Start with the basics.
I teach a dog to stay after the dog already knows “sit” means “sit and remain sitting until I release you.” That way, the dog is already used to sitting and waiting for a release command like “free!” or “OK!” When I teach the “stay” command, I am eventually going to add the element of walking away from the dog, but to start out I’m not actually going anywhere. Keeping it nice and simple at first is key.
I give the “sit” command, then the “stay” command along with a hand signal where my hand is open and flat, with my palm facing the dog. I don’t keep my hand there the whole time. Only for about two seconds. While I’m standing right there at the dog’s side, I wait about three seconds, pop a few dog treats in his mouth and then release him – “OK!” This is followed by lots of praise.
Increase the challenges very, very slowly.
I’m making it so easy for the dog, it’s almost impossible for him to screw up. This is important for building a foundation. The number one mistake I see when people are teaching a dog to stay is they challenge the dog too quickly. They’ll give the “stay” command and immediately move a few feet from the dog, and of course the dog follows.
So, keep it very simple at first. Then, slowly increase the distance as you work in short sessions over a few days. For example, once the dog is successful staying with me standing right next to him, I would take one step back. Then two. Then three. Then maybe I’d go out to the end of the six-foot leash. I would also start moving a step or two to each side and eventually walk in a full circle around the dog, which seems to be very challenging for them! During all of this, if the dog breaks from stay, I would simply say “nope” and calmly put the dog back where he started.
Work in different environments.
The next step is to begin practicing the stay command in all kinds of environments – on a walk, at the park, at the pet store, at Grandma’s house, on the driveway, etc. Every time you practice stay in a different place, remember to go back to the basics so your dog can be successful. Maybe at this point, your dog will reliably stay off-leash in your living room while you walk 20 feet away. But when you visit the park, you would need to go back to keeping him on a leash and simply walking away a foot or two.
Add mild distractions
Before you can expect your dog to stay reliably with serious distractions, you have to work around lots and lots of mild distractions. For example, if staying at your side while another dog passes on a walk is a “level 9” for your dog, but staying at your side in the back yard is a “level 3,” you would need to look for several other slightly more difficult situations. Maybe this involves seeking out other dogs and practicing stay when those dogs are 20 feet away. Maybe it means practicing stay at the park where lots of squirrels like to hang out.
Of course, sometimes you will be faced with difficult situations where you simply have to get your dog to stay, but you know he won’t be able to. In those situations, I recommend you just keep the leash short and either move away with your dog or hold him in place without giving a command. In my opinion, if you know your dog is going to fail, it’s better to not give the command in the first place.
By keeping it really simple for your dog and very slowly increasing the challenges over time, your dog will have a very reliable stay command.
There’s more than one way to train a dog. What are your tips for teaching a dog to stay?
About Lindsay Stordahl
Lindsay Stordahl is a blogger for dogIDs.com. She has a black Lab mix named Ace and two naughty cats named Beamer and Scout. Lindsay owns a pet sitting business called Run That Mutt and also maintains the blog ThatMutt.com. ... Add Lindsay to your Google+ circles at https://plus.google.com/u/0/102050652657732372317/posts. You can follow Lindsay on Twitter @ThatMutt.