It’s one of the most fundamental commands in dog training. But also one of the most poorly executed behaviors. Sure, with the right direction, you can teach your dog to stay in the training center or in your living room.
But what good is a stay if your dog can’t perform it where you need it most? Like at the park when a barking dog walks by and you suddenly realize you didn’t bring a leash. Or in the kitchen when you’ve just splashed an entire pan of turkey juice on the floor and need to go to the other room to grab a towel.
A solid stay isn’t just practical, it can be life-saving. If your dog is a lot stronger than you, then physically holding them back in a dangerous situation may not be an option. A reliable stay may be the only thing standing between your great Dane and a deadly encounter with a moose.
In this article, we’ll discuss how to train a basic stay command. And then we’ll look at how to expand that stay to highly distracting situations and different environments.
What a Correct Stay Should Look Like
While there are some different schools of thought on what a correct heel, a correct loose leash walk, and even a correct down should look like, stay is one behavior that is pretty universal.
When you give the stay command, your dog should freeze in the position you left them in until they are released. This means they shouldn’t step forward or backward, sit down if they were standing, or lay down if they were sitting. They can move their head and shift slightly of course, so long as they don’t move from the spot they were left in.
It takes time before your dog can stay reliably even in your own backyard. But training slowly and at your dog’s pace will assure you have a rock solid stay for the future.
And they should continue to stay frozen until they are released.
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Some owners may find themselves getting a little lax and letting their dog move from a sit to a comfortable down as long as the dog doesn’t move away from the original spot. This isn’t the worst thing in the world, but it does erode your dog’s general understanding of the rules of stay.
Worse still, is when an owner puts their dog in a stay and then allows them to get up out of the stay without being released. It doesn’t matter if your dog moves out of the stay a few seconds after the command is given or an hour, the damage to their understanding of the concept is still the same.
>>>Looking for a behavior less rigid than stay? The wait command is versatile and helpful in many situations that stay is not.
A down stay is a great way to keep your pet in one place for longer periods of time such as while you’re eating dinner or cooking.
How to Train the Stay Command
In order to avoid confusing your dog about what a stay is, you must stay consistent throughout your training process. If your dog already knows how to stay but it is less than reliable, it would be worth it to go back to step one and retrain the command following these steps.
What you’ll need to get started
Start in training in a quiet, distraction-free environment, such as your living room. Having a larger space to work will be a plus once we start adding distance. You’ll also need some high-value treats and a treat bag.
You will need to decide a verbal and physical cue that you will use for your stay cue. In the steps below, I explain to use a flat palm and the word stay, but you can substitute anything you want, just be consistent. You will also need a release word to let your dog know they can get up. “Free” or “all done” are good choices, but it can really be any word that can easily be said in a high-pitched, excited voice.
>>>Confused by all the terminology? Get a refresher on cues, markers, and release words.
If your dog is clicker trained, you can use a clicker to mark the correct behaviors below in addition to praise.
Training should be fun and exciting for your dog. You don’t perform your best in a hostile and unmotivating environment, so don’t expect your dog to, either.
Remember to keep training sessions short so your dog doesn’t lose interest. About ten to fifteen minutes at a time is ideal. And always remember to end each session on a high note.
Step 1: Adding time
We will start by introducing the concept of stay by asking our dog to sit still for only a second or two.
Begin by asking your dog to sit. Once their bum is on the ground hold up your palm so it is flat and facing your dog. Say “stay” and then lower your hand to your side.
The moment your hand gets to your side, praise your dog and give them a treat. Make sure that you move the treat right to their muzzle as you give it so your dog is not tempted to move out of the sit. Your dog should remain sitting through the entire praise and reward process.
Wait one extra second after the treat is given and then say your release word excitedly and step away from your dog to encourage them to get up and follow.
TIP: If your dog is accustomed to getting up out of position once they hear praise or get a treat, they may struggle to remain sitting for that last second. If that’s the case, hold your treating hand at their muzzle for a second even after they eat the treat to help “hold” them in position until you say the release word. As they come to understand the meaning of the release word you can start to remove this extra crutch. If your dog does jump up between the reward and the release word, use your negative marker, move them back into position, wait another second then release them. Do not give a second reward, instead let the release act as their reward.
