4 min read

Duration or is it Breakfast in Bed?

by | Mar 22, 2019 | Learning about dogs, Training | 3 comments

Teaching duration has become a muddy pool of very mixed creatures. This is partly due to our human understanding in how we use words that are the same but have entirely different meanings. We ask the dog to “Stay!”, meaning don’t move, but also “you stay here, I shan’t be long” when leaving the house. Of course we are clear that one means hold your position, I may or may not move away, and the other means, go please yourself for a while, but don’t be naughty whilst I am absent.
Our misuse and muddled understanding of our language is not the dogs’ problem. Let’s clean the water here and find the bottom, clean enough for swimming!

For the dog’s perspective their question is “what earns me that piece of food?” Our question is how can we convey that. If the particular dog is quite active, which is usual when there is the scent of food, asking them to be inactive is going to be a challenge. Conversely teaching a restful, content-to-let-the-world-flow-past-type of guy, to be active and animated becomes the challenge instead.

Duration itself as a word may mean sustaining activity and animation OR resting in bed for longer. We need different language to cover all variations of “sustain” and different protocols to explain it to the dogs.

The common recommendations are to withhold the cue that ends the behaviour – very often the click. Controversially exactly the same advice is used to encourage the dog to try something else, which is completely the opposite of asking them to keep sustaining what you are doing. We do not get to use the same contingencies to mean that quite different, opposing responses are correct.

Go one camp or the other but you cannot be in both. When we change the contingencies the behaviour will change.

  • If I want the dog to be doing something different, my placement of the treat will clearly prevent the dog from doing the same thing.
  • If the dog is standing on the target and I want the dog to practice approaching the target, by treat will be placed off target, at the starting point of another approach.
  • If the dog is in the sit and I want the dog to practise adopting the sit my treat will be placed where the dog needs to rise from the sit, take a short step forward and eat the treat whilst standing.

The contingencies can change:

  • If I want the dog to remain on target I will give the information that the treat is going to be “breakfast in bed” and that there is no need to leave the target as I am coming to you for delivery.
  • If the dog is in the sit and I want the dog to remain in the sit I will give the information that the treat is going to be “breakfast in bed” and you can enjoy a lie in as I bring the toast and tea to you.
    I give this information with a “wait there” verbal cue and often a hand signal with the palm of hand facing the dog. It is a suggestion not a firm rule. I don’t mind if you have left the bed to join me for breakfast, because I will be taking it back to your bed anyway.

If you are happy also giving cues to leave bed I use the hand signal of placing the treat and a “go” verbal cue.

Breakfast is coming

Once we have been able to assure the dog that breakfast is coming and you can have a lie in, then we may need to be variable as to how soon breakfast will arrive. Provided the dog is assured that breakfast WILL arrive we can be introducing the concept of slight delays quite easily. This begins with the “wait there”, and the process of fishing around for the treat whilst approaching, but showing ever sign that I am preparing the breakfast.

What we must avoid is the silence of not knowing that breakfast is coming. They are likely to leave the bed and peep down to the kitchen to see what we are doing. Silence is a really energy sapping contingency, does it mean do something or do nothing? The uncertainty can fold the strong will.

We certainly do not want to ever revert to the traditional scolding of leaving the bed and generating a need to stay because of the fear of what will happen if they move.

We build a desire to relish the extra lie in and room service. When that is established, comfortable and patiently understood, the dog will be able to enjoy their repose without anxiety. But equally we must not promise breakfast is coming and get distracted by reading the morning paper for half an hour.

Breakfast is coming can be used in many different situations. Not only to ask the dog to hold their exact position, a sit, a down or a standing still, but also for grooming and husbandry, to take a photo, and any other resting position. The key to success is to be clear that this is resting behaviour, not readiness to spring out of bed and chase butterflies.

That is a different type of stillness.

Stillness catches dinner

As predatory hunters, along with cats, dog have exquisite skills for stalking prey. Stalking has a perfectly logical function allowing the predator to close the gap before the chase. Chasing using a lot of resources and in many cases the prey can outrun the predator. Rabbits go down holes, birds fly away, sheep run faster than collies. Once the dog spots the prey, before the prey spots the dog, they will learn, or go hungry, to freeze and then begin to stalk.

Stalking is being able to move forwards so slowly that the prey cannot detect the movement. It means each leg moves one at a time, the head maintains absolutely level stillness to keep focus and the breathing is hardly audible. Good stalkers get really close and only burst into pounce or chase at the very last minute – which is usually initiated by the prey.

This natural stillness is ours to harness.

We cannot use the “wait there” from the breakfast in bed scenario as the contingencies at so very different. A lie in is about restfulness, not a gathering of energy ready for the chase. If the dog is asked to swop these around we are likely to get an explosion out of bed (knocking the breakfast flying) and the look that clearly conveys “Stupid Damn Human” if we give a treat during stalking ?

The stalking dog preparing to chase has switched off the digestive system, from beginning to end. They are investing all their energy into kill and capture and it is quite the wrong moment to be considering porridge with honey or jam.

To teach a sustained stillness that captures the energy we use that readiness that exists naturally.

I use the verbal cue “ready” or “look” and the stillness is always rewarded with the chase – which contradictory, can be food – if we get to chase it. Food during stillness or stalk – absolutely not, but after chase, oh, yes please.

This can be best achieved with youngsters, or naïve dogs, that have yet to learn to stalk live prey, or toys, such as sheepballs.

This “look” stillness can also be used in specific positions, stand or sit or down, but the energy is completely different. We can use it prior to jumping, retrieve, leaving the back of the car, going out door to the garden. It is a stillness that contains desire to move. It can become extremely strong when well taught with the right type of success.

A critical element in teaching it well is our own behaviour. Our stillness and focus is a key contribution.


  1. Gwen Quon

    This subject duration has always had me ina knot. You have given me a whole new perspective Kay, Thank you

    • Kay Laurence

      It’s sometimes hard to stop our views being shaped by the whole histroy of dog training, I have to work to see it from another view point – usually the dog’s!

  2. Lyndsey Lewis

    Brilliant!! Thank you so much for clearing the fog. Like Gwen, duration and the conversation around it has always had me puzzling. It’s more challenging for me because I’m working with horses who don’t always find running around as fun as a dog does…:-)


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