The Wait Command

The Wait Command

The wait command is one of the most versatile and useful commands you can teach your dog. Not only will you use it as a leadership tool and to instill your dog with self-control, but also, in virtually endless practical ways, it make life with your dog easier, safer, and more enjoyable for both of you. In addition to its real-world applications, the wait command is a necessity if you plan to do any kind of field or competition obedience work with your dog.

The wait command tells your dog to pause, in whatever position he’s in or you put him in, until you release him. Combined with the sit and eye contact you’ve already taught him, wait will be used more than any other command in the early stages of training your dog.

Introducing the Concept of Waiting

Your dog probably has no idea that waiting before he does something he wants is even possible, let alone desirable. To introduce the concept to him, start with him on leash, and toss a treat just out of his reach. Let him do anything he wants except get to the treat. Just hang in there and wait for him to stop trying to pull you toward the treat. As soon as he takes tension off the leash (even better if he looks at you), insert your wait command, “Wait,” praise him, and give him a treat before releasing him, “Okay, take it” to get the treat on the ground. Repeat a few times, and you should notice the time he tries to get the tossed treat decreasing. At that point, say, “Wait” as you toss the treat. If your dog waits and watches you expectantly instead of lunging after the treat on he floor, have a little party and quit for that session. In future sessions, work toward having your dog wait before you toss the treat. Sometimes release him to it, and sometimes make him continue to wait while you pick it up and deliver it to him.

Wait in Motion

When he’s doing well with the wait command, introduce it when he’s in motion, first when he’s just walking around the house, then when you’re out for a stroll. You can use his name with the command, “Spot, wait! Yes! Good wait!” Step on the dragline, or give him a little pull on the leash if needed. Praise and pet him for waiting, then release him to go about his business. As he gets better at it, let him get further away before you call him to wait, or ask him to wait when he’s trotting or even running.

Wait as a Leadership Tool

Wait helps you establish leadership by gently teaching your dog to give you control of the access to things he really wants, even when they’re right in front of him. When he makes the choice to wait patiently, and willingly offers you power over his very existence, you get leadership without confrontation or violence. Yes, this does make you something of a dictator, but a benevolent one.

Sit, Wait, and Eye Contact for Food

Food is very important to most dogs — it’s literally survival. By calmly and confidently making your dog’s survival possible on a daily basis, your dog is much less likely to challenge your for leadership on other, bigger issues.

At mealtime, instead of dumping a scoop of kibble in your waiting (and maybe hysterical) dog’s bowl, put the bowl on the counter. Prepare the food, and before putting it down, take your dog’s leash (or dragline) in one hand, and hold the bowl in the other. The leash should not be tight, but shouldn’t have any slack in it, either.

Ask your dog to sit — once — then back it up with a little tension straight up on the leash, if he’s not used to sitting in the midst of his excitement over mealtime. Tell him to “Wait” one time like you mean it and lower the bowl to the floor. If he gets up before you get the bowl all the way down, pick it right back up, and put tension on the leash until he sits again. Don’t repeat your sit command, just keep the tension on his collar until he does.

Have your dog wait while you throw his favorite toy. Hold him by the collar, and don’t release him until he’s not putting any pressure on it, then send him to get his toy with an enthusiastic, “Take it!” This game enhances leadership, teaches him a bit of self-control, and provides a foundation for competition retrieve work.

It doesn’t matter at all how many times you have to repeat the process to get the bowl all the way to the floor with your dog holding his sit; it just matters that you calmly and matter-of-factly “win.”

As soon as he can sit there with the food bowl right in front of him, get eye contact by either waiting until he offers it, or making the tiniest noise to get his attention. Help as little as possible, and let him get CR/rewarded (the release to the bowl is his reward in this instance) for making the right choice.

If you repeat this exercise at every meal, your dog will probably offer the behavior unprompted within a week. Once he figures out that the sit, wait, eye contact routine is what is earning his access to the food, vary the amount of time you require him to maintain eye contact before releasing him.

Territory Boundaries

Territory boundaries are very important to dogs, or at least who crosses them first is. If your dog barrels past you through doors or on stairs, bodyblocking you as she goes, not only is she being rude and disrespectful of you, but also she could injure you or herself in her haste to be first. On stairways and when going through doorways, insist that your dog wait for you to go first.

Anything given too freely loses value, and that includes food. You should not provide your dog with free access to food. It takes a vital leadership and training tool away from you. If you think your dog isn’t motivated by food, try feeding him smaller portions twice a day. Whatever he doesn’t eat in ten minutes, remove it and offer it again later, but only at the next scheduled mealtime.

Until she knows she has to wait for you to release her, try to cut her off before she gets out of position by giving her a verbal correction, like, “Aaaccchhh! Wait!” but be prepared to block her path several times, if necessary. There are detailed instructions for teaching your do to wait at doorways in the “Using Wait to Keep Your Dog Safe” section of this chapter.

Your Dog, With Self-control

Self-control is absolutely necessary for a calm, confident, and well-behaved dog. By nature, dogs are impulsive, often easily distracted, and driven to satisfy literally every whim that comes to mind. Until you teach him otherwise, your dog probably doesn’t even know it’s possible to control his impulses, but with your help, he’ll learn both how to do it, and why he should.