Remember to only add time in increments your dog can handle. If they break from their stay, you know you have added too much time and need to work up to your goal more slowly.
Repeat this process with each repetition, but slowly add more and more time. For the second rep, wait one second after you drop your hand before praising, treating, and releasing your dog. On the third rep, wait two seconds. Add a second or two with each successful rep.
TIP: If your dog gets up after you give the stay command but before you praise and reward, use your negative marker and lure them back into position. Wait a couple of seconds and then praise, treat, and release. Remove a few seconds from the next repetition and work more slowly to add time from that point forward.
Continue working until your dog can easily remain seated in a stay for about a minute.
In this video you’ll see how to begin adding time to your stay command at a pace that works for your dog.
Step 2: Adding distance
Once your dog has mastered staying for about one minute, then you can begin adding distance
Anytime we add a new variable to a behavior, we always reduce the difficulty of the other variables. In this case, since we are adding the variable of distance, we will reduce how much time we ask our dog to wait at first.
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Start with your dog in a sit as you did before. Give your stay cues, then take one small step backward, so you are still facing your dog. If your dog attempts to follow, use your negative marker, step back into them to move them back into a sit, then slowly try to step away again. It may take a few times before your dog understands that they need to stay in a sit and not follow you.
Pause for one second after taking your step before stepping back up to your dog and praising, treating, and releasing them. Repeat this process, adding a step to each successful repetition. Make sure to only pause for about a second at the end of each distance before returning to your dog.
TIP: It is important that you return to your dog to reward and release them every time you ask them to stay. Dogs associate rewards with the last thing that happened. If you tell your dog to stay, back away from them, then call them to you and reward them, you are only reinforcing the recall behavior, not the stay behavior.
Continue adding distance until you can move away from your dog for about the length of the room. Now, when you step away from your dog, do it with your back turned toward them. Because this is a new variable, you will start by only taking one step, then add a step with each repetition.
In this video, you will see how to add distance to your stay by moving away from your dog while facing them and then while turning your back on them.
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Once your dog is able to stay as you move across the full length of the room, whether facing them or with your back turned, then you can add the time variable back in.
Start with both short time frames and short distances at first. Take two steps back and wait two seconds before returning to reward and release. Then take two steps and wait five seconds. Then three steps and wait four seconds. Continue building up both time and distance in this way until you can move across the room and wait about one minute before rewarding and releasing your dog.
TIP: You always want to set your dog up for success. Each time your dog has the opportunity to mess up (stand up out of sit, move forward before being released, etc.) the stay command will become less reliable overall. If you can add different variables to your stay without your dog ever messing up, then they will have a clearer idea of the command. If you ever think to yourself, “there is no way he can stay while I do this” as you’re training, then don’t do it. Find a way to work more slowly up to that point until you feel confident that your dog CAN do it.
In this video, you’ll see how to combine distance and time to build a solid stay behavior.
Step 3: Changing positions
While you may understand that stay means to freeze wherever you are and stay like that until released, your dog, has a much different interpretation of the command at this point. To them, all stay command means right now is to stay seated while my owner walks around the room for various amounts of time until I hear the release word.
To help your dog build a whole picture of the stay command, we need to continue to introduce different variables. The next thing we will teach them is that “stay” means the same thing whether they are in a sit, a down, or standing.
You may find that you use only a sit stay or a down stay when working with your dog in real life. But training a stay in multiple positions helps your dog understand that the stay command is about freezing in place more than any other detail.
This time, before asking your dog to stay, you are going to put them in a down. As you did in step 1, you are going to give your stay cues once they are laying down, wait for only a second after dropping your hand, then praise, treat, and release. Make sure to get the treat down low and in front of your dog’s muzzle so they don’t move into a sit to get it.
>>>Want an easier way to get your dog to stay out of the kitchen while you eat? Learn how to teach the place command.
As before, you’ll start adding time only at first. You should be able to move a little quicker than you did before, but don’t be surprised if your dog can’t immediately stay for five seconds even though they were just doing it for a full minute. To them, the game has just completely changed and you need to help them understand that the rules are still the same even though they are laying down.
Once your dog can down stay for a full minute, then you can start adding distance again. Do so without time at first. Then, once your dog understands to stay even as you walk across the room, you can start varying time and distance again.
