When asked about what is important for a dog to learn, I often list four items that I consider to be “life or death commands.” These are: Leave it, Drop it, Come when called, and Stay. These cues can make an important safety difference for a family dog, and they become particularly crucial at busy times of the year such as the holiday season. While most people expect dogs to come when called and leave or drop things that they should not have, people often underestimate the value of a solid “Stay”.
During the holidays, there are numerous uses for a good “stay” in place. Suppose you have guests visit, and they are nervous around dogs; a solid “stay” across the room could go a long way to easing their anxiety. And how about when the front door is open and you don’t want your dog to run off? A variation of “stay”, where a dog “stays at his place” on his bed or mat can also be tremendously beneficial during a holiday dinner, or while you are preparing for a gathering, to keep your pooch out from underfoot.
The most common mistake that I see people make in teaching the stay is to increase the difficulty level too quickly. To begin, have your dog sit or down and tell him “stay”, then very quickly reward and then release him from the stay. Initially, the stay should be no more than a second or two (even less for young puppies) and without moving away from the dog at all. The release can be a simple “OK” or a less commonly used word such as “release”, but should always follow the stay command and the reward in order to assure that the dog does not learn to just get up from stay whenever he wants.
To teach a truly reliable stay, it’s important to have patience and remember the variables or “4 D’s” of stay: Duration (how long he stays), Distance (how far away you are), Distraction (anything that distracts your dog), and Direction (where you are relative to your dog, including out of sight). Work on only one D variable at a time at first. Then, gradually add D’s together, one at a time. So, when adding distance, reduce duration. Then add distractions, and reduce distance and duration. As each D becomes stronger, try mixing and matching them, first 2 at a time, then 3 at a time, until your dog is able to handle all 4 D’s together. Always take baby steps with each new D, whether you are just starting to teach it, or adding it to other D’s.
Another common mistake that I see with “stay” is what many people refer to as “Einstein’s definition of insanity“: doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. If you have asked your dog to stay and he breaks the stay, do not re-try it with the same parameters! Instead, change at least one variable before trying again.
The first variable to work on should be Duration. Very gradually build up from a short, 1-2 second stay, to 30 seconds, 1 minute and longer, without moving away from your dog. Next, work on the distance stay by itself, stepping back from the dog after giving the stay command, with minimal duration. Once the duration and distance have been built up individually, you can begin to add them together, reducing both at first.
It can be really tempting to say, “I wonder if he can do this?” and push him past his limit. Remember not to “go insane”, as this can be counterproductive, and may result in a much longer learning curve. Instead, be sure to reward then release before he breaks each time, and you will achieve a much faster learning process. Strive for success, rather than pushing the dog to the point of breaking the stay each time. The best way to get successful stays is to get successful stays and reward them, then build upon them.
With patience and perseverance, you can teach your dog to have a really solid and reliable stay regardless of the location and distractions present.