By Mardi Richmond
I remember a day several years ago when I put my dogs’ “stay” to the test.
We were on our usual morning neighborhood walk. All of a sudden, three children on bikes sped past us on the sidewalk, racing each other on the way to school. The faster and older children raced around the corner, leaving the younger bicyclist in their dust. Just then, the young biker skidded to the side and landed hard on the concrete about 20 feet in front of me.
The boy started crying. I quickly told my dogs to down and stay, and raced up to the child to see if he needed help.
I was not sure what my dogs would actually do. Would they stay as we had trained and practiced? Would they follow me down the street to see the crying boy? Would they venture into the neighbor’s yard after a rogue cat? All seemed very possible – after all, they were rowdy young dogs and the stay behavior, while practiced regularly, had never been really put to the test.
But they did stay for several minutes, just as we’d practiced over and over. I have to admit that I was a little more than surprised and impressed! (By the way, the boy was fine. His hands and knees were slightly skinned, but after a few short minutes, he hopped back on his bike and raced off to school.)
That day taught me what an important foundation behavior stay can be. Obviously, in a minor emergency, a stay is extremely helpful. But a solid stay can make a difference in other facets of life, too:
• Stay is a very useful behavior in everyday situations, like when you’re walking and need to tie your shoe, or if at a pet supply store and need to sign a charge slip.
• Stay helps develop your dog’s self-control and helps a dog settle during exciting times such as when you are fixing dinner or when you are gathering the leash and treats for a walk.
• Stay can be useful at the vet and during grooming.
• It is an essential behavior for dog sports such as competitive obedience and agility.
• It can be a life-saving behavior. For example, a good stay can prevent a dog from racing into the street.
The many faces of stay
What exactly is a stay? It means different things to different people. In fact, there are many “versions” of stay. You’ll need to identify the different ways you will use stay and train for each.
Stay can apply to different positions or places. For example, you may have a sit/stay, a down/stay, and a stand/stay. You may also teach your dog to go to his bed and stay, or to stay in a certain spot while you prepare his food.
Stay can also apply to a mind-set. Many people use stay to mean, “Relax and hang out.” Others such as agility competitors may use stay to mean, “Don’t move, but be alert for the next cue.”
Here are some common stay variations:
• The basic stay: I teach the basic stay as the dog remaining in position and place (sit, down, or stand) until released. For example, when asked to sit or sit/stay, the dog will put his bottom on the ground and remain there until I say “Okay.”
• Wait: While stay is a behavior that asks the dog not to move out of position or place, wait is a more casual version that can mean “hang out patiently for a moment or two, but stay alert because your turn is coming.” I use wait at doorways, for example.
• Go relax or go to bed: This type of stay is less about position and more about place and mind-set. Teach the dog to go to his or her bed or other place and hang out there. This can be taught with or without a distinct release.
• Dog sport stay: For those who play agility or obedience, a ritualized stay behavior is part of both sports. Using a specific cue, signal, or body language to initiate the stay and a specific and unique release cue can aid in a reliable dog sport stay.
Getting a reliable stay can be a challenge, and one of the reasons is that the variations are often taught in a blur – the dog is sometimes asked to stay in one position, sometimes asked to stay in one place, sometimes allowed to leave the position or place without the release, sometimes required to stay in the position until the release, sometimes released to a verbal cue, sometimes released to a hand signal . . . no wonder the dog becomes confused!
Before you start training the stay, develop a distinct picture in your mind of the behavior you are training. For the rest of this article, I’ll use “stay” for the basic stay described above: When you are asking your dog to put her body in a certain position (sit, down, stand) and stay in place until she is formally released.
The controversial cue
When you ask a dog for a stationary behavior (like sit, down, or stand) the expectation is that the dog will stay in that position until released. Essentially, the sit cue means, “Sit and stay there.” So do you need or use a separate stay cue?
While it may seem unnecessary, having a distinct cue for stay can be advantageous in certain situations:
• If you have trained different types of stays, using a distinct cue for each can help your dog understand what is expected.
• Using a stay cue or word can act as a back up or reassurance for your dog in difficult or emergency situations. For example it can mean, “Keep on sitting. You are doing great.”
• If you use the word “stay” with several positions (sit, down, and stand, for example), you may be able to easily transfer it to new or unique positions. For example, if the vet needs your dog to lie on his side, you can gently turn him to the side and then give the “stay” cue to help him know that you would like him to remain in that position while the vet pokes and prods.
• If you are not as consistent as you should be about using a distinct release from a sit or down, having a stay cue can be helpful clarification for you and your dog.
Consider getting the best of both worlds. Teach your dog that sit, down, and stand mean hang out in that position until you are released, and later, once the dog knows the behavior, you can add in a secondary cue or hand signal for stay.
Training the stay
When you first teach your dog to sit, you “mark” her performance of the desired behavior with a click! of a clicker or word such as “Yes!” and give her a treat the moment her bottom hits the ground. Most dogs will quickly place their bottoms on the ground, and then pop up the minute they hear the click! Here’s how you move from a brief sit (or down or stand) to a solid sit/stay:
1. When you ask your dog to sit, gradually extend the time between the dog placing his bottom on the ground and when you click or “yes.” For example, the dog sits and you count a half a second, then click or “yes” and treat; the dog sits, you count one second, then click and treat; the dog sits, you count two seconds then click and treat. Work up to 10 seconds.