Once your dog understands the down stay, then you will introduce them to the standing stay. This is typically the hardest for most dogs because they aren’t used to being rewarded for standing. Most will offer a sit because that behavior often leads to treats and pets. So be patient and move slowly as you build up time and distance with this one.
A standing stay is usually the hardest for your dog to learn. When in a sit or a down, your dog has to complete multiple steps before they can move out of position. But when they are standing, all they have to do is take one step forward to break the stay.
Start by luring your dog into a stand if necessary, give your stay cues, wait only a moment and then reward your dog while they are still standing. Build up time as we did before, then add distance, then both.
TIP: It may be helpful to keep your hand signal lower than normal at first as well as hold your hands lower at your side while your dog stays. This will help them from misinterpreting a random hand movement for a sit cue.
Step 4: Adding Distractions
Once your dog understands that stay means to freeze, no matter what position they’re in, then you can start adding distractions. You will do this first by adding controlled distractions. Only once your dog can stay through even the most enticing controlled distraction in the living room, will you introduce real-life distractions.
Start with your dog in a sit or down stay right in front of you. Drop a low-value object beside you. This might be a plastic cup, sock, or anything else your dog is likely to recognize but not care about. Just make sure the object isn’t going to spook your dog or make a loud noise when it hits the floor.
Understanding what objects and situations your dog finds distracting is key to picking the right distractions to introduce at the correct time during training.
Your dog will likely look at the object. Watch them carefully. The moment their attention leaves the object and returns to you, praise, treat, and release them.
Not only are you rewarding your dog for staying despite the distraction, but by timing the reward for right after they remove their attention from the object, you are reinforcing them for ignoring distractions as well.
Repeat this sequence with the same object until your dog doesn’t even glance at the object when it falls. Once that happens, treat and release them right away.
Now, get a slightly higher value object. Look to use something that your dog likes, but definitely ranks lower than the training treats you’re using. This might be a stuffy toy or rubber bone. Repeat the above sequence with the new object until your dog completely ignores it again.
TIP: If your dog reacts to an object being dropped by jumping out of position, use your negative marker and move them back into position, wait a few seconds then praise, treat, and release. Then try that object again. Do your best to never allow your dog to get the distraction. This kind of “self-rewarding” will interfere with your message that rewards only come when you complete the stay successfully. If your dog continues to try and get the object, you may need to find something less enticing at first.
Continue this process with higher and higher value objects until your dog will allow you to drop treats, chew bones, human food, and other super high-value objects on the floor without moving. Continue working with each of these objects until your dog will ignore them completely.
Once your dog will tolerate inanimate objects of all types, then it’s time to introduce different types of distractions. This might be someone else walking through the room, a child skipping past, or another dog exploring the room.
Children often make the best distractions. Just make sure your dog is ready for that kind of challenge before you introduce it.
The set up is the same for every situation. Start with your dog in front of you in a sit or down stay (or standing stay if your dog is ready for the challenge) and introduce the distraction. This may mean calling someone else into the room or having a helper let another dog in. Once your dog looks back at you, praise, treat, and release. Then continue with the same distraction until your dog doesn’t even glance in that direction.
TIP: By moving slowly up the scale of things your dog values, you are teaching them that staying through the distraction, no matter what it is, always leads to a reward. With that in mind, if your dog is very interested in a distraction or you know the object is something they love to play with or eat, allow them to do so after you have released them. This further reinforces the idea that staying leads to great things, including the things they must ignore while in the stay.
As we did with the objects, start with low-value distractions first and then move gradually higher. That might look something like: person walking calmly through the room, person walking quickly through the room, person running through the room, dog walking around the room, person walking through the room while eating, person walking through the room while feeding the other dog treats.
Get creative and think about what your dog values. But most importantly, always set your dog up for success and only move at their pace.
In this video you’ll see how to introduce objects as distractions in a way that teaches your dog to ignore them and remain in their stay.
Step 5: Changing Environments
Once you have exhausted your options for distractions in a controlled, calm environment, you are ready to move someplace new.
Consider the different places you have taken or could take your dog. Consider the places with fewer distractions like your backyard, the quiet park down the street, and your friend’s house. But also think of places that are more distracting like the hardware store and the pet supply store.
