Working the Stay Command – You’re Doing it Wrong
Stay just a little bit longer Please please please please please tell me that you’re gonna - The Four Seasons
So you’ve worked hard at recall ("come" command) with your dog. Now what? How about the “stay” command?
If you go about it like most people do, you’ll put your dog into a sit, slowly back off of them, saying “stay, stay, stay”, then crouch down, and call them, giving them a treat when they get to you. Um, yeah…
Remember, you’re trying to catch a behavior and reward it with positive reinforcement. So let’s start at the very beginning. A very good place to start.
Remember the two steps to working with a dog:
Control Yourself. Don’t be angry, don’t be frustrated. Be calm. If you can’t be calm, then be gone and try again later.
Control the Situation. Don’t add energy to a situation you don’t already have control of.
Okay, now, you’re ready to go. Or stay. Whatever.
Get ready to start to Answer Your Dog's Questions.
“Can I get up yet?”.
Not yet, Fido.
We will be using positive reinforcement in this situation because we are asking a dog to do something human: learn a new language. Of course your dog already knows how to stay. So does an elephant, or any other animal. What we are teaching Fido how to do is link a word with a behavior. Any word will do, be it “stay” or “Bananarama”. The trick is to link it to the precise behavior you want, which is for your dog to stay in place.
So let’s take another look at what you did.
You started off well, putting your dog in a sitting, calm position. You then calmly repeated the word “stay, stay, stay”, as you slowly backed off your dog, adding as little energy as you could, making sure you “nailed” your dog to that spot with your eyes and your finger as you back away from your dog.
Listen to your Uncle Sam. He’s got it right.
....And then you derailed the whole thing by calling your dog and rewarding him when he came to you, telling him he was “Good stay! You’re such a good boy…good stay Fido, good stay”. Um,
You’re trying to catch the behavior of “stay”, not “come”. Now your dog is confused. Stay and come have become entwined. Remember, one word for one action. ”Come” means moving towards you. ”Stay” means not moving at all. But you just mixed them up for your dog.
Nice job, Ray. You crossed the streams.
So instead of calling them, after you’ve taken a few steps away from them, as you’re repeating “stay, stay, stay” ad nauseum, simply start calmly and slowly moving towards them again, finger out Uncle Sam-style. When you get to them, give them a reward. Your dog should not have moved a single muscle, staying glued to the floor the entire time. That’s how you catch a behavior.
So, you did it once or twice, merely taking a few steps away from your dog, while remaining in eyesight the entire time. You’ve controlled the present situation (as in Step 2 outlined above). Now you’re ready to add more stimulation: stay command out of sight.
So you put your dog in a sit, Uncle Sam him (I always tell my clients to pretend your index finger is a squirt gun full of holy water and you aim to exorcise your demon-dog, right between their eyeballs)
... and then leave the room, go outside, and take a jog around the block...
Of course your dog didn’t stay! You added too much stimulation. Take baby steps…progress, not perfection. The first time you go out of the line of vision of your dog (maybe around a corner for just an instant), you will still be repeating the word “stay”, calmly, over and over again. You will only pop out of sight for just a brief moment. Your dog stays as you walk back. You reward. All is right with the universe.
Gradually add more and more to the amount of time you disappear from sight. Gradually repeat “stay” less and less. If the first time you repeated it 15 times during the exercise, the next time, try for 14. If Fido gets up, go back to 15 times for the next round, and then try 14 again. And then 12. And pretty soon you’re down to once or twice.
So how long does it take until your dog “gets” it?
Well, look at it like this. I’m currently learning Spanish. Ten minutes after I do one of my language exercises, I can remember almost 100% of the vocabulary words Two hours later, maybe 90%. The next day, 50%. That’s why I practice a lot Your dog is learning not only a new language, but a new way of communicating. Dogs aren’t based on vocal communications like we are. They don’t easily understand inflection or tonality variants from human-to-human. Dogs are based on body language. So cut them some slack, and don’t get angry when they’re being “stubborn”. They’re doing the best they can learning an entirely different form of communication. Give them some help: frequent micro-training sessions of less than a minute. Praise and rewards for getting it right. And the well-earned gift of your patience. Because that’s were true staying power comes from.
Dog Training, Differently