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So, you’ve got some duration under your belt, and now you want to build distance into your behavior. First things first - don’t expect to maintain any duration in these duration building sessions. Drop the duration criteria entirely for now!
There are actually a few versions of what “distance” could mean. For a behavior like stay, distance usually refers to how far you can go away from your dog as they continue to perform the behavior (hold position). However, it could also refer to how far away your dog is when you cue the behavior. For example, maybe you can call your dog to come in your backyard but could you call her from across a baseball field? Or you may be able to ask your dog to drop into a down while directly in front of you, but can you ask her to drop into the down position while she is five feet away?
It could also have to do with how far you send your dog away from you to do a behavior (like go to their mat), but we won't get into that in this post. For more concrete info on sending your dog away check out this guide in the Stationing series.
Moving Away From Your Dog
If you’re working on having your dog hold a behavior (like a stay in whatever position), your training plan is going to be very similar to what it looked like with duration, but subbing seconds for steps away. BEFORE this, though, I highly recommend working on the stay as you turn your back before working on adding actual steps away. I often see folks working on stays by locking their eyes with their dog, perhaps holding up a hand, and sometimes even repeating the cue, “Stay… stay… stay…” over and over again. This often results in a dog that can only hold their stay under these specific conditions. But were this dog owner to turn and walk away, the dog would immediately break the stay and follow. Of course they would! Working on the back turn may look like:
Cue stay (or whatever), shift weight from one foot into the other
Cue stay, step one foot back
Cue stay, step one foot back and shift weight into that foot
Cue stay, step foot back, shift weight, pivot body about a quarter turn
Cue stay, step back, pivot body half way
Cue stay, step back, turn back completely
Cue stay, step back, turn around, take one step…
Keep in mind for each of these steps, I recommend returning to your dog to mark and reinforce. The stay will be stronger if the dog has a history of holding position until you physically return and release. If you are planning on calling the dog out of position from a distance, that’s fine, but I do tend to work on that as a “wait” vs “stay.”
Some dogs may require all those microsteps. Some dogs may be comfortable skipping quite a few! It’s up to you to experiment and decide how quickly to move through the plan. If your dog is not succeeding at a particular level, however, I recommend going back and making it easier before building back up more slowly.
Once you’ve gotten the back turn down you can begin adding actual steps, something like this:
One step, two steps, three steps, one step, three steps, five steps, two steps, four steps, six steps, three steps, seven steps, ten steps, five steps…
I would recommend doing a maximum of three reps, repeating each rep to mark and reinforce in position, and then releasing your dog to do something more physical. Holding still is hard!
Giving Cues From a Distance
Giving cues from a distance can be harder to pick up then simply cueing a behavior in close proximity and then moving away. If you think about how we begin training our dogs, we are almost always in close proximity to them - so the reinforcement history is really strong! One way you can begin teaching this concept is by using a tool like a baby gate or barrier of some kind.
Begin by standing directly at the barrier and giving your dog the cue. Mark, and this time reinforce out of position. So, say you are working on your dog’s down. Cue the down, mark it, toss the treat away. As you toss the treat, take a very small step backwards. When the treat has been eaten and your dog reorients to you, give the cue again, and repeat. Again, it can help to stagger the difficulty rather than continually moving backwards. Notice if your dog is unable to respond to the cue and rather than repeating yourself, change the set up and get a little closer again.
When you’ve worked up to being able to give the cue from a significant distance from the barrier, remove the barrier, and start again - from the beginning. It helps if you’re doing this in the same place that the barrier had been placed initially or if there’s some clear delineation like a threshold between you. Make sure not to mark any reps where the dog moves towards you and then performs the behavior if your goal is to teach them to respond in position wherever they are in relation to you.
Once you’ve built up barrier-less distance in one specific location, you’ll need to go back and try it in different locations!