Training a Dog to Stay Using Cues

These behaviors may look similar, but they have very different purposes.


Have you ever watched the impressive Open Obedience competition at a dog show? If so, you may have been impressed by the long Sits and Downs, where all of the dogs do a group Sit-Stay for three minutes with the owners out of sight behind a barrier or in another room. They also demonstrate a Down-Stay for a full five minutes with the owners nowhere to be seen.

If you struggle to make your dog stay in the car when you open the door, you may find those show ring achievements downright awe-inspiring. As you should! It is awesome to see a dozen or more dogs sitting shoulder to shoulder amidst all the distractions of a dog show, stoically awaiting their owners’ return, and it takes a serious commitment to training to accomplish this feat.

Fortunately, teaching your dog to stop leaping out of open car doors, running out the front door when visitors open it, or getting too far ahead of you on an off-leash trail, are attainable goals for any dog owner who is willing to make a commitment of a few minutes a day to the training project.

training dog to stay

However, in each of the latter situations, where many people might ask their dogs to “Stay,” I would use the cue “Wait,” saving the “Stay” cue for different situations. To my dogs, “Wait” means “Pause,” and “Stay” means “Don’t move from the position you’re in until I tell you it’s time to get up.” If I’m getting out of my car, I use the “Wait” cue, since what I really mean is “Don’t jump out of the car,” not “Freeze and don’t move until I return.”

If I use the word “Stay” in this scenario, I damage my dog’s understanding of the Stay cue and behavior. Dogs can only learn one meaning for a particular cue. Humans can understand that the word “down” might mean lie down on the ground, get off the sofa, don’t jump on me, or go down the stairs. Dogs can’t make those distinctions.

Most owners actually mean “Wait” when they say “Stay.” Think about it. When you leave your dog home while you go to work, do you say “Stay!” as you walk out the door? You don’t really want him to sit frozen by the door all day, do you? You are really asking him to pause for a moment or two, not “Sit right there until I return.”

You can, of course, continue to use “Stay” to mean “Wait” and use a different word, like “Freeze,” for his formal Stay. Whichever cue you choose, remember to be consistent and use each cue for its specific intended behvavior. Otherwise you risk muddling both commands in the dog’s mind.

Teaching the “Wait”
I have my dogs Wait every time they go in and out a door to the outside world. This gives me a great opportunity to remind them to defer to me at least a half-dozen times a day, thereby reinforcing their good manners. It’s also a great safety reminder. An open door is not an open invitation to go charging out into the big wide world.

One of the easiest ways to teach the Wait behavior is by using a door, preferably a door that your dog wants to go through, and one that opens to a safe, enclosed yard, garage, or other room. Most dogs are eager to go outside. It usually means a romp in the yard, a walk on the leash, or a ride in the car. You can use this to your advantage by teaching your dog that it’s calm behavior – sitting at the door – not pushy behavior, that gets the door to open.

Put your dog on a leash, stash a healthy supply of treats in your pocket, and have your reward marker handy, such as a Click! or the word “Yes!” (For more information about using a reward marker in training, see “Tricks for Clicks,” May 2000.) Walk up to the door and ask your dog to sit. Click! and treat. Move your hand halfway to the doorknob. If he’s still sitting, Click!, treat, and tell him he’s a good boy.

If, however, he gets up when you move your hand halfway to the door, say “Oops!” and have him sit again, and reduce the challenge. Move your hand four inches toward the doorknob. If he’s still sitting, Click! and treat. If he gets up when you move, try moving just two inches. When you find the increment of motion that doesn’t cause him to get up, work at that distance for several repetitions, clicking and treating each time. Then try moving your hand a little farther. Do several repetitions at each increment until you can reach all the way to the door knob without your dog getting to his feet. Don’t forget to praise him in addition to the clicks and treats!

Don’t be tempted to jump too far ahead, even if your dog is holding the Sit; you never know when you’ll hit upon the part of the door opening process that will trigger a “Oh boy! I get to rush out!” response. Continue the incremental approach. Jiggle the knob. Click! and treat for sitting. If he gets up, say “Oops!” have him sit and repeat the step, but do a smaller jiggle. When you find the level of knob-jiggle where your dog can succeed (where he stays sitting), do several repetitions of that, clicking and treating for each repetition. Next you get to open the door – but only a crack. Click! and treat him for staying in the sit position. If he gets up, say “Oops!,” close the door and try again, with a smaller crack this time.

training dog to stay

By closing the door when he makes a mistake and gets up, you are using negative punishment – making the good thing go away. The more eager he is to go out, the quicker he will realize that the way to get the door to open is to keep sitting. Once he has learned the Wait you can fade the use of the Click! and treat. Since what he really wants is to go through the door, you can sometimes give him a “life reward” by telling him to go out.

