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How to Teach Your Dog to Stay

Find out how you can teach your dog to stay in one place without getting up.

By
Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA
August 23, 2010
Episode #074

In an earlier article, I described how to teach your dog to wait for permission before going out an open door. It’s handy to teach a general “Stay” cue, too, so you can park your dog and keep him out of your hair while you check that leak under the sink, or sit on the floor to wrap large birthday presents. This week, how to teach your dog to stay, and how not to wind up backing away from your dog with your hand out and chanting “Stay, stay, stay,” only to have her get up again.

How to Start Teaching Your Dog to Stay

Start with your dog in the position you want her to hold, whether it’s a sit or a down. (1) For most purposes, it doesn’t matter which you choose, but bear in mind your dog’s comfort. A sit may be physically harder to maintain after a few minutes, whereas on the other hand a dog lying down may feel more vulnerable in some situations. I wouldn’t ask a dog to remain in place on a hot, wet, or icy surface. Also, small and short-haired dogs can feel miserable on a cold floor, while your Siberian Husky will likely revel in it.

Teach Your Dog a “Release Cue”

Arbitrarily, let’s work through the down-stay, but the procedure will be the same if you choose a sit. Because the whole point of a stay is that your dog stays put till you let her know she’s free to move, you’ll need a “release cue,” a word or gesture that means the stay is done. “Free,” “Banana,” “On your bike!”--it doesn’t matter. Many people find that “Okay” gets them into trouble because when they say it in conversation their dog thinks the stay is done. I use “Okay” and haven’t had this problem, maybe because I look at the dog and speak in an artificially bright tone.

How to Teach Your Dog to Stay

Practice stays when your dog is relaxed, especially if she’s young and bouncy.

To work on your dog’s stay, pick a time when she’s relaxed and well exercised. That applies especially to puppies and bouncy young dogs. I don’t have to spell out the reasoning, right?

Ask your dog to lie down, but instead of delivering a treat as soon as she hits the floor, hold off for one second. Then say “Yes!” in a calm, warm voice and give her a treat. Or, if your dog tends to bounce up again instantly, have two treats ready. Feed one right away, before he has time to move; then say “Yes!,” and feed the second treat.

You’ll need to move fast enough that your dog is still in the down position. Once you’ve delivered the treats, immediately give your release cue and encourage your dog to get up. Then do another rep. Over a dozen or so reps, begin waiting a little longer before the “Yes” plus treat.  For the dog who bounces up, you can start to delay the first treat for a moment.

Deliver Treats Between Your Dog’s Front Feet

A common newbie mistake is to deliver the treat slowly and high up. Result, your dog sees the treat coming and, since she doesn’t know the stay game yet, gets up to meet the food en route. Solve this problem by bringing the treat toward your dog quickly and low--the best place to deliver it is right between her front paws. If you’re working on a sit-stay, give the treat at chest height.

Work on Stay a Little at a Time

When your dog can stay for about five seconds--that’s an arbitrary number, of course--start to add a little distance. At first, you’ll walk backward, because your dog is likelier to get up to follow you if you turn away. Take one single step, then return to your dog, say “Yes,” and deliver a treat. Give her the okay to get up immediately, even if five seconds haven’t passed.

Here’s why. The stay gets harder and harder for your dog depending on how long it is, how far away you are, and what else is going on around her. Trainer shorthand is “distance, duration, distraction.” For best success in teaching a stay, work on one factor at a time. Whenever you make one factor more difficult, ease up on the others at first, then build them back up. That’s why, when you take that first step back from your dog, adding distance, you should cut the duration of the stay.

Or suppose you’ve made a lot of progress and your dog is able to lie quietly for one minute while you stand ten feet away from her. On your next rep, you plan to distract her with a bouncing ball. Stand five feet from your dog and bounce the ball just once or twice. A rock-solid stay is mostly a matter of working slowly and patiently to start with--the ideal is that your dog never makes a mistake and breaks her stay.

