Why don’t you stay?

Doggie Dialogues
Drop, left, Tanner and Maggie show off a more difficult sit/stay on the agility dogwalk. Photos by Doris Dressler

Doggie Dialogues
By Doris Dressler


Doris Dressler

Does the refrain from Bob Segar’s song, “We’ve got tonight,” run through your head when you are trying to get your dog to stay?

“Why don’t you stay?”
Stay is a challenging, but important, cue to teach your dog. I like to use a method called the four Ds when teaching a stay: duration, distance, distractions and delivery of reward. This article will specifically discuss teaching a sit stay, but the same principles apply when teaching the down stay.

The first D, duration, is the length of time your dog remains in a stay.

  • Ask your dog to sit.
  • Using the standard hand signal for stop (palm facing dog), ask your dog to stay.
  • Mark the successful stay with a clicker or verbal marker (a high-pitched “yes”) and immediately reward with a treat.
  • Offer the treat at mouth level so the dog does not break the stay to take the treat.
  • Immediately release the dog from the stay with a release cue. I like to use “okay” but any cue (such as “free dog”) is fine as long as it’s used consistently.
  Doggie Dialogies
  Drop, left, Maggie and Tanner demonstrate the sit/stay cue on an agility pause table.

Now begin to add duration. Repeat the process but, this time, wait two seconds before marking the behavior, rewarding with a treat and releasing.

Next, ask for a three-second stay; then four; then five. Continue increasing the duration until your dog stays for 60 seconds.

Once your dog can reliably stay for 60 seconds (80 percent of the time), add the second D, distance.

  • Ask your dog to sit and stay, using your hand signal.
  • Take one step away from the dog. It’s all right to repeat the stay cue.
  • Immediately step back to your dog, mark the good behavior with a clicker or “yes” and reward with a treat.
  • Release the dog with your release cue.

Because a new variable was added to the equation—distance, lower your expectations for duration. In other words, when you take one step away from your dog, only ask for a two- or three-second stay. Once your dog “gets it,” build your duration up to 60 seconds at 1 foot away.

When your dog can sit and stay reliably 1 foot away for 60 seconds, start the process over, but this time take two steps away. Again, lower your expectations for duration, asking only for a two- or three-second stay, and slowly build the duration back to 60 seconds.

Now start the process over by stepping back 3 feet and asking for a short duration and building up to 60 seconds.

Repeat: Every time you stand a foot further away, lower your duration requirements and slowly build back up.

Experiment with moving to the right or left. See if you can eventually circle around your dog while he remains stationary.

Now that your dog has duration and distance in place, add the third D, distractions. Lower expectations for duration and distance (start 1 foot away and work on a five-second stay) and slowly build up to several feet away and a 60-second stay.

Start with easy distractions at first and build up to more challenging ones.

Delivery of reward
Our goal is to eventually not have to treat the dog after each stay cue. When your dog is first learning the cue, reward every time the dog performs the cue successfully with a “yes” marker and treat.
Now start treating randomly, every second or third time. Always verbally mark every successful stay with a “yes,” and practice at a fast pace to keep the dog interested. Behaviorists have learned the best way to sustain a behavior is by randomly rewarding it.

Again, as you start to cut back on the reward delivery, lower your expectations for distance, duration and distractions and slowly build back up.

Training tips

  • Teach the stay cue after your dog has worked off some energy. A tired dog is a good dog.
  • Train when your dog is hungry; a hungry dog will be more motivated to work for food.
  • Do not release the dog and then reward with a food treat. By doing this, you are teaching your dog the release—not the stay—results in a reward.
  • The food reward should be given while the dog remains in the stay. When releasing the dog, you simply can use a verbal reward marker (“yes”).
  • If you are having difficulty in the duration phase, try showing your dog the treat. If he breaks the stay, the treat disappears behind your back. Your dog eventually will learn that breaking the stay makes the treat go away; remaining in a stay means he will eventually get the treat. Withhold delivery of the treat for longer and longer periods of time. Voila! You have taught your dog to stay.
  • Tether your dog to a heavy piece of furniture. This helps reinforce the stay and gives you additional control. Most dogs will eventually tire of standing and will sit or lie down on their own. This gives you the opportunity to capture and mark the behavior you want.
  • If your dog breaks the stay, react quickly. Don’t get angry. Tell your dog “oops” or “oh-oh” and calmly put him back in his stay. Ask your dog to stay again but, this time, set your dog up for success by lowering the distance, duration and distractions. End on a successful note.

If you’re having difficulty, consider using a remote-controlled treat dispenser. Place the treat dispenser where you would like your dog to stay. Ask your dog to stay; when he does, press the remote control button to dispense a treat from the machine. You’ll be amazed at how quickly you can move through the first three Ds, as your dog remains fixated on the dispenser. Go to amazon.com and search Manners Minder and/or Train and Praise Dog Treat Dispenser.

As always, practice makes perfect. Happy training!


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