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Teaching dogs to wait for permission to cross streets
Polly Matzinger

Far too many of us have lost dogs because they were hit by cars, and this is almost entirely preventable with a little training. It is easy to teach a dog not to run into the street without permission. Like many other training tasks, it takes a bit of time, but the process is simple and can be done by anyone, anywhere. It’s a four/five step process, and it has always worked! It's easiest with very small puppies (I start as soon as I get one, at 8-10 weeks, and am usually on step four by the time the puppy is 10-12 weeks old). It even worked on a dog that was eight years old when I got him. It looks like a lot of words, but don't be discouraged. It’s really very easy. I wrote a lot of words because I wanted to make sure that the small details are there (god is in the details :>)

Step 1: using your body to cue the puppy (or adult dog) to what you want.

1a) Choose a street or series of streets to train with.

Pick a quiet street, with a good high curb (the change in height makes it easy for the dog to discriminate between sidewalk and street). If you’re on a farm and don’t have sidewalks, use a farm road that has a definite change of footing from its edges (for example, an asphalt or hard packed dirt road verged by grass), or use the roads or lanes that you especially don’t want your dogs to run out into. Later when the dog is fully trained, s/he will distinguish between grass/dirt and asphalt, or whatever surfaces you have trained with. They also get tuned to spaces that open up, like the edges of woods, or the open space between rows in a parking lot. But they will always be especially good at the places where you trained them and/or which you encounter every day.

1b) Walk up to the street or road and, when you get to the edge, stop dead in your tracks, and ask your dog to "wait".

Stopping is the cue to the dog that s/he should stop too, and saying “wait” is the cue that you will use later. If the dog doesn’t stop when you do, use the leash to stop her just before s/he puts a foot in the street. If your dog is a small puppy that isn’t on leash, put your hand in front of her chest so that she stops too.
When you say “wait”, use a very calm quiet tone, not quite a whisper. Draw it out. It takes me about a one and a half seconds to say and has a slight rise at the end. Don't use the word "stay". That means something different. 'Stay" is a command that you use when your dog is already stopped and means "don't move a single foot for a long time until I tell you to". 'Wait" is not a command. It’s a cue to your dog that you are approaching a place where s/he needs to stop and wait. Most of the time, once they’re trained, they will read the lay of the land and stop themselves without a cue, but sometimes it’s useful to remind them. I might use ‘wait’ as a heads-up to my dog if, for example, I’m crossing a complicated series of parking lots where there are lots of little raised areas (where I want them to stop) and lots of open asphalt (that I want them to cross quickly). I also use it whenever I open the front door, whenever I open the car door, whenever I open the pasture gate or the barn door, at lots of other times. It becomes a very useful word for them to know. (If I yell it loudly, it can stop them in their tracks if I have to stop them. But that comes later. Back to training.)
I don’t worry if the dog waits standing or sitting or lying down, as long as they do it. I have found that each dog finds his own way to hold himself and this is better than deciding it for him. Also, if you ever have to yell "wait" he'll stop faster if he can stop in his own style than if he has to do something (like sit) that you required him to do.

1c) Count to two, then say "OK!" in a very light happy tone and RUN across the street with your dog.

Running with you is the reward she gets for having done it right.
If she steps into the street before you say "OK!", say "oops" and put her back on the sidewalk. No punishment, just a reminder that you want her on the sidewalk. The “punishment” is that she has to wait longer before she can run with you, and for most dogs that is punishment enough.
Do this several times in a row for a couple of days.

Step two: disassociating your body motion from your words:

2a) When you come to a street, stop, say "wait", count to two and put one foot into the street without saying anything.

In this step you’re teaching the dog that she can no longer depend on watching your motion to cue her as to what she should do herself. She will begin to take responsibility. You’re also teaching her to listen for the release word “OK!”, which she’s been hearing, but probably not paying much attention to.
Step into the street with only one foot. If your dog is on your left, take the step with your right foot so that you can turn towards her to keep an eye on her. Be ready to stop her because she will move with you, as she is used to following your body movement. But now she’ll be learning that she needs to wait for the word "OK", rather than just follow you. So if she comes with you (remember you're only moving ONE FOOT into the street), tighten the leash so that she can't actually put a foot off the sidewalk (or put a hand in front of her chest) and say "oops, wait".

2b) Count to two and then say "OK!" (Remember that it's a light happy tone) and RUN happily across the street.

After a few times of this she should begin to be more relaxed and to stay on the sidewalk when you put one foot into the street.

2c) When you see that she doesn’t try to go with you when you put one foot in the street, then take a whole step (two feet) into the street, count to two and then release her with “OK!”.

