens from a front position (your dog is sitting at your toes facing you usually after a recall or retrieve).
The problem with my old finished signal is that "ok" is just too common of a word. Although it worked fine for the time-being, I realized I needed a different finished signal.
It is too easy to say "ok" in day-to-day conversations. A strong finished signal, or any cue, should not be a word that is used commonly outside of training. I also found that I am more likely to use training cues more appropriately and correctly when I have specific words that I use almost exclusively for training.
A good cue is easy to remember, and say, and just feel right with a behavior.
I found that saying "break" worked best for me as a release cue/finished signal.
The Importance of Break
Having a finished signal is a must. I can't imagine having clear communication with dogs when training without one. The finished signal can be any type of word, sound, or signal, as long as it is consistent.
Using a finished signal like "break" is just fair training. If you asked your dog to sit without telling them when they should get up, how will they ever know what you expect out of them? Should they sit for one second, until you walk away, or for 10 minutes?
If you never tell your dog when they are finished with a behavior, you will never train the perfect stay. Your dog will not understand the rules to staying, therefore they will always have weak stays.
Anytime a dog is asked to sit, down, wait, come, or do any other behavior that does not have an end to it, there must be a clear, previously agreed (between you and your dog) upon signal that ends the behavior. If the dog is asked to do something that already has an end to it like spin, then the finished signal is not necessary.
Take a Look at These Examples:
Sit/Down: If your dog is asked to sit or lay down for any length of time a finished signal should be used to let them know when they are finished. Even if you don't tell your dog to stay, they are going to stay until they hear the finished signal "break"
Come: When training your dog to come when called it is important that you not only train them to come to you, but that they stay with you until you signal to them that they're finished. As you progress with training your dog to come you should also be adding a sit in front to the sequence.
1. You Say: "Come" or "Front" (whatever your recall word is)
2. Your Dog comes to you and sits at your toes facing you. Your dog remains in that position until you either say "Break", or give further instructions.
Spin: If you ask your dog to perform a behavior that already has a start and finish to it, you don't need to use your finished signal. If you ask your dog to spin in a circle it is assumed they should spin in a full 360-degree circle once, unless you trained otherwise. They don't have to be told "break' at the end of the spin.
Markers and Treats Do Not End Behaviors
If you ask your dog to sit, and when they do you offer a treat or praise your dog should not get up. Your dog can get rewarded in the sit without getting up. The same applies to markers and clickers. You should be able to mark and reward the sit without your dog breaking out of it.
Until they hear "break": they should remain in the stay.
Can you Change Your Finished Signal?
Q: I want to change my finished signal. Can I?
A: You can change the signal you use to finish a behavior at any time. Expect some practice before your dog fully understands the new signal. Changing your signal once because you found a signal that you like better is fine.
Remember this One Rule
This is a lot of information to take in, but if you remember this one simple rule it will be easier to remember how to use finished signals.
When your dog performs any behavior that does not have a set ending point to it, a finished cue, or further directions should always be given.
For Example, you can tell your dog to sit, stand, then down without releasing them in between because you are giving them further instructions. If you want to simply end the exercise say "break".
For Professional Trainers and Instructors
If you train dogs professionally, teach students, or plan to one day, it is important that you have a game plan for what you want to accomplish in your classes. When you get in front of your students time is limited. You have to get the most important point across in a direct way, so that they can progress with their dog between classes.
Finished signals are one of the major gray areas. Always teach finished signals immediately to avoid confusion and problems with stays later on. When you are teaching sit, down, mat work, or any other duration behavior use finished signals right from the start rather than try to introduce them later on. This small step can have a big impact on future training. Think about the end goals that your students have. Do they want to just teach their dog to sit, or do they want strong stays?
Use these goals to guide you as a teacher.