Some dogs will “get it” in just one session. Others will need to practice over a period of several days or more, depending on their energy level and attention span – and yours! Any time you feel you or your dog getting frustrated in a training session, take a break after doing one easy, fun behavior that you both like so you end the session on a happy note.

Adding the cue
In a positive training program, you add the verbal cue for a new behavior only after you know your dog will do the behavior, not before. This is because you want him to associate the word with the right response, not the wrong one. Once your dog will remain sitting as you open the door, you can add the Wait cue. In essence, you are telling him that the behavior he is now doing is called Wait.

Other applications for Wait
When your dog understands Wait in one situation, you can extend it to other situations. Practice in the car, so he also understands that an open car door is not an invitation to jump out. You’ll be amazed at how nice it is to have a moment or two to pocket your keys, or even tie your shoes before your dog jumps out of the car! You’ll also appreciate being able to use Wait to ask your dog to pause if he is wandering too far ahead of you when you are on an off-leash outing, or about to follow the wrong person out the gate of the dog park.

How “Stay” is different
I teach my dogs the formal Stay behavior for those instances when I absolutely need them to remain frozen in their places. For example, when I walk down my driveway in the morning to get the newspaper, my dogs all accompany me, but only to a point near the end of the driveway. I don’t want them going near the main road, so I tell them all “Down,” and then “Stay.” For their own safety, they must remain where they are, not follow me across the road.

Another useful application of Stay is when you are with your dog off-leash and you see something approaching that you absolutely do not want your dog to chase or go near. Say you are washing your car in your driveway, and your dog is lying on your front porch when you see a boy on a skateboard coming up the sidewalk. Having a dog that will Stay reliably on cue in this situation is a real blessing. I also use Stay when a delivery person comes to the door, so I can sign the forms and accept a package without having to worry about any of the dogs slipping out or scaring the bearer of gifts away!

I should mention that Stay is a much more challenging exercise than Wait. It takes more focus and concentration for both you and your dog. When teaching Stay, you have a greater responsibility; once you tell your dog to stay, you can’t forget and go off to start dinner or work on the car.

Consider this
Until the advent of positive dog training, Stay was taught by punishing the dog, sometimes severely, for moving out of position. While many dogs did learn reliable Stays by this method, they also often learned to associate the return of their owners with fear and pain. Fortunately, there are several ways to teach a positive Stay without the use of force and pain.

Before you begin, it’s important to recognize that Stay has three elements of difficulty: duration, distraction, and distance. Duration is the length of time the dog remains in place, distraction is the reliability of the dog’s Stay in the presence of distractions, and distance is the distance you can move away from the dog. It is critically important to work on the length of time and distractions before you work on distance. If your dog won’t do a reliable Stay with distractions when you are standing in front of him, it is wholly unreasonable to expect him to do it when you are across the room.

The most common mistake people make in teaching Stay is advancing too quickly. If you ask your dog for too much, he’s likely to make a mistake, and you may be sorely tempted to correct him for “breaking” the Stay. Remember: You want him to succeed so you can reward him for doing the right thing. You can use negative punishment here if necessary (dog’s behavior makes a good thing go away), but it’s more effective to create opportunities to Click! and treat.

Positive Stays
Start by asking your dog to Sit. Tell him he’s a good dog, then hold up a treat. After one second, feed him the treat (calmly, so he doesn’t jump up), then use a release word and encourage him to get up (I’ll talk about release words in just a moment). You can praise him for getting up, but don’t Click! the release, since it’s the Stay behavior that you want to reinforce and reward. When he is Staying for several seconds at a time you can add the verbal Stay cue in a pleasant tone of voice while he is staying. Owners tend to want to say “Stay!” harshly, as an order. Remember that you aren’t trying to intimidate your dog into Staying, you are using the word as a cue for a behavior.

Cue for release
The release word is a cue that means “Get up now, the Stay is over.” Lots of people use the word “Okay,” and the only problem is that it’s a word used frequently in conversation. I do use “Okay” as my release word, and this means that I have to be careful when I’m around my dogs. If my dogs are on a down-stay at the beach and I turn to my husband and say, “Okay, let’s eat the picnic lunch now,” whoops … there go our dogs!

I’ve heard people use a variety of other cues for the release, including “All done,” “You’re free,” “Break time,” “Release,” and “At ease.” Use just about any word or phrase you want; your words mean nothing to your dog until you give them meaning.

Gradually increase difficulty
When your dog is staying for one second in the Sit-Stay, extend the time to 2 seconds. Then increase the stay to 4, then 7 seconds. Then 10. If you’re not good at estimating time by counting in your head, you can use a stop-watch or have someone else count for you. Don’t use a timer – the dog will start releasing himself when he hears the “Ding!”

