How to Teach a Rock-Solid Stay

Kate Naito
by Kate Naito
The doorbell rings. Lola starts frantically barking, jumping, and clawing to get the door open. You howl, “Lola, sit… stay. Stay! STAY!!” to no avail. Sound familiar?

If so, it’s time to give your dog’s Stay a makeover. Many dogs learn to stay when it’s convenient for them. This may include waiting politely while you prepare her food or standing still for brushing. But when your dog is faced with an intense distraction, such as a ringing doorbell or food that’s fallen from the table, Stay becomes much harder for her to maintain.

Nailing these more challenging Stays starts with teaching relatively easy ones and gradually working your way up to high level distractions. We’re going to follow the popular method of teaching Stay using the Three D’s: Duration, Distance, and Distraction. This method isolates one variable (or “D”) at a time, so your dog won’t get overwhelmed or stressed.

Phase 1: Duration

This is an important warmup for the more challenging Stays ahead.

  1. Ask your dog to stand, sit, or lie down (whichever is most comfortable). Then, say “stay” once and hold out your palm like a traffic cop.
  2. Drop your hand. Look away and count one second in your head. It’s important to look away, so your dog learns to stay put even when you’re not actively watching her.
  3. When you look back to your dog, is she still in the Stay position? If so, mark (“good dog!”) and reward while she is still doing Stay. Then, release with “okay!” However, if she gets up at any point, say “oops!” and remove your reward. Start over.
  4. With each successful rep, add one more second to the Stay. Don’t step away from your pup yet, as we’re focusing on Duration, not Distance.

Phase 2: Distance

Now for the fun stuff. You will walk away from your dog while she is in the Stay position.

  1. Same as before, ask for a Stay and briefly extend your palm.
  2. Turn your head and torso 180 degrees or so, so you’re looking behind you. Only turn for a moment; don’t linger.
  3. When you turn back to your dog, mark and reward for staying. (If she got up, just say “oops” and next time, only turn 90 degrees.) Then release with “okay!”
  4. With each successful rep, start to walk away slightly more and more. It will likely be a quarter step at first, then a half step, then a full one, and so on. The first step or two are the hardest, so be patient.
  5. Tip: Make sure to turn your back to your dog (rather than shuffle backwards) as you depart. Also, always come back to your dog to mark and reward while she’s still staying, so she gets the reward while performing the Stay. Think of yourself as a boomerang.

Phase 3: Distraction

You can practice with any distraction by introducing it at a low intensity first, then gradually building it up. Here’s an example of having your dog stay while you pick up food that’s fallen.

  1. Ask for a Stay as before. Take about four steps away, and then bend your knees slightly. Return to your dog to mark and reward.
  2. Next time, bend down a little lower. After each successful rep, continue bending lower each time until your hand can touch the floor.
  3. Then, as you bend down, gently drop a few treats on the floor. Pick them up again and return to your dog to mark and reward.
  4. Vary the level of distraction by changing the distance, the food item you drop, and how far you bend. Only change one variable at a time.

By practicing at a slow and steady pace, your dog will learn Stay no matter what kind of distraction he encounters. Remember that developing impulse control is a lot of work for a dog, so reward him sufficiently for a job well done!

Kate Naito
Kate Naito

Kate Naito, CPDT-KA, is a dog trainer at Doggie Academy in Brooklyn, NY, and author of the training book, "BKLN Manners." She draws upon her experience as an educator and dog trainer to apply positive training techniques to a challenging urban environment. Kate is a rescue advocate drawn to special-needs dogs and currently has two Chihuahua mixes, Batman and Beans.

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