Stay versus settle
You are at an outdoors coffee shop and you barely started sipping trough your latte. Your dog, who has been lying down under the table for barely a minute, now stands up and looks at you exuberantly:
You: "Dude, we are just chilling, we are not DOING anything".
You scratch your head. After all, you did teach your dog to stay on a mat!
Where did things go wrong?
Let's talk today about the difference between settle and a stay in dog training. I believe we all have an image of what a relaxed dog is. A dog who is sunbathing, eating some grass, taking a nap, etc. Now another completely different view is of a dog who is on a "sit stay", "down stay", or even on a more relaxed "wait". On a stay , a dog learned to stop at a location and should not move until released from that position. That dog is waiting for something fun, is expecting movement and more directions next. A dog that sat on the sidewalk before crossing the street, for example. Or a dog who is lying down on a mat expecting a treat or her turn to play. Or, going to the end of the spectrum, a dog who is on a sit-stay and is about to be release for an intense agility run. That stay is the farthest away from a calm sit stay. Those stays are just intromissions on a round of activity. The dog's stay is like a "trick" where the learned cue was taught in a way that makes the dog know she should be stationary but after a certain period of time she will be released.
A lot of people train mat work as a stay trick and the dogs never really learn to settle. This is where I see some confusion. A dog learns to go lie down on a mat but that was only trained as a trick and not as a moment to relax. If you only practice down stays on a mat that last from 10 seconds to a minute, how can that dog relax for one hour? If you train that in a way that the dog is expecting interaction, runs to the mat, lies down, looks at you vividly, and is expecting a release cue, that’s probably not a settle down. The confusion and frustration on the dog's face when she has to stay there for a long time and the impatience of the human in evident. The dog learned in this scenario that she is performing a behavior and is expecting payment. It's hard to teach a trick that last one hour. Read on.
Now, a different scenario is a dog that learned to truly relax because she is not just waiting for the next action or because she "performed" the mat trick. This is a dog that have a truly positive but calm association with that cue or mat. She is not looking hard for the "next thing". This is a dog that is settled. It should look relaxed and possibly.. boring. I want a dog who is "stationary" but not paralyzed without moving a muscle, I want a dog who is just chilling out. This is taught in a different way, trough associations. The dog is kind of sleepy and possibly bored, and that’s only then when a treat might appear from time to time without the dog realizing it. The famous “a treat ran from the sky”. The dog does not have to DO anything, but when she is there, without her realizing how, nice things happen randomly.. therefore she wants to stay. And the treats happen only when she is convinced she does not have to perform, only when she forgets about doing tricks for treats.
Both stays and settles have their own specific uses, but it is helpful for people to know which one you are teaching your dog and why! Or to know in what occasion do you use each one of them.
In this video below, my dog is learning to settle at the park (a hard location to do that since she wants to sniff things and stroll around), I release her to do doggy things ("go be a dog"), at some point I recall her and ask her to settle near me again. In this video I do not show how to teach a settle but the difference between a settle on cue and a dog who is exploring the environment.
In the next blog post you will find a dog learning to settle while people are having meals.
Enjoy your dog and happy training!