Teaching the ‘Whoa’ Command: Part 2

The Willow Creek Team January 15, 2018

commands cues puppy training

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Last week, we started describing how we teach the ‘whoa’ command. So far, all the lessons have been taught indoors, so we can use a pulley system attached to the ceiling. (We have pulleys set up in our kennel buildings, for the purpose of introducing this command.)

As we begin where we left off, we are about to bring the dog outside, amid all the distractions, and deepen the understanding of the command.

Working Without the Pulley

In the later stages of the indoor sessions, we take away the plywood ‘place board.’ But as we start outdoor sessions, we bring the place board back. This helps the dog remember what it’s supposed to do. Because we can’t use a pulley system anymore, we substitute a rope that is half-hitched around the dog, near its hind legs, then clipped to its collar. This gives the trainer a ‘handle’ with which to lift upward on the dog when it needs to be reminded to hold still on the board. By this time, the feeling of being lifted in order to be corrected is familiar to the dog.

Here is how to attach the half-hitch lead:
Start by holding the snap end of a check cord in one hand, and with your other hand, hold a few feet further up the cord. Go under the dog’s waist with the snap end, as you keep the rest of the rope above the dog’s back. Pass the snap end over the rest of the rope and attach it to the dog’s collar.Now, you have most of the rope trailing away from the dog, and a ‘handle’ that you can lift up on when necessary.

As we get ready for the first outdoor whoa session, we bring the plywood board outside and set it on the ground. We bring the dog over to the board. The dog is controlled using the check cord. Place the dog on the board, tell him to whoa, then walk around him. As you begin this stage, keep holding onto the rope ‘handle’ and remain very close to the dog. (In the photo, you see both of us training the same dog, but this is typically a one-person job. In the photo, we are at a very advanced stage with Patches, a German Shorthair, and the dog is actually pointing the bird Chad is holding, as Chad reinforces the command by lifting up on the rope.)

When you get to this stage, you can also reinforce the training with an e-collar. Many dogs will already have been introduced to the e-collar while learning basic commands such as ‘here,’ but you could use an e-collar for the first time while teaching whoa. If your dog moves off the board after being told to whoa, give him a light continuous stimulation, set him back on the board, then turn off the stimulation when he is steady. What the dog truly learns at this stage is that it’s ‘warm and uncomfortable’ when he moves off the board before being released. It is further reinforced that the board is his safe place.
As you progress in this stage, and the dog becomes more consistent, begin to move farther away as he is standing on the board. But do this in baby steps; move just a few steps away at first. Whenever the dog seems to be understanding (through remaining still), move a few more steps away. Keep the half-hitch rope on the dog, so you can quickly get to him and lift up on it, when necessary. The dog is doing well when he will stand still as you circle him from about 15 feet away.

For consistent compliance, some dogs require higher levels of stimulation on the e-collar than others. Always start with the lowest setting first. If, despite receiving the low-level electrical correction, the dog keeps moving off the board, then turn the collar up, one setting at a time. If at any time the dog starts to look confused or nervous, move back a step in your training. This is really important! If your dog does not understand what you’re asking, using an e-collar, or turning the stimulation level up higher, is not going to help. You must always be teaching, and looking for signs that the dog understands what you want.
It’s also important to realize that the same dog might do great one day with the collar set on its lowest level, but ignore that same low-level stimulation on another day. Variables are many, including moods and distractions. Once we understand a given dog, we always start each session with the lowest level that dog consistently responds to, only turning it up if necessary.

Whoa Wherever You Go

The next step is to again remove the place board and begin the process of walking the dog around the yard, on the half-hitch lead, and asking him to whoa at different places. Again, dogs are very place oriented, and we want to see if the dog will still understand what the whoa command means in the absence of the board. Keep him fairly close. Give him a ‘whoa’ command as you tighten the slack on the check cord. The tightening of the cord helps him to stop. Calmly pet the dog, letting him know he is doing well. Take a few steps in front of him. If he moves, pick him up and set him back to where he was when you told him to whoa. If he stays put as you walk out in front of him, calmly walk back to him and calmly praise him for doing a good job.
Release him with release command, walk a little ways, and whoa him again. Again, help him stop by tightening up on the check cord. Continue to also use a light stimulation on the e-collar when your dog moves before you release him. Continue to calmly praise him when he does what he is supposed to do. As the dog’s confidence grows, you can move farther away after he is holding still.

As your dog becomes consistent and reliable in obeying the whoa command wherever he is, begin taking him for longer walks and only giving the whoa command a few times. Also, let him get farther away from you before giving the whoa command.

