How to Teach Your Dog to "Stay"
Dr. Ilana Reisner
When taught correctly, the "stay" is a hallmark of a well-mannered, contented and safe dog.
You're walking quickly down the street with an impatient dog at the other end of a leash, on your way to the dog park when you encounter an old acquaintance. Your dog, wishing none of this delay, expresses her disapproval by winding the leash around both sets of legs. "Sit!" you command and, of course, being exquisitely trained, she immediately complies but just as quickly pops up to resume her squirming. What's missing from this scenario?
Once your dog has mastered "sit" or "down," an important next step is the "stay" exercise. The "stay" command assumes that your dog will maintain her position (whether sitting, lying down or even standing) until you release her. Without this skill, all you're technically asking when you say "sit" is that your dog touch the ground with her hindquarters and spring right back up to the chase.
Teaching her to wait, essentially freezing in position, until you indicate otherwise, is clearly a more practical extension of the positional exercises. But "stay" is often misunderstood and therefore misused, leading to an endless cycle of corrections and frustration for both you and your dog.
A Misunderstood Exercise
The primary reason the Sit! command is abused is that your attention fades and your dog quickly learns that she can move about unnoticed, thus breaking the stay. Another equally important reason is that we sometimes demand more from our dogs than they can do. For example, a dog that reliably stays in place while you're nearby may not understand that you expect her to stay while you run upstairs; limit-testing pets will quickly learn that the "stay" can be broken when no one's present to enforce it. The result of all this ambiguity is a jumpy dog and an edgy owner who vacillates over commands. A byproduct of such inconsistent training is a dog that learns to associate training with tension, rather than relaxation.
Starting from Scratch
No matter what your dog's level of understanding, if you feel she hasn't mastered the "stay," start over again from scratch. Tell your dog to sit or lie down and, assuming these positional exercises have been mastered, delay her reward first by just one second and then progressively for longer periods. Face to face, you can respond to her immediately. If she looks away or starts to move her body, cluck your tongue or say a sharp "Uh-uh," followed by a brief delay and then a reward (for remaining in place).
Once your dog is successful at waiting for the treat, begin to take a single step to one side (and then back), followed by a reward. If your dog moves, you've probably asked her to do too much, too soon; back up in your training to a very short stay.
Practicing this way, you can "test" her with provocative actions, such as: running in place, sitting on the floor, walking around her in circles or clapping your hands. As long as each step is followed by a reward and your distances (or provocations) are increased only gradually, your dog should enjoy and comply with the command. There's no need to confront her with difficult challenges (such as leaving the room) before she's ready. When you're ready to release her, issue a cheerful command, such as "Bingo" or "Free," and shower her with well-deserved praise and play and that last food tidbit.
Editors note: When using food treats for training, it is important to work toward intermittent, randomly supplied food reward. Although continuous (every time) or frequent food reward will help train the long "stay," converting to the intermittent random schedule of reinforcement will help make the response more consistent and reliable.