2. At this point, alternate longer and shorter times between treating. For example click or “yes” and treat for 10 seconds, 3 seconds, 7 seconds, etc.
3. If your dog pops up, don’t stress! In the process of learning to stay in position, your dog may experiment a little. He may pop out of the position, come up to you, and wonder if it’s treat time. With most beginning behaviors, like sit, down, or come, the dog gets the reward when he is near you or when he comes up to you. So it is understandable that he might give that a try while he is learning to stay.
What can you do? Simply ask your dog to try again and make your criteria easier! This is critical. If your dog breaks the stay twice in a row, or if you are getting fewer than four out of five correct responses, make it easier and build up slower.
In addition, be patient and don’t use verbal scolding or “corrections.” Correcting a dog for leaving a stay may backfire, making him insecure and less likely to succeed the next time.
When he can successfully hold the sit at least four out of five times in a training session, then you can make it a little harder by extending the time you ask him to stay. Over the course of several training sessions, gradually increase the time until your dog can comfortably hold the sit for 30 seconds.
4. Don’t worry if your dog pops up after the click. If you would like your dog to stay until you give a distinct release, try this:
Click and immediately place the treat right under the dog’s nose so that he doesn’t need to get up to eat the treat. This placement of the treat will reinforce the position. In fact, if you follow the click with several treats in a row, your dog will learn to stay in position to see what is coming next! Follow the click and treat with a distinct release such as “Okay!”
5. At this point, you can also add in a hand signal or verbal cue for “stay.” Ask your dog to sit, say “stay” or give your hand signal, and continue practicing as noted above.
The three D’s
When training the stay, it can be very helpful to work on the three D’s: duration, distance, and distractions – separately. By consciously building the three D’s into your training, your dog’s stay will become increasingly reliable.
• Duration is simply how long your dog is doing the behavior. You’ve already been working on teaching your dog to hold the sit/stay for 30-second durations. Think about how long you would ideally like your dog to hold a stay. For a sit position, I suggest one to three minutes; for a down position, 2 to 5 minutes.
Note: Some people like to train their dog’s to hold a down for up to 30 minutes. I personally believe this is too long to comfortably be in one position without moving. If you would like your dog to be able to stay for 15, 20, or 30 minutes, consider teaching him to “go to bed,” where he can stay in a place for a longer period of time, but move his body position for comfort!
• Distance refers to both how far away you are from your dog when he is staying. Along with training your dog to stay while you move away, teach your dog to understand that stay means to stay even when your body is in a different position, such as if you turn away, kneel down, or step to the side.
When your dog can hold the sit for 10 to 30 seconds, start varying your distance from him and body position. Take a half step back, turn your body to the side, step slightly to your dog’s side, move your head, lower your body, etc. As your dog becomes more confident, you can gradually increase the distance. At advanced levels, you can teach your dog to stay while you step out of sight.
In the early stages of training, work on distance and duration separately. For example, if you are training for duration, work on increasing the time but keep the distance and your body position within your dog’s comfort level. If you are working on distance, move away from your dog, but only stay at a distance for a few seconds before returning. As your dog’s skill increases, you can combine the two with ease.
Note: To prevent your dog’s anticipation of the release (and his consequently breaking the stay and running to you for a treat) go back to your dog and click and treat while he is still in the position.
• Distraction training is equally important. Once your dog has the basics of sit/stay, begin training in different locations. Each location has different distractions, so you will need to lower your criteria.
For example, if your dog can sit/stay for two minutes in your living room, expect to begin with just three or four seconds in a new location. Start with easy locations, such as your kitchen, living room, and backyard. As your dog’s ability to succeed improves, practice on your daily walks and other places you visit frequently.
At first, add only distractions you can control, so you can stop the distraction if it is setting your dog up to fail. Start small, by waving your arms or jumping up and down, for example, and build slowly.
Eventually, you may need to practice with the things that tend to distract your dog most, such as people walking near your dog, other dogs moving by, or a ball bouncing across the ground. Again, for the best chance of success, set up situations in which you can control the distractions until your dog consistently succeeds at that level. With enough practice, your dog will learn to stay even in the face of the toughest “real-world” distractions.
The secrets of success
The secrets to a successful and reliable stay: Be realistic! Be consistent!
Work with your dog’s stay training at a level he or she can realistically handle. Pushing your dog past his abilities (so that he breaks the stay) is the fastest way for the behavior to fall apart. The more this happens, the harder it will be for your dog to have the confidence needed for a reliable stay. So if your dog breaks his stay, make it easier and build on successes!
Be very consistent when you are training the stay. If your dog is having trouble with the training, make it easier and move forward more gradually. For obvious reasons, calm, confident dogs may progress more quickly. But with patience and consistency, even high energy and insecure dogs can develop a rock-solid stay!
-Mardi Richmond, MA, CPDT, is a writer and trainer living in Santa Cruz, California with her partner and two wonderful dogs. She is the coauthor of Ruffing It: The Complete Guide to Camping with Dogs and the author of numerous other articles on training and behavior.