Training your dog to stay (for most owners, anyway) is often a depressing exercise in futility. You've probably tried everything you can think of, read multiple articles online and books from the library, and heard every imaginable "secret trick" to getting your pooch to stay. And the result?
Nada. Your dog either ignores you and continues to do whatever he wants, or he might listen for a few seconds but then breaks the stay. It's so frustrating! But don't give up yet... because I know you and your dog can master the stay command if you follow some easy steps!
As a certified dog trainer, I have worked with oodles of dogs and puppies. From little dogs to giant dogs, Labs to Puggles, I've never not been able to train a dog to stay. Sure, sometimes it takes a little longer for a dog to catch on, but with consistency and patience a solid stay has always come.
Now, depending on whether you want to teach your dog a sit-stay or a down-stay, the steps to follow differ slightly. I'll focus on the sit-stay in this article, though.
For this exercise, I'm going to assume that your dog already knows how to sit. It's really important to remember not to rush training, and take your time on each step. So be absolutely sure that Rover is consistently obeying your sit command before trying to teach him to stay!
Take about a week on each new command before introducing something new, or you'll run the risk of confusing your dog. Trust me, it's better to take a bit longer on each exercise and have a "bomb proof" dog than rush through steps and end up with an unreliable, inconsistent dog.
Let's start with a sit stay command. Since training your dog to sit is usually the first command that owners teach their dogs, it's easy to transition into a stay. Because most training is done with the dog at your left side, you'll want to start getting him to sit there instead of in front of you so as not to confuse things.
When most people train their dog to do a sit-stay, they miss a really important step. They command "stay", and leave the dog while chanting "stay, stay, stay... OK, come!" Gack. There is so much wrong with this whole scenario that I don't know where to start!
First of all, you can't expect your dog to be able to stay when you leave him the very first time he hears that command. He's never been taught what stay means! This needs to be worked up to incrementally. Secondly, please stop chanting the word "stay" over and over...
I teach First Command Response, where your dog learns to listen to your first command every time, and holds that command until told otherwise (no matter the distractions!). Thirdly, saying "OK, come" right after chanting stay is waaaay too many commands all in one shot, and is confusing for a young, green dog.
So, how do you get started training your dog to stay? Always begin by staying right beside your dog the entire time he is on a stay. This is called a sit-for-examination. In doggy language, that's "sit nicely with four paws on the floor"! Ready? Let's get started...
Take a minute to get yourself ready for training your dog to stay. Have a few treats in your right pocket, where your dog can't see them. Start by having your dog sit at your left side with his collar on and leash attached. This is called heel position.
Your right hand should have the leash gathered up neatly in it and held by your naval, and your left hand should grasp the leash a few inches above the leash clasp with your knuckles facing out like a fist.
When training your dog to stay, make sure that the
leash stays loose, and that you're not pulling it tightly! The photo's below demonstrate heel position and how to hold the leash, as well as what your hand signal for stay should look like:
Heel position and proper leash technique.
Hand signal for training your dog to stay.
Now, while your dog is sitting nicely:
If at any time while training your dog to stay, he tries to stand up, jump up, or shake-a-paw:
How to correct when teaching your dog to stay.
I can't emphasize enough how important it is not to say anything when your dog tries to get up, jump up, etc. Many trainers will tell you to repeat the "stay" command, or say "no". The problem with that is we're teaching your dog to listen to the first command (not a repeated command) and to hold it... so say it once at the beginning and then don't repeat it anymore!
Throughout the entire exercise of training your dog to stay, always remain beside your dog with your feet parallel to your dog's paws. Don't turn your feet to face your dog when correcting - instead, twist your upper body as is shown on the photo above.
To perfect the sit-for-examination, you should practice with your dog every day. I recommend doing three or four sit-for-exams per day for a week before moving onto the next command - sit-stay.
Okay, so at this point you and your dog should have been practicing the sit-for-examination for at least a week. Make sure that you don't ever command stay and then leave your dog's side during this week, or you'll sabotage progress with the sit-stay!
Training your dog to stay is going to be very easy now that you've taught your dog a sit-for-exam. So let's take that pre-requisite, and build on it! You already know how to start this exercise:
Now we're going to add to the exercise...
So, just like the sit-for-exam, your dog is not allowed to lie down, stand up, or jump up while training your dog to stay. Sit means sit! If Rover does try to move out of the sit, your correction is going to be a bit different than last time.
What about if your dog spins around to look at something behind him? Move right in and use your left hand on the clasp to move him back facing in your direction, and give a quick pop up vertically if needed to get him back into a sit. As always, don't repeat "sit" or "stay"
Whenever you're training your dog to stay, you always need to return to your dog's side to finish the exercise. This gives him a very clear start and end point to the training exercise.
So while you're still standing in front of your dog during this exercise, simply slide your left hand down the metal clasp as you pivot back beside your dog. Just like before, he should be at your left hand side. This is where you praise him for a job well done! He's liable to get excited at your return and praise, so make sure that he stays sitting.
Now you can either repeat the exercise, or let him go with the release command that we learned above. Great job!
I know, I know, it's starting to feel like elementary school again. But really, you can't expect your dog to listen to you if you never practice the commands!
Once you've taught your dog each of the above exercises, I recommend continuing to practice both of them every day. Work hard to get in 3 or 4 sit-for-examinations and at least 6 sit-stays per day. By slowing moving away from your dog on the sit-stay, you should be able to do a forty second sit-stay from 4 feet away in a week. Give it another 4 weeks and you should be at 6 feet away for 1 minute!
Four weeks? You're probably already planning to cut that time in half aren't you? Don't do it! Take it slow, and let your dog become bomb-proof at holding a stay command by very slowly increasing both distance and time. Once you hit the 6 foot mark, you can start working with a 30 or 50 foot long line to gradually increase the distance away from your dog. Congratulations on training your dog to stay!