Stay is a trick that requires superb behavioral consistency. There are two main mistakes that pet owners make when teaching their dogs to stay. These flaws can seriously impact the integrity of your dog’s behavior. A stay is only useful if your dog will actually stay! The most important step in training a behavior is ensuring that your dog is actually learning. Thankfully, if you follow these training directions your dog will be on the road to success.
The Basics of Behavior
Before attempting to teach your dog a new behavior, it is important to understand how dogs learn. All animals learn based on the consequences of their actions, in a process called Operant Conditioning. If an animal does a behavior, the consequence will impact the likelihood that animal repeats the behavior in the future. Take for example, a dog that is digging. If the dog finds a particularly chewy root, and enjoys gnawing on it, the dog will likely dig again in the future. If however, the digging dog finds a nest of ants and gets bitten, they will be less likely to dig again in the future.
The Best Training Method
Now that we understand how the outcome of behavior changes the likelihood of repetition, we can choose a learning method for our dog. The best way to “convince” a dog to repeat something we like is to give them something they like! This is called Positive Reinforcement. In its simplest form, the dog does the behavior, and we give them a treat. So for our purposes, every step the dog takes towards our “stay” behavior will result in a treat.
To Click, or Not to Click
Finally, before we begin working with our dog, we should discuss another lesser-known training tactic. The use of a “bridge” can be an invaluable training tool, if employed properly. A bridge is a signal that tells the animal precisely when they have done the correct behavior. A clicker is a good example of a common bridge, but your bridge does not have to be a click. Verbal bridges are also frequently used, and can be effective as well. When using a clicker, you want to click at the exact moment the dog has done the behavior that we want.
What Not to Do
Now that we understand everything that will be used in the process of training, we can discuss how not to train a “stay”. When teaching your dog to stay, there are two golden rules that should be followed for a consistent and solid behavior. We want to make sure we build up the behavior slowly, using gradual steps, and we do not call the dog to us when the “stay” is over.
The Running Issue
If you teach your dog to stay, but when you release them they come running over to you, they will be anticipating running during the entire behavior. This will make it much harder for your dog to contain themselves and stay when you ask them to, simply because they are soexcited to run. If you return to your dog before releasing them from their stay, they are anticipating hanging out until you come back, which is a much better mind state for a “stay”.
Many pet owners make the mistake of aiming too high in their expectations for their dog. If you begin to teach your dog to stay by walking as far away from them as possible two things happen; your dog will be much less likely to have success, and if you are successful, your dog will have no “fallback” for the behavior. When you begin your behavior at 20 steps away from your dog, and forget to practice for a week, if that behavior breaks down you are back to square one. However, if you have built up your stay one step at a time, your dog will be much more likely to remember the other “steps” if they fail.
How to Teach Your Dog to Sit
Now that we know how dogs learn, what types of methods we should use, and what mistakes to avoid, we can begin the process of teaching our dog to stay. We will build up the behavior one step at a time, literally! This will give the dog a solid basis of behavior and plenty of repetitions to learn “stay” properly.
- Begin with your dog in a “down” position. This will make it more difficult for them to simply walk off.
- Tell your dog “stay” and take one step backwards.
- Step back up to your dog, click your clicker, and reinforce with a treat.
- If your dog struggles with a full step, take a half step. You can also even lean backwards, before returning to your dog. You may also use a hand signal if desired.
- Once your dog consistently stays when you take one step away, move up to two steps.
- Tell your dog “stay” and take two steps backwards.
- Walk back up to your dog, click your clicker, and reinforce with a treat.
- Some dogs will get excited when you walk back to them, and get up into a sitting position. Simply ask your dog to lie back down, and reinforce. If this happens repeatedly, have your treat ready and reinforce quickly, beforethey stand up.
- Once your dog is consistently staying at two steps, move to three, then four, five, etc. Repeat until the behavior was built up to your liking.
If your dog falters at any point you can simply move to an easier step. For example, if they stop staying at five steps, move back to three or four steps for a few more repetitions. Always progress at your dog’s pace, if they are having trouble with the behavior, simply slow your progress. Always remember that training should be fun for you and your dog. Keep your sessions short, and your dog motivated, and your pup will learn swiftly!