Dogcharmer: Stay, Pepper

Be firm but fun when it comes to ‘stay’ and ‘sit.’

Pepper, 4 months. — Courtesy Raquel Ferrera

Hi Tom! 

We recently adopted a puppy named Pepper. We have been pretty successful with training her, but I am having one issue with one specific command. When we practice “stay” from a “sit” position, she usually takes off running for me, but when my husband asks her to stay, she listens to him. Am I doing something wrong?


Dear Raquel,

Congratulations on your new family member, and for adopting. Looking at that cute, mischievous, terrier-infused face, Pepper seems the perfect name, and I’m reminded that most dogs get away with what they feel they can. In a litter of 10 pups, the pecking order is usually established between 2 and 3 months of age, more often by 8 or 9 weeks. Even when I was working full-time (over 800 appointments a year training) and gone much of the day, most days started with an hour-long walk with my dog in the State Park across the street. Occasionally, my wife Jaye complained, “How come I feed the dog, let her out all day, take her to the vet, make sure she’s happy and comfortable all day, and she listens to you so much better than she listens to me!?” My answer never seemed to please her. “Well, Jaye, who would you be more likely to listen to and cooperate with, the cook or the king?” 

Another factor may contribute to Pepper’s cooperation with your husband — physicality. If he’s bigger, has a deeper voice, that in itself is more commanding. Never having met you, I can’t comment on what you’re doing, so here’s what I’d suggest. Training works best when success builds on success, no distractions, just you and the Pep. Let her see you’re getting a treat, and talk to her with an attitude of, “Hey Pep, wanna earn some treats?” Be upbeat, happy, and firm. Face her squarely, right in front of her, knowing she’s likely to stay at the distance you pick. Say it firmly, as soft as you can get away with, with “the cop stopping traffic hand signal” as you take a step back, and hold there. Release her with an OK word and a smile, and let her come to you for the treat. If she can’t stay as long as six seconds, then you make sure she’s released at five seconds to be successful. Success WILL build on success. Slowly build on time, distance, and distractions. When she breaks, the split-second she starts to move, I’d be saying “Uh-uh” while moving deliberately to cutting her off, not too fast (don’t want to scare), and not too slowly. The split-second she stops moving, you immediately smile and stop moving, hand signal, hold, release, treat. Move around the room with her, make it a fun game with sits and stays all over the place. She will try to con you, break a second before you release her; don’t buy it! It’s a combination of Firm and Fun. When it comes to treats, Raquel, think like a loan shark: “Nothin’ fa nothin’.” 

In all of this, I’ve assumed that Pepper is off-leash. If that’s not the case, then that’s another question to answer. Have fun taking charge. 

The Dogcharmer

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