Help Your Dog Control His Impulses

He’s not going to do it just because you want him to. You have to have a way to make sure he doesn’t get rewarded for the wrong, thing, like lunging at the food bowl before you release him. You can either set yourself up to help him control his natural impulse to dive on the food before he actually does it, or you can engage him in a conflict when you try to grab him by the collar and haul him off the meal he’s scarfing down as fast as he can. Repeated conflicts like that could even make him defensive or protective of resources. Just avoid the confrontation altogether by keeping him on a leash or dragline until it’s his habit to practice politeness and self-control. When you don’t have to pick up the leash or dragline to help him make the right decision for six weeks, it’s time to try him without it. Don’t be shy about snapping it right back on for a few days here and there if his newfound freedom is a little too much for him to handle (it’s kind of like taking the car keys away from a sixteen-year-old driver caught speeding).

Make Self-control Relevant to Your Dog’s Life

If you’re consistent about using and enforcing the wait command in your everyday activities with your dog, it’ll become relevant to his life in a very short amount of time. When he can’t get access to things he wants to see, smell, do, eat, or play with until he waits patiently for you to release him, it’s in his own best interest to respond to your command promptly and without challenge. For now, the responsibility for making sure he does respond correctly, and doesn’t get access to the good stuff until he’s been released, is yours. Figure out all the ways that having your dog wait can make your life easier, and then teach him to follow your command in those situations.

Using Wait to Create a Habit of Politeness

For most dogs, consistent expectation and enforcement of polite behavior leads to that behavior becoming habit, or part of the normal routine, very quickly. However, if it’s going to be your dog’s habit to be polite, then you have to make it your habit to make sure you’re giving her the direction she needs to make it happen.

How Your Self-Control Helps

You don’t have to fight or treat your dog harshly to teach him to wait. In fact, if you get frustrated and scream or lose control, chances are your dog is going to respond in kind. If nobody is in control, then, well, nobody is in control. A calm, assertive demeanor and an “It’s just going to be my way” attitude are essential.

Your dog is probably not purposely trying to defy you when he rushes to get to something he wants. By his rules of “normal,” to the victor go the spoils. Be the victor by managing him to encourage cooperation.

It’s not fair to your dog or your training program to sometimes let it slide if your dog doesn’t wait or breaks position before being released. You don’t want your dog wondering if you really mean it this time, or if your commands are really just suggestions. Mean it every time, or don’t bother using the command at all.

When he knows that you are simply going to wait for him to do the right thing, and make it impossible for him to be rewarded by doing the wrong thing, sit, wait, and eye contact will become his default (and polite!)way to ask permission for the things he wants rather than being pushy and demanding.

Recognizing and Testing Habits

You’ll know polite behavior is becoming your dog’s habit when you don’t have to prompt her with a command or help to do it. For example, when you hold up her leash, does your dog sit and wait politely for you to snap it on her collar without being asked? If you pause before opening the door, does she automatically sit and wait, expecting that the command will come? When you see that she is automatically offering polite behavior before you have a chance to ask for it, it’s time to start challenging her with distraction, higher-value temptations, or the need for longer duration. Always progress gradually, building on success.

The wait command is commonly used in performance events like obedience trials not just to keep the dog in position temporarily, but also to let her know that another command, like a recall or a retrieve, is coming soon. You can use the wait command in your training to add challenge to your commands by moving farther away from your dog before giving a command, or even disappearing around a corner before calling her to you.

How Wait Helps Dogs Learn Responsibility

You may have already noticed a recurring theme, which is to be proactive by giving your dog specific directions to follow, and by setting him and yourself up for successful practice by managing him in a way that it’s always easy for you to enforce your commands. You’re doing a lot of work to train your dog, but you can’t do it all. Some of the responsibility is your dog’s.

Controlling the Consequences

With consistent work (hopefully all of this is just a part of your lifestyle by now), your dog will learn that he can control the consequences of his behavior, both by offering appropriate behavior on his own and by responding correctly to your commands. The wait command gets the process going by giving your dog a balance between control and freedom. He can control himself by waiting patiently and get desirable consequences, or he can break his wait and get both repositioned and a delay before he gets what he wants. When he’s offering polite behaviors more often that you have to ask him for them, you can start to relax the rules a bit.

As long as he continues to treat people with respect physically, and to respond promptly and correctly, you don’t have to make him wait every time for everything. This is what you’ve been doing all this work for, so you can finally give him more freedom, both physically (around the house and yard if he’s earned it), and mentally (with more freedom to make choices). Of course, be prepared to help him be successful if he needs it, but give him a chance to offer the right behavior first. Unfortunately, where most dog owners mess up is doing it all backwards, giving freedom first and then trying to put the rules on when the dog is driving them crazy with obnoxious or dangerous behavior.

Let Your Dog Do His Share

So far in your training program, you’ve been giving your dog lots of guidance and direction, controlling practically every move he makes. It’s time to let him take some of the responsibility for controlling his own behavior. With the wait, after you tell him to do it, don’t keep constant tension on the leash, holding him in place. Make it his responsibility to maintain the position on a loose leash. Correct him promptly when you need to, but then give him enough room to make the choice between what you asked him to do and what he wants to do. When he realizes that he can control himself, and the consequences of his choices, he’s on his way to becoming a teammate you can count on.

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