How to teach a dog to stay

A solid “Stay” is an important behavior for dogs to know. Once your dog has a foundation of staying when you ask, you will have much more control and your dog will be calmer and more pleasant around guests and social activities. Wouldn’t it be fantastic to go to an outdoor café and ask your dog to lie nicely next to you while you enjoy a cup of coffee?

 If that seems impossible right now, keep reading for the steps to eventually have your dog "Stay". 


The Three Challenges of Stay

It is easy to get frustrated teaching Stay if you do not break down the behavior into the main components.

  1. Duration. Time is the main element of a Stay. Often new trainers do not spend enough time on this before moving to distance or distractions.
  2. Distance. This is the second component. It is important to work on a strong foundation of duration before adding distance. Once you add distance, your expectations for duration should decrease. For instance, if your dog can Stay for 60 seconds when you are kneeling next to him, as soon as you walk 5 feet away, he might only stay for 10 seconds.
  3. Distractions. This is the next challenge of teaching Stay. Asking your dog to stay while you bounce a tennis ball, for instance, is much more difficult than expecting this without any distractions.

Training Exercises

Here are some exercises that you can work on with your dog. Your success rate for moving to the next level is based on many factors including your dog's age, how much time you spend training, and your skill as a trainer. I recommend that you focus on quality time and make sure that your dog is interested in each training session. If you keep your dog focused and increase his ability to stay a little bit each session, then you are doing great!

Pre-Beginner

Start by getting your dog in a sit or a down and slowly feeding treats or one of his meals. Do not ask for a "Stay" at this point. Try and add more time in between treats until your dog is waiting patiently for the next one. This is called "rewarding without releasing". If your dog breaks the position, gently say “Eh! Eh!” and get him back into position, or just ignore the other behavior and wait until he sits or lies down on his own and resume the periodic treats.

Beginner

This stage should happen once you are confident that your dog understands that it benefits him to maintain the sit or down behavior. Say, “Stay” and put your hand in front of your dog’s face and then remove it. Feed the treats slowly to your dog while your dog is sitting or lying down in one position. Gradually increase the time period between bits of food coming out of your closed hand.

Intermediate

As your dog improves, raise the criteria by adding a treat as a distraction. First say, “Stay” and then put a flat hand in front of your dog's face. Remove your hand and produce a treat and give it to your dog. Gradually add time between the hand signal and the treat. It is VERY important that there is a slight pause between the verbal and the hand signal or your dog might only learn the hand signal.

Now you can make it more interesting. Ask for a stay and start moving a treat in front of your dog’s nose. If he goes for it, snatch the treat away and say “Eh! Eh!” This is not in an angry tone, but instead it is saying, “Sorry, buddy, you blew it, no treat for you!” Then, ask for a stay again, put the treat in front of his nose and after the appropriate time period for your dog’s level, release your dog and give him the treat “good boy!”

Note: It is very important to tell him “Good boy, keep it up, you are doing great. . .” while you are holding the treat in front of him and he is not moving from his position. This sets up the all-important contrast between him performing the task that you ask and him making the wrong choice based on what you want him to do. As soon as he makes a mistake (in this case moving instead of performing a “Stay”) he will hear “Eh! Eh!” and the reward will vanish. It is one way to motivate him to make a certain decision in order to receive a reward.

Advanced

After your dog is reliably sitting for 30 seconds to a minute with you right near him, start adding distance to the exercise. Ask for a stay and then take a step back. If your dog breaks the stay, reply with a no reward mark (Eh! Eh!), move forward and ask for the stay again. Then try the distance again. If your dog breaks three times in a row (in any training exercise) you need to lower your expectations to keep him winning. Instead of taking a full step back, you might want to shift your weight back just a bit, or just move your shoulder, or take a smaller step, etc. Any time you add a new level of expectation such as distance, there is a good chance the behavior will fall apart. Don’t get frustrated. Start easy and progress slowly.

Keep in mind, the more your dog “wins” the faster his learning will be. After your dog is comfortable with distance, add distraction. Hop up and down, bounce a ball, walk around him, etc. When your dog is reliably staying inside your house or yard, you can then try it out in the real world in an enclosed park, at the dog beach, etc. Remember, even if your dog is reliably doing a stay indoors with balls flying through the air, as soon as you “change the picture” and move outside (or even to another room) the behavior could fall apart. The more places you work on every behavior, the stronger it will be.

Daily Strategies

  1. Once you start to get more duration of this behavior, make sure you release your dog when he is really comfortable in the stay position as opposed to right before he is about to move. Release him with an "OK" or an other release word, before he actually wants to move. If he is periodically getting treats for lying down and then you release him and "end the fun", he will probably want to continue lying down because it has worked to get yummy treats. The next time you ask him to stay, there is a good chance he will be more motivated to do this behavior because it results in something beneficial for him.
  2. Practice periodically on walks. Every once in while ask for a 10-30 second stay. This will help your do generalize the behavior to different situations.
  3. Nothing for free. Ask for short stays before meal times, before walks, before exiting doors, before greeting another dog or person, etc. The more variety of rewards you use and the more variety of locations you practice in the stronger the behavior will become.
  4. Read this post about teaching "Go to Bed" and stay
  5. Ask for a stay, and hide Kongs stuffed with your dog's meal or treats around the house and allow him to search for it as a fun activity. This is great mental stimulation and can prevent boredom.
Have fun teaching stay. If you feel frustrated, back up a step, reward a bit more frequently to get your dog back on track and continue. Training should be fun for you and your dog.
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