It’s the first question asked in my group classes: I want my dog to stay, how do I teach it? You’ll learn how to teach stay, as well as how to teach wait by the end of this article. Wondering what the difference is between the two? It’s a pretty big difference and you can read about that difference here. Let’s get started with how to teach these behaviors.
The only difference in teaching these two behaviors comes at the very end. The difference is: how you release your dog. From a stay: you’ll always come back to your dog to release him from a stay. From a wait: you can release your dog at anytime from a wait, no matter where you are (i.e. you don’t need to come back to your dog to release him). Why the seemingly miniscule difference? When you put your dog in a stay, you’re telling him to cement himself there, don’t even think about moving. If you always come back to him to release him, he won’t anticipate the release. This is important. If you’ve put your dog in a stay to open the door to sign for a package, you don’t want him to anticipate the release and fun out the door. If, on the other hand, you routinely call your dog from a stay, he’s very likely to anticipate and break the stay, potentially putting himself in danger as he runs out the door.
How to Teach Stay (and Wait)
There are three components to stay and each will be taught independently:
- Distractions – what’s going on when you ask the dog to sit (or down)
- Duration – how long is the dog able to sit (or down)
- Distance – how far away can you go
It’s important that each of these components be mastered individually before combining them.
Distractions: In real life, your dog will need to stay even if the doorbell is ringing, if food is being served, if someone is jogging past, or if you drop food on the floor. To work up to those huge distractions, we start small. If your dog can’t stay while you tap your foot or wave your arm, he definitely won’t be able to do it when the doorbell rings. Make a list of your dog’s biggest distractions – you’ll work on those last. Start with the easy stuff – swing your leg, tap your toe, wave your arm – just be sure it’s easy for your dog to sit while you do one of these. Here’s what it looks like: tap your toe, say “sit,” and click as soon as your dog sits. (Of course, click is always followed by treat.) If your dog can’t sit, don’t repeat the word sit. Simply reduce the distraction to a level that the dog can sit. Work up the hierarchy list until your dog can sit no matter what else is going on around him. Goal: You can ask your dog to sit (and he does) even while the doorbell is ringing.
Duration: When working on duration, we’re simply extending the time the dog is in the sit (or down) position. Work only on duration – there aren’t any distractions when working on duration. You say “sit,” count to two after your dog’s rump hits the floor, then click and treat (as long as the dog stayed seated for those two seconds). If your dog didn’t stay seated, ask him to sit again but click after only one second. Gradually and systematically increase the amount of time that passes from when the dog’s rump hits the floor and when you click and treat. If the dog gets up before you’ve clicked, he doesn’t earn a treat. Ask him to sit again, click him at the point he’s been successful in the past, then work back up to the longer time.
Note: Once you get up to about five seconds of stay, you can begin to use your word “stay” (or “wait,” when you’re working on the wait behavior). Say it just once, no need to repeat it throughout the duration. Also, remember to vary the amount of time you ask your dog to sit/stay, don’t always make it harder. Sometimes ask for just a second, other times ask for 10 seconds, etc. Remember that your dog is working to hear the click -- he knows when he hears the click, he’s done something correct. When you’re teaching him to stay, initially he may think he’s doing something wrong because he’s not hearing the click. It will help if you quietly and calmly say “good boy,” while you’re waiting for the time to pass. That lets the dog know that he’s on the right track and will help him get to his goal. Goal: Your dog can sit (with you right there next to him and without any distractions) for 20 seconds.
Distance: When working on distance, you’re going to begin increasing the distance you walk away from your dog while he’s in a sit-stay. This is taught last because it involves distractions (your moving) and duration (the time it takes you to walk away and return to your dog). How to teach it: Standing right next to your dog, ask him to sit/stay. Swing your foot and click and treat if the dog stays in his spot. Next, ask your dog to sit/stay and take one step (move only one leg) to the right. Click and treat if he stays in his spot. Then take a step (move only one leg) backwards, then to the right, then forward. After each step, you’ll click and treat and re-cue the sit/stay before you move. Continue adding a step to this process (forward, backward, left, right) always making sure the dog gets it right.
Difference between wait and stay: This is where the difference between wait and stay comes into play. When working on the stay, you’re always returning to your dog before you click and treat. If your dog gets up before you’ve returned to him and clicked him, just ask him to sit/stay again. The next time, make sure you’re traveling fewer feet away so you can ensure his success. If you’re working on “wait,” you can click and treat your dog when you’ve gotten the required distance away.
When working on distance, drop out the duration and the distraction requirements. When you walk away from your dog, come right back – don’t wait at the end of the leash for any amount of time. Goal: Walk to the end of a 6’ leash and return immediately.
After you’ve reached each of the individual goals for each element, you can then begin combining two. For instance, you might combine distance and duration by going out one foot, waiting 5 seconds and returning to your dog and clicking (and treating). Or you might combine duration with distractions by jumping up and down for 5 seconds. When you’ve combined all the elements in pairs, you can then move onto combining all three. Remember, though – you’re always trying to set your dog up so he’s successful at this. If your dog gets up from the sit/stay, just re-cue the sit again and ask him for less (less duration, less distance, or fewer distractions).
If you’re working on wait instead of stay, the only difference is that you don’t return to your dog before you click and treat – you can simply click and toss the treat for the dog to get. You can add a release word just before you click as well, to let your dog know he’s free to get up. My release word is “release,” (so creative, aren’t I?). I’m not likely to say “release” in any other context, so I figure it’s a safe word to use. I discourage clients from using “ok,” as it’s a frequently used word. You might very well say “Ok, thanks” to your delivery person as the door is wide open and unintentionally release your dog from the stay.
Your dog will very quickly pick up on the difference between “wait” and “stay,” and will begin to get comfortable in the “stay” position, but will stay attuned to you from the “wait” position. Both are useful behaviors in your everyday life and worth the time to teach your dog.
Here's a quick video so you can see how to work on distractions, distance, and duration.