As the Stays get longer you can Click! and reward during the Stay, then remind him not to move, with another verbal cue, since he may think the Click! ends the Stay. Reward with treats several times during the Stay, then release him before he decides to get up on his own. Remember, you want him to succeed.

If your dog does get up before you release him, whisk the treat behind your back (This is the negative punishment part. His behavior – getting up – makes the good thing – the treat – go away.) When he sits again, the treat comes back out – and he gets it after he stays again, for at least a second at first, then longer as he gets better at Stay. (This is the positive reinforcement part: His behavior – sitting and staying – makes a good thing – the treat – happen.)

As the Stays get longer, you can also start “fading” the treat so you don’t have to hold it in front of his nose to get him to stay. Over a series of stay repetitions, gradually relax your arm until the treat-hand is at your side. During this process you can still whisk it away if he gets up. As he gets more confident about the Stay, you can start asking for the behavior without a treat in your hand at all. Click! when he stays for you, and get the treat out of your pocket or off a table or shelf. He will soon Stay without the visible treat as the incentive.

The process for Down-Stay is exactly the same, except your dog is in the Down position instead of the Sit position.

Adding distractions
Once your dog will Stay for 10-20 seconds you are ready to add small distractions. Ask him to Stay and take one small step to the side, then step in front of him again. Click!, reward, and release. Do another Stay and take a hop on one foot. Click!, reward, release. Gradually build the distractions until your dog will Stay as you hop up and down without stopping, do jumping jacks, clap your hands, sit or lie down on the ground in front of him, spin in circles, bounce a ball, have someone go by on a skateboard – or whatever other creative distractions you can invent.

Gradually is the keyword here. You want your dog to succeed. If you go directly from one hop to the skateboard you’ll probably lose him. Gradually is also subjective, depending on your dog. Bailey the Bloodhound may progress to a 20-second Stay in the first session, while excellence for Chili Pepper the Chihuahua may be 3 seconds. Some dogs will achieve a solid Stay at a distance, with distractions, within a few weeks; others will take longer.

Adding distance
When your dog is doing 20- to 30-second stays with distractions you are ready to start working on distance. Now you should lower your expectations for the other two elements: shorten the time and remove the distractions.

Ask your dog to Stay and take one step away. Click!, return, reward, and release. Gradually increase the distance, remembering that you want to add distance slowly so your dog will succeed.

It’s important to always return to your dog to reward and release him. You want the Stay to be rock-solid. If you start calling your dog to you from the Stay, he may start breaking the Stay in anticipation of the joy of running to you – and the reward that ends the Stay. If he thinks the Stay is never over until you return to him, the behavior will become reliable. Only in higher training levels do you occasionally call him from a Stay. Even then, you will want to return and release 10 times for every one time you call him to you.

Final step: combine elements
Once your dog will Stay at a distance, you can combine all of the elements. Again, lower the bar by adding distractions when you are one step, then three steps, then five steps away from your dog, always returning to him to reward and release.

At this point you can even start leaving the room while he is on a Stay, briefly at first. Take one step out, step back in, return, reward, and release. Gradually increase the length of time you stay out of sight. You can set up a mirror in the doorway if you want to keep an eye on your dog, always remembering that you want to return before he moves out of his Stay position. Again, you want him to succeed. If he makes several mistakes in a row and you return each time to try the stay again he is learning that the “mistake” of breaking the Stay makes you return to the room. Any time he starts making mistakes, return to an easier version of the exercise and get several successes in a row before you raise the bar again.

Whether your goal is to get your dog to park himself on a down-stay while you cross the street to fetch your paper, or you have visions of you and your dog earning a perfect 200 score together in the Obedience ring, you can get there with a positive stay – no harsh words, no collar corrections, and no damage to the relationship of trust and respect that you and your dog value so highly.

-By Pat Miller


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Pat Miller, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA, grew up in a family that was blessed with lots of animal companions: dogs, cats, horses, rabbits, goats, and more, and has maintained that model ever since. She spent the first 20 years of her professional life working at the Marin Humane Society in Marin County, California, for most of that time as a humane officer and director of operations. She continually studied the art and science of dog training and behavior during that time, and in 1996, left MHS to start her own training and behavior business, Peaceable Paws. Pat has earned a number of titles from various training organizations, including Certified Behavior Consultant Canine-Knowledge Assessed (CBCC-KA) and Certified Professional Dog Trainer - Knowledge Assessed (CPDT-KA). She also founded Peaceable Paws Academies for teaching and credentialing dog training and behavior professionals, who can earn "Pat Miller Certified Trainer" certifications. She and her husband Paul and an ever-changing number of dogs, horses, and other animal companions live on their 80-acre farm in Fairplay, Maryland.