Again, be ready to stop her if she moves. It’s important, if you can, to stop her before she actually puts a foot into the street, but if she does, just say ‘oops’, and put her back on the sidewalk, and start again with one foot, then next time do two feet..

2d) When she can wait while you take one whole step into the street, then take two whole steps and count to two before you release her.

This part of the work should take about three days (but it can take longer. Don’t worry, just keep working slowly to take each step at a time) . When you get to the point where she will wait calmly while you walk backwards two steps into the street, then you’re ready for step three.

Step three: raising the bar:

3a) Lengthen the distance that you go into the street before releasing the dog.

Here the job is to work longer and longer distances until you can get completely across the street while she waits calmly on the other side until you say "OK!". Remember to RUN when you say it so that she runs happily across the street when you release her with the "OK!". You want her to get the idea that streets are not places to linger in.
At some point, as you're lengthening the distance that you move away from your dog, you’ll need to drop the leash so that you can back up further than its range. Don’t worry, he'll wait because he’s into the game by now. Of course you need to do this on very quiet streets with no traffic. I use the nearby parking lots at night or early in the morning. Look around you for something similar, or go out on really small residential streets when there isn't a lot of traffic (or use the road to your farm at a time that there isn't a lot of traffic).


3b) Keep your eyes open!

Make sure that you can see the whole street when you call your dog, so that he doesn't accidentally get hit by a car you didn't see. I once didn’t see a car that was turning into the street from a side street. When I said “OK!” my 12-week-old puppy ran happily across the street and bonked right into the side of the car. Lucky that she ran into it and not the other way around. She was dazed, but not hurt. And it taught me an important lesson. Our dogs trust us when we teach them this game and it’s up to us to stay aware of our surroundings and keep them alive. Never, ever, release your dog if you can’t see every bit of the area he’s going to run into.
When he's really solidly waiting while you cross the whole street, you're ready for step four. It should take you about a week to get to that stage, though the time varies a lot from dog to dog. Little puppies learn this much faster, especially if you have sidewalks and curbs, which act like cliffs to them. Older dogs may take longer because they’ve been crossing streets without thinking about it for years and it takes time to awaken them to the differences between streets and sidewalks, or grassy fields vs. dirt roads.

Step four: making it difficult:
this is the penultimate step and you should not go to step five until your dog is at least six months old. With some dogs you don't ever need to go to step five.

4a) Start doing really crazy things to get your dog to go into the street before you say "OK!".

Start easy. You want her to win at first, not lose. For example, when you're halfway across, stop and wave your arms up and down. If she waits, that's great! Excitedly say "OK!" and run across the remainder of the street. Next time, do a little dance (don't look at her directly, but keep an eye on her). If she waits quietly (thinking that you just had a fit of some kind) say "OK!" immediately and run across the street with her. If she moves into the street before you say "OK", say "oops" and put her back on the sidewalk. (Remember that there is no punishment in this game. Just a reminder that she's supposed to wait until she's released.)
Work on this until you can do cartwheels or moonwalks or mad rushes back and forth, singing madly at the top of your lungs, and popping balloons, and she simply waits there, wondering when you’re going to regain your senses.
Try walking along on the other side of the street. I start this while I’m only a couple feet away from the dog. I ask her to wait, then I take one step into the street and start walking down the street next to the sidewalk she’s waiting on. After I’ve gone a few yards, if she hasn’t started to follow me (while still staying on the sidewalk) I’ll encourage her to walk along. If she steps into the street I’ll put her back on the sidewalk and walk just on the edge on the street, until she gets used to the idea that she can walk along with me, as long as she stays on the sidewalk. Once she understands this, I’ll go out a bit further into the street and do it again. Eventually I get to the point where I can completely cross the street and walk along my side, while she walks along her side, always staying on the sidewalk. This is a really good exercise to do, as it teaches her that she can move, she doesn’t have to stay stuck to the ground, as long as she doesn’t go into the street.
Make sure there are no cars coming when you do any of these difficult exercises. If one should appear, stop whatever it is that you’re doing to try to get your dog to break, and calmly say “wait” until the car goes by. By this stage she should be waiting anyway, but, since you’re trying to make her break, you don’t want to succeed just when there’s a car going by.

4b) Make it even harder.

