by Mirkka Koivusalo, MSc, PhD, owner of Mindful Behaviors and co-owner of the Toronto Centre For Canine Education

This is a statement I commonly hear from dog owners and to which I usually reply “Have you done any stay training with your dog?” In the majority of cases, the answer is “When I feed my dog I tell him to stay and then release him to the food bowl.”

Well, that hardly constitutes stay training in any context other than dinnertime!

Teaching dogs new behaviours depends very much on their surroundings, since they generalize behaviours to different environments very poorly, even though some dogs are obviously better at it than others. I am willing to bet that a dog who has heard the word “stay” only in the kitchen while waiting for the food bowl has absolutely no idea what it means when visitors arrive to the house, there are other dogs running around, or you leave them to get something from another room. These variations in the environment are distractions, and you need to practise with your dog and train them in these different environments if you want them to “stay.”

“Stay” can mean different things to different people, but mostly we think of it as telling the dog to maintain their position until we tell them otherwise. It is actually a very easy behaviour to train. The hardest part is patiently breaking it down into tiny increments your dog can grasp and learn. But like any behaviour that we train, shaping “stay” in small steps will actually help the dog to understand the task faster.

The first thing to consider is the dog’s frame of mind when practising “stay.” Because we are dealing with a calm, stationary behaviour, ideally your dog should be relaxed but attentive. With the more chill types, “stay” is obviously an easier exercise. With dogs who are hyperactive or are feeling stressed, the first thing to actually train is how to relax in a calm environment, and then you can shape the stationary position is very small steps.

The goal is simple: have your dog stay still in whichever position you would like them to, usually sitting or lying down. The how-to is also simple: once they offer the behaviour, offer a reward and then, as you continue to train, delay delivering the reward in one-second increments.

I usually start using the word “stay” once the dog can maintain a good, relaxed anchor for the position for at least five seconds. As an aside, you don’t necessarily need to say the word “stay” to train the behaviour. Use whatever cue comes naturally to you and your dog. Some people prefer not to use any additional verbal cues at all but train stay as “do not move until you hear a release word.” That works well too.

Next set a goal for yourself – it truly helps! For example, work your dog up to a two-minute stay in position while the doorbell rings and a visitor comes in. Work your way up to this goal by slowly practising with different distractions: you moving away from the dog just one tiny step at a time, always going back to your dog and rewarding them. After rewarding your dog, cue “stay” again for a new repetition if you are using the verbal cue. You can then gradually introduce the different distractions that will happen during the process:

  1. the doorbell ringing or a knock at the door,
  2. the door opening,
  3. a person coming in,
  4. you talking to the person, etc.

Always reward your dog after every step/distraction. This teaches your dog that whatever new environmental stimulus may appear, it is just another cue for them that Mom or Dad will come back and give them a treat.

A final note: When leaving your dog alone in the house or tied up while you run in quickly to a store, if you tell them to “stay” and you have been practising the behaviour diligently with them, you are most likely still setting your dog up for failure. Here’s why: You have spent a lot of time teaching your dog that when you say “stay” they will get rewarded if they don’t change into another position, but now that you are leaving them alone, they will most likely get up. Not to mention, is it really necessary for them to be in a stay while you’re away from them? If you just want to convey the message that you are leaving but will be right back, you can use a different verbal cue, if you feel the need to use one at all.