Several people have asked me about “pre-stays.” It's probably not a new concept, but this fall I learned that doing a couple of brief out-of-sight stays with Phoenix at a show site BEFORE we did the formal group exercises in the ring seemed to help him get more comfortable with the concept of me leaving — specifically, me leaving and him STAYING. With more ring experience I hope this becomes a non-issue but right now, it’s helpful. After all, we do warm-ups for other exercises, why not do a warm-up for stays?
When I do pre-stays, I pick a helper who understands my criteria for the exercise. This is important. Novice trainers or those who figure “he’s pretty much where she left him, must be okay,” might not recognize the importance of correcting sniffing, wiggling, shifting, fidgeting, scooting, crawling, etc. Phoenix has done all of the above and they are a precursor to getting up and leaving, so I don’t want him to practice those behaviors.
I also need someone who will be aware of other dogs in the area and the potential for strange dogs coming close to Phoenix while he’s on a stay. I always leave him in a quiet place but dog shows being what they are, you never know when an errant dog will pop up in your own dog’s face.
I leave him in a formal sit or down close to the helper’s chair (he’s on leash) and walk away in the same direction we will leave for group stays and out the same door if possible. My helper will make mild corrections, usually a verbal scolding for fidgeting his feet or hip-shifting. If he is being really naughty, she will call me back and I’ll make the correction and start over. Otherwise, I leave for 20-30 seconds, return, praise, leave again, stay away longer this time but usually not the whole 3 or 5 minutes, return, praise, change positions, leave briefly, return, etc.
The goal is for him to see me leave, return, leave, return, multiple times before we do it for real. No big deal.
A few words about praise: when I return, I want him to know how absolutely BRILLIANT he is for staying there without me because I know it's difficult for him. My praise is heartfelt but calm. I don’t want to cheer and shout and add a lot of bouncy energy to this exercise when my goal is for my dog to perform it with calm confidence. Dogs can hear the enthusiasm and sincerity in your voice, so high volume is not required.
Occasionally, I will leave him with a friend who is just sitting ringside. She can play with him, tug, have him do tricks, etc. while I go out of sight or she can just sit and hold his leash and let him hang out. It’s not a formal stay exercise, he’s just out of his crate and I’m not there. But I’ll still disappear in the same direction we will leave for group stays and he’s not allowed to pull or try to follow me.
At the Omaha trials a few weeks ago, I carefully did my pre-stays, exiting through a door to the left because that’s where an exhibitor told me they’d gone on Friday. Oops, we exited through a door to the right on Saturday and Sunday because one of the exhibitors in our group was in a wheelchair and obviously couldn’t do the steps out the left-hand door. Phoenix was fine. He’s used to me being mixed up.