Teaching our dogs to 'stay' is hands-down one of the most useful things we can do for our canine companions. Not only does it strengthen the relationship between human and dog through a working bond, a solid sit- or down-stay can even save your dog's life. In this blog, I'm going to talk about how to do it.
If your dog already knows "say please by sitting", you're halfway there. Have your dog "sit" or "say please by sitting". We're going to start this exercise with a verbal and a visual "stay" cue.
First, place your hand in a "stop" signal, and then allow it to drop to your side. Take one step backward, and immediately forward again so that you're in the same place you began the exercise. Now, here's the critical part! Deliver a treat to your dog before he has a chance to stand up. This entire sequence should happen in just a second or two.
Now, let's say that the moment you step backward your dog pops right out of that sit. You might think, "Oh man, my dog is never going to get this right if I can't get one foot off the ground!" Do not despair! Your dog is watching everything you do - it's not surprising that he is reacting to your motion with motion of his own. So how do we deal with this?
We're going to troubleshoot this exercise with your dog. Instead of stepping backward, just lift your toe off the ground and swing it backwards ever-so-slightly. If your dog stays put, perfect! Give that dog a treat! If not, it's still too much movement for him, so try just shifting your weight as if you were about to take a backwards step, but do not move your foot. If the dog stays put, reward! Gradually increase the depth of your movements, rewarding your dog at each iteration, until you can take one full step backwards, and forwards again. This process rewards your dog through the process gradually enough that they can form a meaningful connection between the 'stay' cue (verbal and hand signal) and remaining in a sit, no matter what movements you might be making.
Carrying on, the trick here is to get back into your original position before the dog stands up. This allows you to reward the behavior you actually want, a crucial element in training any animal, including dogs.
Next, you want to start increasing distance. Once your dog can stay in place for one step back and forward, graduate the lesson to two steps. Start with 5-10 treats ready in hand. Step away --> come back --> give treat --> repeat until all treats are gone.
Do this a couple of times consecutively, and increase the distance again. The goal is always the same - to get back to your dog before he stands up. The only variable here is the increasing distance.
If your dog stands up, it means that you were too far away for too long. Roll the exercise back to an easier distance you know your dog can handle, and work forward from that point. To proof the exercise, try stepping to the right and then to left, using the very same technique. Eventually, work your way around the back of the dog, and slowly increase distance. Before you know it, you will have a perfectly proofed pooch in a stunning sit-stay that you can rely on.
Stay tuned for our next blog on teaching a solid down-stay!
Camille Salter is the founder of All Dogs Toronto and a certified, knowledge-assessed dog trainer (CPDT-KA). She is the author of two books on dog behavior: Pandemic Puppy, Decoding the Dog Park, and the Big Book of Dog Training.