Finally, Only the E-Collar

When the dog will consistently stay put after you whoa him, you can make the transition to using only the e-collar (no check cord). This brings great freedoms, and duplicates actual hunting conditions. But as you do this, it’s important to realize that you’ll be using the e-collar in a different way. The difference is subtle, but distinct. Rather than waiting for the dog to disobey and then correcting him with the stimulation, you actually use the stimulation in association with the command.
The stimulation is the command, in a way.

As you make this final transition, it will greatly smooth things out if you manually help the dog stop as the stimulation/command is given the first few times. Many dogs, before this type of training is introduced, will only have experienced the e-collar’s stimulation in association with disobeying and needing to be corrected. Now, your dog is going to be taught that a light stimulation can arrive at the same instant as the command, and the dog has to learn how to ‘turn it off’ by obeying the command.

Here’s how you do it:
Go back to walking him fairly close. This time, at the same instant as you say ‘whoa’ give the dog a light, but continuous, stimulation from the e-collar. Also at this same instant, pull back on him with the check cord, to help him stop. You can do all this at once because the dog already knows what the command means, and what he is supposed to do. As soon as he stops, turn the stimulation off.

Do this again, several more times, and your dog is becoming ‘collar conditioned’ to the whoa command. You are making this crucial connection in the dog’s mind: the stimulation is the command. You are not waiting for him to disobey, but rather giving the command and the stimulation together. Each time the dog stops and is still in response to the whoa command, let off on the collar. The dog will quickly learn that, in order to ‘turn the stimulation off,’ he needs to whoa.In short order, you will be able to get rid of the check cord completely, and the two of you will be ‘wireless’ and ready for big things!

Important tip: some dogs will stop reliably on a very low stimulation level, but require a higher stimulation level to remain in place until they are given the release command. Most new e-collars let you quickly change the stimulation level, so you can whoa the dog, then turn the collar up higher, if necessary, to keep him stopped until you release him.

Combining Voice and Touch

While we are training the dog to understand the whoa command, in addition to the ‘OK’ voice command, we use a simultaneous tap on the collar to release the dog. It’s a good idea to include this physical touch with the release command. This is especially important for a young dog. In a training or hunting situation, for example, after asking the dog to whoa, you might be talking to another human (“yeah, that’s sounds OK”), and inadvertently give what the dog thinks is the release command. Because you didn’t mean to release the dog, you have to set him back in place. This is how dogs get confused as to what you are asking them to do.

This is a bit of an aside, but anything that helps the dog’s confidence level is going to be beneficial. Teaching and consistently giving both releases (voice and touch) can be helpful in the long run. The commands can be separated, if you wish, after the dog has it ‘nailed down.’ That way, if you’d like to release him without making any noise, you can simply tap on the collar. Likewise, if you’d rather not walk over to the dog to release him, you can use just the voice command.

Final Thoughts

If you are new at teaching a dog to whoa, don’t worry if it takes several sessions before you feel confident about moving to the next step. It’s better for the dog if you take things slow, and make sure he understands what is expected, at each phase, before moving on. If, at any point, he starts to look confused or isn’t progressing, try going back a step, to a more basic phase of the training.

This is a fairly complex command. Keep each training session about 10 to 15 minutes long. If you think your dog looks ‘bored’ or seems to lose interest in learning, it’s important to stick with it until he does it right, at least once, before you end that session. Teach him that doing what you want is what leads to taking a break. Do not give the dog positive reinforcement (ending the session) for doing a poor job of learning.

For many dogs, treats are a great source of inspiration while learning new commands. However, we don’t recommend using them every session. A treat is a tool used to bring some excitement and variety to the work, not something the dog should come to expect.

Remember: the command ‘whoa’ should come to be associated with calmly standing in place. It should be taught by a calm and consistent trainer. Even when the progress seems to be coming slowly, do not get angry or impatient with your dog.
Instead, slow down even more, figure out what’s missing, and keep at it.

Notes: Chad Hines developed a pointing lab for Outdoor News writer Mark Strand, using the whoa command to build control into upland hunting situations. Mark reports that the dog, Ali, is a delightful bird-finding machine to hunt over. More and more, Chad specialize in developing pointing dogs at their Orvis-endorsed Willow Creek Kennels and Hunt Club near Little Falls. If you’d like help training your dog, or you’re looking for a good place to hunt, call them at 320-360-3603. Also, visit their booth at Game Fair.

<- Teaching the 'Whoa' Command: Part 1