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Then rank these different places from which will be the least distracting to the most distracting. Your list might look something like this:
- Friend’s house
- Park (on quiet evenings)
- Park (on busy weekends)
- Hardware store
- Pet supply store
In each of these places, you are going to move through the above steps just as you did originally in your house. Start with the least distracting new place and only move to the next place on your list once your dog has mastered step 4.
>>>Before you take your new stay act on the road, read about these 6 things to remember when traveling with your dog.
Practicing stay in all types of varying environments is a great way to help your dog truly understand the behavior.
Don’t worry, it won’t take as long to “re-teach” all four steps in the new environment as it did the first time around. But, because dogs do not generalize well, it will take some refreshing of the basics to get them to understand that a stay in the backyard means the same thing as a stay in the living room. Be patient with your dog and move at their pace.
TIP: If you are working with your dog on stay anywhere that is not fully enclosed, then you should attach your dog to a long line. A long line looks like a typical flat leash but comes in lengths anywhere from 20 to 30 feet. This piece of training equipment is a must-have if you want to train long distance stays in more public locations.
If you move to a new location and find that you can’t get your dog to even complete something as simple as a successful one-second sit stay, it’s a sign that you upped the distractions too fast. Maybe going from the park to the hardware store was too extreme a leap in your dog’s mind. Consider a good middle ground to try first, like the sidewalk outside the entrance to the hardware store.
It’s also possible that your dog is reacting to something specific and not just a general over-excitement that comes with moving from low-distraction to high-distraction too quickly. If your dog is really interested in tall adult men, then a quiet hardware store with a few large construction workers may be more distracting than a playground full of screaming kids. This is where really looking at what motivates and distracts your dog is so key.
Continue to work with your dog in increasingly distracting environments. As your dog generalizes the stay command to more and more situations, you should find you have to do less “re-teaching” in each new environment.
TIP: As distractions increase, you may need to increase the value of the treats you’re using. Your dog may work for kibble in the house, but when faced with large crowds and other dogs, they may require something tastier to keep their attention. Just like you wouldn’t do a harder job with longer hours without better compensation, your dog isn’t going to work harder and miss out on lots of fun exploring without better rewards.
Using stay in real life doesn’t mean you can forget the rules of training. Rewarding the behavior on occasion and varying how long you ask your dog to stay will help keep the behavior sharp and reliable.
How to Keep Your Stay Command Rock Solid
Like many other behaviors, the training for the stay command doesn’t stop once your dog understands the behavior. Not even if they can stay while standing on top of a barrel in the middle of a horse riding competition.
To make sure your stay remains rock solid, you need to continue to practice good technique when using the command. Here are some pointers to keep in mind:
- Always return to your dog before releasing them. You can give your dog an additional command like come or heel before releasing them, but remember that your dog will only associate rewards with the last thing they did, so make sure to at least occasionally reward and release the stay directly.
- Once your dog masters a command, you don’t need to reward it every time. Variable rewards (those that come at random intervals, like a slot machine) are actually more reinforcing than those on a schedule. Praise your dog when they complete a successful stay out in the real world, but also throw in the occasional jackpot reward like a bite of your hamburger or an extra tasty chew bone.
- Real life rewards are valuable in reinforcing behavior. Ask your dog to stay before entering the dog park. Only release them to play once they successfully complete the stay. Feeding time is another great time to practice the stay command and use the bowl of food as an enticing reward.
- Don’t be afraid to go back to basics. If your dog struggles with the stay command out in the real world one day, that may be a sign that it’s time to get back into the training room. Reintroducing the command in an environment with predictable rewards and low distractions can help your dog regain some focus and help you identify any potential weaknesses in their understanding of the cue.
>>>Now that your dog has mastered the stay, use it to take great photos of your pup!
I utilize the stay command with my dog each morning before I take her on a jog. She has to stay next to the baby jogger while I shut the garage door. Without a reliable stay, I couldn’t trust her to sit in the driveway without anyone holding on to her leash.
With the right foundation and consistency in real life situations, you can teach your dog a reliable stay behavior that you can use whenever the situation calls for it. Whether that’s staying out of the way while you clean up a mess in the kitchen or in the park where a forgotten leash is no big deal to your pooch with the rock solid stay.