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How to Teach a Dog to Stay

If you’ve recently adopted a puppy, your furry little pal likely follows you everywhere.  Wherever you are, he wants to be. And, he probably has a bit of trouble holding still, too.

Puppies are just like little kids – staying in one spot for any amount of time is, for them, seemingly impossible.   

But, teaching your dog to stay is also one of the most important commands you’ll want your new little guy to understand, partly because it’ll help him exhibit a bit of self-control when he’s excited, but also in order to keep him safe – giving you both peace of mind.

How do you teach a dog to stay? You can teach a dog to stay using positive reinforcement training, where both you and your pet work together to achieve the desired outcome through a system of rewards.  Be prepared to work through several stages of training that includes both teaching your pet how to hold still, as well as showing him when it is okay to move. This is referred to as both the stay command as well as a release cue.

Before we get into the specifics of teaching a dog how to stay, we’ll first discuss the idea of positive reinforcement training and why it is the best way to train your dog, as well as the incorporation of what is often called “clicker training,” and why it helps.

Teaching Through Positive Reinforcement

Teaching Dog Positive Reinforcement

While there may have been a period of time when punishment via the use of force, intimidation, or “correction” (generally choke, chain, or shock) collars were utilized as acceptable methods to train animals, these methods are widely controversial and most, if not all, veterinarians and animal experts agree that they are not at all as effective as once assumed.

And more than the idea that they are not effective, they are also seen as inhumane, causing unnecessary stress and discomfort, resulting in negative behavioral changes, fear, aggression, and anxiety. 

Positive-reinforcement training is not only much more humane, but it is also much more effective in teaching your dog basic obedience skills, and at the same time, strengthening the bond between you and your puppy. 

The basic definition of positive reinforcement training is that it is a method of teaching that utilizes affirmative techniques, including treats, rewards, and play as the primary way in which to motivate a dog to perform a desired task or skill (source).

Benefits of Positive Reinforcement Training Methods

There are numerous benefits to utilizing positive reinforcement.  Training becomes something that both you and your pet are able to enjoy.  The result, then, is seen in compliance that comes from a desire to please, versus compliance out of fear of punishment. 

In a sense, your pet is motivated to learn because he intrinsically wants to make you, his owner, happy. And, dogs are incredibly eager to learn new skills – it keeps them both mentally and physically stimulated, which is important whether your dog is a puppy or full-grown.

Additionally, positive training allows you to understand the motivation behind some of your dog’s behaviors. If, for instance, you set out to train your dog to stay because he continually lunges at new guests to your home upon arrival, positive reinforcement methods help you to understand the reason behind why your dog is doing so.

Conversely, forcing your dog to stop a behavior masks the underlying reason for his actions. Perhaps he is afraid of new people or attempting to protect you or a family member. Understanding this will allow you to show him not only how to stay, but also how to overcome his fear.

Basics of “clicker” training

Clicker training is a method of positive reinforcement training that essentially uses a small mechanical noisemaker or “click” to mark the desired behavior. 

It is also referred to as “marker” training because you are essentially marking the behavior with sound at the precise time it occurs, helping your dog to better, and more easily, identify the desired action (source).

The idea is to teach your dog to associate the sound – whether you use an actual clicker – or a noise that you are making, such as a whistle or click of your tongue – with the skill you are teaching.   

Better than using only treats or toys as a reward, the clicker or sound marker allows you to be more specific in communicating exactly when the desired action occurs. 

Think of it this way – when you are providing treats alone to encourage your dog to accomplish a new skill or behavior, you are generally doing so after the behavior occurs.  This can be a bit challenging or even confusing for your dog because it’ll take him some time to know what, precisely, he is being rewarded for. 

For example, let’s say you are training your dog how to lie down. He successfully lies down, and then you give him a treat for mastering the skill on command, but do so just as he is about to get up.

He may end up a bit confused about what the reward is for – was it lying down, or was it getting up after lying down? The clicker helps to alleviate this confusion, especially when training more challenging skills.

If you’d like to learn more about teaching your dog the down command, as well as how to roll over, you can do so in the article titled, How to Teach Your Dog to Roll Over.