This can get to be really fun! You need to become a real loony. If she likes to play ball, throw a ball to yourself in the middle of the street or on the other side. If she likes food, then put her food dish in the middle of the street. When she can wait while you pick up the food and drop it in the bowl again, then run a trail of food from the dish to her nose and drop a few bits around her. Let her eat whatever she can find on the sidewalk (or the grassy verge) but not any of it that’s laying in the street. If she chases cats, borrow a neighbor and a cat so that the cat can be walked through the street while she waits. If she chases cars, get a friend to drive by (slowly) and make sure she waits. If she chases kids on bicycles, borrow some kids and get them to ride by right in front of her. Parade some chickens in front of her nose. Get someone to walk a few sheep down the road. Play ball, or tug of war, with another dog on the other side. Keep upping the ante until she won't go in the street for ANYTHING unless you say "OK. Do this both on and off leash until you trust her completely.
Don’t, in this process, say her name to get her to break into the street. That is unfair. You can talk all you want, in fact DO talk, because there will come times when you might be walking down the road with someone having a conversation and you want your dog to ignore those words. Sing, yodel, yell, whisper. Do all sorts of things, but don’t call the dog or use his name unless you really want him to come to you.
Which reminds me. I use the word “OK” as a releaser, but you might want to choose something else. The reason is that it’s a word that sometimes comes up in conversation, and the dog is tuned to it. You could be walking down the side of a busy road, having a conversation with someone, and you say “OK”, in response to something that your companion has said, just at the moment that your dog (unbeknownst to you) is eyeing a squirrel on the other side of the road. You could lose your dog that way. I teach my dogs not to respond to other people saying OK, and I’m very careful not to use it in conversation near roads. But it’s hard because it’s a very common word, so you might want to choose another one.
Up to this point, the whole process shouldn't take longer than about two weeks if you're diligent.

Step five: proofing it:
some dogs need this and others don't. Be very very careful if you do decide to do this. I stopped Charlie, when he was 9 months old, from ever wanting to play with me. It took almost six months before he would trust me again. Your timing needs to be IMPECCABLE! And, since it isn't necessary with many dogs, don't do it unless you need it.
You may decide to have a friend help you so that one of you can hold the line (see below) while the other deals with the dog.

5a) prepare your equipment and your dog’s.

Once your dog is waiting calmly on the side of the street until you say "OK", no matter what you're doing out there, put a long line on him, as well as the leash. Make sure that your dog is wearing a wide collar, not a choke chain, nor a rolled leather collar. Wear gloves or you'll potentially hurt your hand.

5b) prepare your and your dog’s mental state.

Go to an area in which you have often trained steps 1-4, where your dog is really good about not going into the street. Play ball or frisbee or anything that gets him really excited. After he's excited, set yourself up so that you're a distance away from the sidewalk, or your chosen road, that is almost the length of the long line. Now take the leash off (but not the long line. The reason you take the leash off is to remove the weight so that he'll think he's free.).

5c) proof it!

Throw the ball once so that he gets/stays excited and, when he brings it back to you throw it immediately straight into the street (I usually throw it fast and low so that it lands short of the street by a few feet and rolls into the street. This is more exciting to him than lobbing it). BE READY! Hold TIGHT to that long line and, just as he puts the first foot into the street (IF and only IF he puts a foot into the street), yell "WAIT!", turn around and take a step away from him so that the line tightens suddenly. He should hear you yell "WAIT" and hit the end of the line just as he steps into the street. He may flip head over heels if he is going really fast. (If he is a really fast dog, then stand closer to the street so that he hasn't gotten up much momentum when he hits the street. The object here is to stop him in a really unpleasant way, but not to damage him)
It usually doesn't take more than once to stop a dog forever from going in the street if he has had the training leading up to it. With most dogs, if you have done your homework, and come up with all sorts of really exciting and appealing ways to get him to break his 'wait" in step 4, you won't even have to do it. But I had one dog that became SO excited by a ball that he would happily have chased one right under the wheels of a speeding 18-wheeler. Putting this dog head over heels was not fun, but it was a lifesaver. Too many dogs die in streets.
I live on a six lane, very heavily trafficked, road, and play frisbee on the huge lawn of an old convent across the street from my house. Only the dog whose name I have called is allowed to chase the frisbee, otherwise I would have pandemonium with four dogs trying to catch the same disk (or each other)! Every so often the wind catches the frisbee so that it goes into the street. No matter whose turn it was, all the dogs stop, as soon as they see that the frisbee is going to land in the street, and look at it mournfully. They all then spontaneously lie down while I wait till the traffic is gone so that I can go get the frisbee and throw it back to the dog whose turn it was. His/her reward for not going after it is that s/he gets the frisbee for the next six throws.
Note: keep an eye on them for the rest of their lives. They are dogs, and, like children, will sometimes forget. So, no matter how often my dogs prove to me that they don't go into streets, I always keep an eye out. Periodically I will do something calculated to make them break. (Ride my bicycle 30 yards away, while they're waiting, or run into the street myself, or cross and then walk along the other side for a few hundred yards, etc) and correct them if they go into the street before I say "OK".