One of the most difficult behaviors for dogs to master is the “Stay.” This is a command that must be well-defined for your dog. This includes teaching the stay in several stages, as well as teaching the behavior in reverse, starting with the end and working backward for longer and more reliable stays.
Create a Definite Beginning and a Definite Ending
The first and most important rule of the stay is to have a definite beginning and a definite ending. This means pairing your stay command with a release word that signals that the stay is finished. Common release words include “OK,” “Free,” Release,” and “All Done.” Choose one word as your release word and use only that word consistently when the “stay” is finished.
To teach the release word, position your dog as you wish, in either a sit, down or stand. Then give your dog a stay command, followed almost immediately by your release word and reward. Don’t worry if your dog does not move following the release word. You can step back, clap your hands, or otherwise engage in positive interaction to cue them that it is OK to move.
Do watch out for these common pitfalls when teaching stay:
- Do not give your stay command with food in your hand. This will only lure your dog to follow you.
- Do not always call your dog to come to you from a stay. This will cause him to anticipate a recall. Practice by leaving your dog and returning to him before giving the release word.
Three D’s: Duration, Distance, and Distractions
Once you have successfully paired a release word with your stay command, you are ready to move to the next step. Dog trainers refer to these as the Three D’s: Duration, Distance, and Distractions. Duration is the amount of time your dog is in a stay. Distance is how far from your dog you go. Distractions are anything that happens during your dog’s stay.
- Duration – The amount of time your dog remains in his stay is called duration. To begin, position your dog as you wish, in a sit, down, or stand. Give your stay command, without moving count to three, and then release your dog using his release word. Increase the time you ask your dog to stay by two to three second intervals. If your dog breaks his stay, just reset him and ask him to stay for a lesser time in which he was successful.
- Distance – Moving away from your dog is referred to as distance, and it is common for owners to rush this phase of training. Teaching distance stays happen literally a half step at a time. Position your dog as you wish and give your dog his stay command. Step back with one foot, lean back, then step back to your dog and release him. Next, take one full step back then return to your dog for the release and a reward. Continue slowly, adding only one step at a time. Remember, do not have food in the hand in which you give your dog the stay command. Also, return to your dog before you release him, and do not always call him out of a stay.
- Distractions – Distractions are anything, big or small, that happens during your dog’s stay. It is important to have a strong foundation with your release word, stay duration, and distance before you try and add distractions. Once distractions are to be added, start with something easy at home or in the back yard, and work your way up to more distractions in various environments. One good technique is to use higher value treat rewards when introducing and increasing distractions.
People love their dogs because they help us remain in the present moment. Dogs live very much in the here and now. This means anything, everything or even nothing at all can cause a dog to break his stay. Proofing is an important part of training the stay for reliability in a variety of situations. Always start simple and gradually increase what you are asking of your dog.
- Proofing for duration from the science of canine cognition we know that dogs understand if we are paying attention to them or not, no matter what the proximity. Practice this by asking your dog to stay while you sit, lie down, read, watch television, or cook. Be sure to reward at various intervals for the stay, but do not allow them to get up until you have given the release word.
- Proofing for distance is moving away from your dog and includes going out of sight. Practice this by moving away from your dog at various angles, either leaving to the side, diagonally and/or going behind your dog. When working out of sight, use a mirror to see your dog around corners. You can either set him up angling a wall mirror or, as inconspicuously as possible, use a hand mirror.
- Proofing for distractions is one of the more difficult tasks. Ideas include bouncing or rolling a ball while your dog is on a stay, jumping up and down, or running past your dog. Remember, you must start slowly and build up to things more interesting to your dog. One helpful hint is to use “leave it” during the stay. Often with distractions, dogs are more likely to succeed with additional information such as reminding them to stay or to “leave” distractions like toys.
- If you think your dog is going to move, repeat your stay command.
- Set your dog up for success. Do what you feel you need to do to help your dog be successful. The more successful they are, the more reliable the stay behavior will be.