Mistakes Make Training Slower

It used to be thought that mistakes were beneficial, because they gave you the opportunity to “correct” your dog--as I saw one old-school trainer do, to haul him back to his stay spot, shove him down, and then cuff him under the chin to really drive the point home. In the first place, way to suck the fun out of learning and teaching. In the second place, practice is often most efficient when it includes the fewest mistakes. If you’ve ever played a musical instrument, you may have noticed how once you hit a wrong note, you tend to repeat the error. Same goes for your dog learning a new behavior.

What to Do If Your Dog Makes a Mistake

If she does get up, take a breath and then give her a short refresher starting at a point somewhat easier than whatever you were working on when she broke. Or consider that she may be tired-- maybe she’s learned as much as she can for now. In that case, ask her to do one very easy rep at a level where she’s letter perfect, and then call it a day.

Teach Your Dog to Stay for Longer Periods

Building duration is, for my money, the dull part of teaching a stay. Apart from watching your dog carefully to make sure you’re not pushing her past her skill level, and slipping her the occasional treat and some praise, there isn’t a whole lot to do. The good news is that if you’ve worked on those first few minutes of the stay and made them rock solid, longer periods will go quickly.

Cook Up Distractions for Your Dog

Cooking up distractions, on the other hand, is kind of fun. Dance a jig. Ring a bell. Answer the phone. Roll a ball or squeak a toy. Brandish your dog’s tug rope. Walk a circle around your dog. (A lot of dogs have trouble holding their stay for this, by the way. Work on that circle one short segment at a time.) Distance, too, is kind of fun. Dog trainers get a little thrill at the point in teaching a stay when we first step out of sight. Come back in view within a nanosecond that first time, please.

When to Add Your “Stay” Cue

Usually, we add a cue for a behavior when the dog has already learned the behavior well. The reason is that we want the dog to associate the cue strongly with the polished form of the behavior, not with a rough approximation. But a perfect stay could last anywhere from a few seconds to half an hour or more, depending on the situation. So if you’re careful to keep your training free of mistakes, your dog’s performance of stay is near perfect from the get-go.

For that reason, you can introduce the “Stay” cue early on--as soon as you yourself have seen your teaching succeed. The confidence you feel because of your success will help you avoid the chant of “Stay … stay … stay” you often hear when someone is worried that their dog’s about to get up.

How Not to Teach Your Dog to Stay

Don’t use the “Stay” cue in situations where complying is impossible or unpleasant for your dog. For instance, avoid telling her to stay as you close the door behind you on your way to work. Nor should you cue her to hold still and then clip her nails, unless you’ve taught her to enjoy nail clipping. Finally, I wouldn’t use stay to keep a dog in a scary or volatile situation.  As for parking her while you take the roast out of the oven, absolutely yes! And let me suggest you make it worth her while by slipping her a crispy bit from the bottom of the pan.

You can follow The Dog Trainer on Twitter, where I’m Dogalini, as well as on Facebook, and write to me at dogtrainer@quickanddirtytips.com. I welcome your comments and suggestions, and I answer as many questions as I can. That’s all for this week. Thank you for reading!

Note

1. You can either teach “Stay” separately, or make staying put a built-in part of “Sit” or “Down.” Many trainers reasonably point out that there’s hardly ever a time when you ask your dog to sit or down but don’t want her to stay put for a while. On the other hand, the whole point of teaching a stay is that your dog does stay put till you give the cue that means “Feel free to move around now,” so if “Sit” and “Down” always mean “Sit and remain sitting” or “Lie down and remain down,” you have to remember to give your release cue or your well-trained dog will never move from the spot again. I don’t always want to be bothered. For example, if my Juniper has sat to greet a child, I have no problem with him getting up on his own initiative as soon as the kid has moved on to other entertainments.

Dog Staying image courtesy of Shutterstock

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