In an earlier post,Dog training – the most important things to teach them. | The Animal Nerd, I discussed the need for owners to teach their dogs certain critical skills needed for them to live safely in our homes. One of these is to “stay”; meaning to remain in one spot when told to do so. This is a skill that can keep your dog form darting into traffic or other dangerous places, chasing animals or misbehaving around strangers. It is one of the most important things you can teach your dog, if only as a safety measure. “Stay” is also one of the easiest skills to teach. Most of the dogs I work with get the concept in the first few minutes of training, after which it becomes a matter of practice and reinforcement.
First off, I always start training a new skill with a hand sign as opposed to a spoken command or prompt – once the dog understands the visual prompt, I then add the verbal one. Dogs communicate non-verbally, and I have always found that they learn body or sign language much faster than verbal commands. And I try to pick a hand signal that I would use more or less automatically. In the case of “stay”, I use a raised hand, palm outward towards the stop (the universal command for “Halt”).[i] Secondly, I find that a clicker is very useful in training this particular skill. It not only signals that the dog has successfully done the behavior, it also signals when the he can stop “staying” in one place.
The best way to start is to pick a time when your dog is laying down or simply staying in one place, and show him the hand prompt. Then, after a couple of seconds, click, praise a
nd give him a tasty treat. Repeat this a few times. This will start him associating the hand sign with remaining in one spot.
In the next session, stand in front of him and show him the hand sign. If he remains in place, click, praise and treat. If he moves, then break contact with him for a minute and try again. Repeat a few times and reward his successes.
Next, give him the hand sign and, while he’s remaining in place, move one of your feet a half-step to the side then bring it back. If he doesn’t move, click, praise and treat. Once he masters staying in place while you move a little, you can begin increasing the distance that you move around. Over time, you should be able to move several steps in any direction, and walk around him, while he’s holding a stay. It doesn’t matter if he sits, lays down or stands up while you are doing this, as long as he remains in the same place. If he moves from that place, don’t correct him. Simply start over with a shorter time and less movement on your part.
At this point, you can add the verbal “stay” command when you give the hand prompt. Say it only once each time that you give the hand sign. You can also begin to give a verbal release command – I use “Okay” – along with the click. (After all, you won’t be carrying a clicker when you’re out walking with him).
When you begin to take steps away from him after giving him the “stay” prompt, you should always return to your starting point before giving the release prompt. This encourages him to remain in one spot until you return to him.
Start with a hand signal and add the verbal prompt once he knows the skill.
Use a clicker and high-value treats.
Start by prompting him to stay while he is already sitting or lying down.
Add a release prompt to the clicker signal.
Gradually increase the time that he is staying, and the amount of moving around that you are doing while he is staying in place.
Always use positive reinforcement. If he doesn’t hold a stay, then just fall back to the distance and time in which he was successful, and start over.