I like to start teaching a dog to stay with 2 different games, each of which helps the dog understand a different part of the “stay” behavior. Then, once you’ve got a fairly reliable base behavior, I’ve got a third game, which I’ll share next week.
It’s Yer Choice
To start, we practice It’s Yer Choice. I use It’s Yer Choice to teach the foundations for both stay and leave it. The idea is it starts to explain for the dog the benefit of holding still and NOT going toward the thing the dog wants.
Click here for our post on how to play It’s Yer Choice. In short, the game involves showing the dog a treat and teaching them that in order to GET that treat, they need to ignore it — and when they ignore it, the treat come to them!
This game simultaneously helps a dog learn self control while teaching them how to stay put. Most dogs wind up sitting or laying down, staring at the treat, not moving… which is exactly what we want when we teach them to stay.
300 Peck Method
Once the dog understands that to get something sometimes they have to choose NOT to move toward it, I start to work on “stay” with the 300 Peck method.
It’s important to realize when teaching stay that there are actually 3 different parts of teaching a dog to stay — I like to call these the 3 D’s.
- Duration – how long the dog can stay
- Distance – how far away from you the dog can stay
- Distraction – how distracting of an environment the dog can be in while holding a stay.
Each of these can be worked on with the 300 peck method — but they should each be worked on one at a time. Start with duration; train to about 20-30 seconds, then cut that in half and begin to add distance. Once you can get good duration and good distance, cut both in half again and begin to work on distraction.
Beginning to teach a dog to stay – building duration
To start, have the class practice a sit or a down (I like to tell students to pick whichever one they think their dog is better with). On each rep, have them give their dog a treat.
After they’ve done 3-4 of these, have them ask for one more — but this time pause for a count of 1 before rewarding. Release the dog, then ask for another rep and this time pause for a count of 2. Release the dog, then ask for another rep and pause for a count of 3…
So if I’m working on a sit-stay this might look like:
Sit. Treat. Sit. Treat. Sit. Treat.
Sit. 1 Mississippi, treat. Release.
Sit. 1 Mississippi, 2 Mississippi, treat. Release.
Sit. 1 Mississippi, 2 Mississippi, 3 Mississippi treat. Release.
Continue this pattern until you get to about 8 seconds. When you get to 8 seconds, it’s time to introduce the word “stay.” Be sure to explain to the class that anytime they use the word stay they ALSO need to make sure to release their dog — otherwise their dog is going to think if they stay for a while, that’s good enough, and they can quit whenever they want.
For good measure, I also like to suggest they use a release word other than “okay,” since most people use okay so often when talking. Some alternatives (since someone always asks) are “free,” “break,” “all done,” or “finished.”
Once you reach 8 seconds, the exercise will look something like this:
Sit. “Stay.” 1 Mississippi, 2 Mississippi, 3 Mississippi… 8 Mississippi, treat. Release cue.
What if a dog gets up?
If a dog gets up while learning stay with this method, no biggie! Just drop back down to a 1 count.
That’s right, go all the way back to one. Why?
Let’s say the dog broke on 4 seconds. Rather than going right back to 4 seconds and trying again, going back to one means they get 3 more tries of something easier before trying 4 seconds again. It gives them 3 chances to be “right” before you test their understanding with that super hard fourth second.
Now most of the time dogs get much higher than 4 before they break – that’s okay. Start back at one (the only exception to this is if the dog has gotten to 40 or 50 seconds – then it’s okay to start at one and increase by 2’s or 5’s).
Once your students can get 20-30 seconds, it’s time to go back to our 3 d’s and begin to work on distance.
Whenever we increase one of our 3 D’s we need to make the others easier. So when you begin working on distance, tell your students to try and keep the overall time their dog is “staying” to roughly half of their dogs “maximum time.”
So if they got to 30 seconds, they want to drop that to 15 seconds while they work on distance.
Just like we did with duration, we’re going to work on distance in tiny little steps — literally.
Have your students put their dog in a sit or down, then take one step back, return, reward, release.
Repeat the process with 2 steps, than 3, than 4… etc.
Before adding distractions I like to have students think about what kind of things are distracting for their dog — then they can rate each of those distractions 1-5 with 1 being the lowest level of distraction and 5 being the highest.
They should always start with level 1 distractions, then work up to level 2, than level 3 — until they’ve got an almost fool-proof stay!
Return, Reward, Release
You may have noticed I mentioned “return, reward, release” in the above sections. Be sure to chant this over and over during your class — when doing stays, it’s important that students return to their dog BEFORE rewarding, so the dog doesn’t begin to get up to come get their reward, thinking they are all done.
Rewards should be given while the dog is still in the position they were asked to hold for the stay — often, people release their dog and then reward them, but what does that actually reward? It rewards getting up!
So after returning, it’s important to reward before releasing the dog. If needed, a second treat can be given after the dog is released, to encourage them to get up (no problem with that!) but make sure the dog is initially rewarded for holding the stay, not for breaking it.
Solving Common Problems When Teaching A Dog to Stay
There are a number of problems that are likely to show up while teaching this to a class. Here are a few of the ones I see most often.
Releasing the dog by walking backward
Often, during the duration portion of the training, students release their dog while walking backward… of course, then, when they get to the distance piece, what does their dog think? It’s time to get up, of course!
It’s often worth mentioning this early on, to help students avoid this problem. Instead, suggest they throw a treat or step sideways at least half of the time!
Can’t get a single step when adding distance
If the dog can not even do one step (sometimes some dogs can’t, even if the student hasn’t fallen victim to our first mistake), break things down even further. Ask the dog to sit, stay, and then lift one foot off the ground – put it back in the same place. Reward, release.
Then pick one foot up and put it back behind you — then return it to it’s original place. Reward, release.
Then pick one foot up and put it back behind you — and touch it down as if you were going to step back. Return (to your original position), reward, release.
Then pick one foot up, put it behind you, shift your weight back. Return, reward release.
Then, finally, try one step again. Most dogs get it at this point; if not, continue to practice, dropping back to the “start” each time the dog fails. Have patience. They WILL get it.
Adding distance and duration at the same time
Finally, perhaps the most common problem is students who are simply too eager. They want to DO ALL THE THINGS. And they want to do it NOW.
All you can do here is explain the importance of breaking it down, that doing so will give them a better end behavior, and have patience.
Some dogs will succeed despite their owners; others will struggle, and you can step in when that happens, and their owners will be more receptive to your instruction.