Nonetheless, clicker training must still always be paired with a reward, likely a treat – but doesn’t have to be so – in order to work. Rewards can be anything from toys, a game he loves, or a good belly rub.

Whatever your choice of reward, the sound you make or click with a noisemaker shows your dog that he is doing something right, and a reward is soon to follow (source).

The most important part of incorporating clicker training with positive reinforcement is timing and consistency, as well as ensuring that every time you “click,” you are also following up with a reward, motivating your dog to continue the desired behavior. 

A Step by Step Approach – Teaching your Dog how to Stay

Teaching your Dog how to Stay

While you may think your puppy can do no wrong – How could such a cuddly little creature get into any trouble at all? – training is essential, and the sooner you start, the better. 

There are some basic commands you will want to teach your little guy as early as 7 or 8 weeks of age (source). In general, the first things you should teach your puppy are general obedience skills, including come, sit, stay, walking with a leash, and lie down (source).

If you are aiming to train your dog how to stay, you’ll likely first want to be sure that he knows how to sit, too.

Teaching Your Dog How to Sit

There are a couple of different ways in which you can teach your puppy how to sit.  One is to essentially catch him in the act, and praise him for doing so. The other is to lure him into position, using a reward. 

Here’s what you’ll need to do to lure him into sitting position:

  1. Get down onto the floor, close to your dog, while holding a treat in your hand.
  2. Put the treat directly in front of his nose, so he knows it is there. 
  3. Then, slowly lift the treat above his head – he’s likely going lift his head and try to get to the treat, sitting while he does so.
  4. Once and only when his bottom touches the ground, give him the treat.
  5. Repeat steps one through four a few times.

Once he begins to understand that you want him to sit, you’ll want to remove the dog-treat, though you’ll still use your hand in the same way, signaling him. 

Now, add in your cue word – here, sit – as you continue to use your hand to direct him.  Eventually, you’ll want to remove the treat altogether, and use only the cue word to show him that you want him to sit. 

You’ll want to do this repeatedly in short, 5 to 10-minute segments for a few days until he’s mastered the skill, offering him a reward each time he performs the task correctly.

You can also use a clicker as outlined above. All you’ll need to do is “click” as soon as your dog’s bottom is on the floor, showing him at the moment he performs the action that he is doing something right, and his reward is coming shortly thereafter.

Teaching Your Dog How to Stay

Now that your dog knows how to sit, you’re ready to show him how to stay. There are many benefits to teaching “stay,” as we mentioned previously, and it’s probably one of the most important skills you can teach, though at the same time, one of the most challenging.

Dogs, like kids, struggle with impulse control. It’s why he’s likely to be chasing a squirrel at one moment, and suddenly start chasing a bird that’s flown directly over his head. 

So, in order to teach this command well, you may want to both incorporate a clicker, and be sure that you are teaching this skill in stages with very clear, well-defined expectations.

The first step is to create a beginning as well as an end to the behavior. In other words, you don’t want to simply show your dog how to stay, but also when it is okay to move.

It matters little what cue word you use as a “release” word, but some include “free” or “all done” or “release.” You simply want to stay consistent in the word you choose as to not confuse your dog.

Teaching the release word

Although it seems counterintuitive, you actually want to teach your dog the release word before you teach him more specifically how to stay for a duration of time.

Since he should already know how to sit, you can first simply tell your dog to sit. As soon as he is in the position, say “stay.” Then, do the following:

  1. Hold your palm out in front of you, while repeatedly saying “stay.” 
  2. Slowly take a single step backward with one foot, then the other, still holding your palm out while continuing to repeat the word stay.
  3. Then quickly – almost immediately – say your release word.  Celebrate and praise your little guy enthusiastically.

He’s not really going to master what you are looking for at this point, and that is okay.  He’s going to be incredibly anxious to run to you. This early in the game, you simply want to work to pair the release word with the command to stay.

Important Note: You don’t actually want to have treats in your hand while working on pairing stay and release. Doing so will only make your dog want to follow you when you want him to stay. 

Staying for longer duration and distance

The tricky part of teaching your dog to stay is doing so in a way that shows him what trainers often refer to as the “3 D’s,” duration, distance, and distraction (source).  We’ll go through the first two below, and discuss distractions in the next section.

