How to Teach a Dog or Puppy to Stay
WHAT THE DOG COMMAND “STAY” ACTUALLY MEANS
“Stay” means remain right where you are, in the position requested—either “sit, stay” or “down, stay.” So when you ask for “stay,” you must be clear about precisely what you want—it’s not the command to use if you want the dog not to rush out the door in front of you, or to remain in the house when you go out.
If you use the “Stay” command, then you must release the stay with “Okay,” or whatever word you’ve chosen as your release word. Think of the word “stay” like the word “freeze” in the childhood game where no one could move a muscle until the person in charge said they could. The same is true of the “Stay” command for a dog. If you said “Stay” to a perfectly trained dog and left the house, theoretically he should remain in that position until you return.
HOW TO USE THE “STAY” COMMAND
“Stay” is used for short periods, such as when you open a door, get out of the car, or wait for a traffic signal to change. “Wait” or “Go to your bed” are used for longer periods, in which the dog can be in any position as long as he is not moving around.
“Stay” is taught in all dog training classes. It is usually done with the dog in a “down, stay,” while the owner walks around the dog and the dog remains in that position. The goal in an obedience class is to move farther and farther away from the dog (including out of sight in more advanced training work) without the dog’s changing his position.
TEACH YOUR DOG TO “STAY” IN SMALL STEPS
The best chance for success with “Stay” is to start short and work your way up to more time, making the stays longer as the puppy or dog “gets with the program.” As with any training or learning program, if compliance with a longer “Stay” seems to disintegrate, go back to the previous successful point. Refresh “Stay” for the length of time at which your dog enjoyed success, and then take a break. If you try to go too fast or too far, all the good you’ve accomplished together will unravel.
Do not increase both the length of the “Stay” and your distance from the dog at the same time—it’s too much pressure on him. Increase either one, but make sure your dog has mastered one parameter before you add the other one. Don’t push it for the dog or yourself. Each dog has his own learning curve and each owner has his own patience level—those two dynamics must mesh for learning to be successful and pleasurable.
YOUR DOG IS NOT IN THE ARMY
You need not behave like a drill sergeant when teaching your puppy or dog to “Stay.” Be aware of your body language and demeanor. Give the dog your undivided attention, with total eye contact and a sensitivity to his attention span. Make sure he sees what you want and stays interested—otherwise, you’ll go backward in your progress.
Your voice should be as kind and neutral as it is in any other dog training exercise. Being harsh and commanding does not build trust or communication or inspire a dog’s desire to do more for you. In fact, that drill-sergeant voice can a frighten a “soft” dog and make any dog believe he’s in trouble or has done something wrong—just because of how you uttered a simple command.
Think of yourselves as a team and you won’t feel the need to adopt a military attitude. If the dog succeeds, you succeed. It takes two to do these dance steps, and the point is not to trip your partner or step on his toes, so to speak; instead, it’s to be in sync as much as possible.
PRAISE YOUR DOG GENEROUSLY WHEN SHE COMPLIES WITH “STAY”
You must thank your dog for doing what you want—especially for a command like “Stay,” where she is doing “nothing.” Not moving around or bolting off often requires more effort of a young dog than actively doing something.
The moment the puppy complies with your “Stay,” praise her. A warm “Thank you, Jackie,” or “Good girl, Jackie,” is always appreciated by a puppy trying her best to please you. Since dogs don’t possess a natural inclination to do the odd things we ask of them, how will they begin to catch on if we don’t cheerlead them to our finish line? Continue quietly praising during the early learning-curve period—as long as the puppy is staying, say her name and praise her until you release her: “Good Jackie, good stay. Good girl. Okay!” and then let her play a little and take a break.
TREAT YOUR DOG DURING THE “STAY”
In the early days of teaching “Stay,” you can give the dog small treats as he sits or lies there without getting up. This makes it clear that this “doing nothing” is a really good thing.
Eventually you can give treats every so often when you ask for a “Stay,” or when you ask for a longer “Stay.” Think of treats as an insurance policy—it pays out an unexpected jackpot for the good behavior, which motivates the dog to hang in there with the hope of another one.
WHAT TO DO IF YOUR DOG BREAKS “STAY”
Preventing your dog from breaking the “Stay” will go a long way towards lasting success with this command. Don’t get all over the puppy for moving. Don’t jerk the dog leash or raise your voice or act menacing—that approach inspires only discomfort, anxiety, fear, and confusion in a dog. If the dog was staying and then stopped staying, he was being compliant until that second.
The only thing to correct is that moment of getting up or moving off. This is where your watchfulness comes in—as you see the puppy begin to get up, you say “Siiit, staay” and repeat the stay using the hand command—hand down by your side, with the palm facing the dog’s face. Then praise him the moment he sits down again. “Good Murphy, good stay.” Keep your voice as quiet and calm as you’d like the dog to be.
BE KIND TO YOUR DOG IF YOU ENCOUNTER PROBLEMS WITH “STAY”
Gently return the dog to the previous position and repeat “Stay,” using the hand signal as before. Don’t move away and try to prove anything. Make it easier for him, not harder, to enjoy success. Both of you should stay still. Quietly praise the dog. Give him a little treat. Say the word “Stay” again and move aside a little. Then release him as a reward. Go back to shorter periods of staying, and decrease the distance between you and the dog to build his confidence and ensure your eventual success executing a good “Stay.”
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