Dog Training Tips: The Problem With “STAY”


NYC Dog trainer Elisabeth Weiss works with small dog

Remember the coloring books you had as a child where you needed to try and stay INSIDE the lines?

A long time ago I wrote a blog post discussing “inside out training”. I discussed the idea that people tend to get a behavior by drawing a line in the sand, namely by correcting a bunch or errors (going outside the lines) until the dog performs a behavior that does not “go over the line”. In the meantime that actual behavior that needs to be nurtured and painted in deeper and deeper colors so it becomes joyful and expressive stays “empty”.

When you elicit or teach a behavior though you start with a little dot that gets reinforced and reinforced and painted over and over so that the colored field gets larger and larger and when the behavior is fully “filled out” or “shaped” then you have taught the behavior.

In other words you don’t teach what NOT to do.

Recently a very dear client mentioned her dog has to learn how to stay; she asked me “what is the signal for that? She needs to know STAY.”

I tried to explain that the hand signal or the verbal cue could be anything she wanted it to be, but the process of staying is only associated with the cue after the process is understood. Sure you can use a signal that kind of implies a holding back or staying back but how appealing is that to the dog who wants to be with you naturally?

So again: we have to reinforce the behavior, fill in the painting, grow the nascent behavior into a fully comprehended experience before we can expect a “stay”. Otherwise stay means nothing. Asking a dog to do nothing is very hard. So we have to teach other behaviors which require voluntary stillness on cue for “stay” to have meaning for the dog. If you want a happy and frustration free “stay” you better create a very elaborate association with lots of delicious food, praise, and games that follow. Reward the experience of remaining in one spot by making it very desirable to the learner, otherwise where is the motivation to “stay” in one spot?

I have found that asking the dog to stare at a cookie is really helpful once they understand the concept of “leaving something” or waiting for permission to take something. But again that needs to be taught as a game that pays off.

All duration behaviors need to be taught in short increments which actually could be seen as back chaining the behavior also. Start at the “end” of “stay” in other words just before you are going to release the dog or start playing with the dog when you return to the dog. It is always easier for the dog/puppy to learn that on a geographically defined area, a mat, a platform, even a towel could do sometimes.

Once you have a very solid stillness you can make it harder by increasing distractions, movement/distance away from the still dog and/or adding weird noises.

Once you have that: insert a cue. That, ladies and gentlemen, can be ANYTHING your heart desires from a hand signal to the presence of the mat itself to putting on a hat… really! It is most important to choose something that is the most fun, easiest to remember, and will always make you smile.

I taught Zeldi to do a specific leap when I say the name of a favorite restaurant in Vienna. Granted that is a fun behavior in itself, but naming it Figlmueller makes it automatically hilarious for me too. She will NEVER feel I want her to do something boring and tedious.

The worst thing you can do is make a still behavior a drudgery for both of you. So again, make it a desirable game and you will be much more successful, and success breeds on itself, as we know!

Good luck and let me know how you fared!!

Elisabeth Weiss is a highly certified, experienced dog trainer in Manhattan, NYC. To learn more about dog training services, contact us by phone at (917) 783-1473 or our contact form.

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