Duration – duration is the amount of time you want your dog to stay in a particular spot or position. This is tough for your pet, so be patient and be ready to reward him for small victories. Here’s how to go about increasing duration:

  • Ask your dog to sit.
  • Say “stay.”
  • Without moving, count to three.
  • Use your release word.
  • Repeat, the second time around increasing the amount of time you ask him to stay by 2 or 3 seconds.
  • Reward your pet.

Distance – distance is simply how far away you can move from your dog before he is itching to get up and follow you.  Again, this one is also a difficult impulse control move for your dog, so patience is key. 

  • Give the stay command. 
  • Step away from your dog with one foot, then the other.
  • Say your release word.
  • Repeat, this time increasing the distance you move, doing so very slowly.
  • Reward your pet only when you return to your dog – do not call him to you as this will cause him to anticipate your call, and make it much harder for him to stay. 

Ongoing Training for Stay

As we mentioned earlier, teaching your dog to stay is a challenging skill for him to learn.  Part of this is that dogs live in the present, unlike humans. While we’re often thinking about what we are going to have for dinner by the time we eat breakfast, dogs only see what is right in front of them at any given time. 

When teaching your dog to stay, you will want to do so gradually and in phases, increasing the expectation as you progress. 

As you work on teaching your dog to stay for longer durations of time, try to do things around him before you give him release.  It may be as simple as sitting on the couch while asking him to stay on his bed in the far corner of the room at first.  

Then, move to the kitchen or another room. The idea is that you gradually increase the duration and amount of time as you move around. 

Clearly, distractions are all over the place for your dog – whether it is food, a person passing by, or another animal. It is a good idea to begin training somewhere free from distraction, as much as you are able. But your goal is to increase the potential for distraction as you move through the three phases of training.

You can throw a ball up in the air, or do a few jumping jacks in front of him to get yourself some exercise, too! Start slowly and build up. And, be ready to toss in a few reminders, especially at the beginning.

There are also ways to teach your dog to stay within the parameters of your backyard, which we’ll get into next.

Training Your Dog to Stay in Your Yard

Sure, you can get a fence. But you may not want one, or your neighborhood may have certain parameters around what type of fence you can get, how high or how close to the curb – any one of which may deter you from wanting to put a fence in, or incur the cost of doing so.

If that is the case, you can still teach your dog how to stay in your yard without the use of any type of underground fence or shock collar.    

The reality is that your dog likely isn’t trying to run away when he runs out of your yard.  Remember, dogs generally have a “here and now” way of thinking, and if there is something that catches his attention, he’s going to want to go check it out.

In order to train your dog to stay within the boundaries of your yard, you first need to establish a visible, tangible “barrier” of sorts that he will recognize.

This can be the curb, flags that you place around your yard, or something else. Then, you will need to teach your dog what these barriers mean for him (source).

It is recommended to use a clicker for this type of training to help your dog understand what you are teaching. Follow each of the following steps, and be prepared for lots of repetition and practice:

  1. Leash your dog, walk him around the perimeter of your yard with your make-shift boundaries in place.
  2. Do not let him cross these boundaries, and give them a name (i.e. boundary) – this is your “cue word.”
  3. Circle your yard multiple times, repeating your cue word.
  4. Each time his nose comes close to the boundary you have set, use your clicker at that precise moment.
  5. Reward your pet immediately after.

You may need to use a leash for a few weeks before your dog understands his boundaries. It’s important that each time his nose touches that boundary, you use your clicker and you reward him with a treat and/or praise. 

After he is beginning to get the hang of it (you can let the leash a bit looser and see how he responds when using your cue words), you’ll want to practice with him off the leash.  Again, off the leash, each time he touches those barriers, use your clicker and give him a treat. 

If you do use flags as your barrier, over time, you should be able to remove them or spread them further apart. 

Learn how to teach your dog in 3 quick and easy steps here:

Final Thoughts

Whatever skill you are hoping to train your dog, remember that it will take time. But the time you invest will not only help him to better behave and socialize, but it will also continue to strengthen your relationship and bond with your new little guy (or girl!). 

Be patient. Keep your training sessions short, consistent, and always positive. And have fun! Training should be an enjoyable experience not only for your dog but for you, too!


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