How to teach your dog a rock-solid stay

Your dog’s first reinforceable stays will probably be about 1-billionth of a second long.

Training your German Shepherd to perform a reliable stay is not as difficult as it might seem. You only need two things:

  1. Really yummy treats or some other desirable reinforcer.
  2. Patience.

The easiest way to envision stay training is to think of the “No running in the hall” rule. When you were in school, if you were caught running in the halls, your teacher did not grab you by the collar, physically drag you back to where you started, slam you to the ground and yell “Walk!” (Or at least, I hope not.) The teacher simply looked at you, possibly pointed a finger, and requested in a normal tone that you return to where you started and walk – rather than run – down the hallway.

This is how we instruct our dogs – although, because German Shepherds are experts at nonverbal language, we can simply accompany them back to their original starting position rather than ask them to return.

Here’s the hardest part about teaching the stay exercise: It’s your job to make sure the dog doesn’t get up! This is where we need patience.

There are only two possible scenarios in stay-land.*

Scenario #1:
Dog sits, you ask dog to stay, dog stays, you click and treat, or say “Good” and release.

Scenario #2:
Dog sits, you ask dog to stay, dog gets up — you accompany dog back to the start of the exercise and repeat, hoping for better results. (An alternate version of Scenario #2 exists if you don’t have the dog on leash or in a fenced area, whereby the dog gets up, then proceeds to run away, chase squirrels, cats, birds, trucks, etc., or pee on the neighbor’s trash cans.)

The easiest way to ensure that Scenario #2 never happens is to time your click and treat before the dog gets up. Your dog’s first rewardable stays will probably be about 1-billionth of a second long, because that’s how long your dog will remain sitting after the first few times you say “Stay.”

Gradually extend the length of the stays to whatever amount of time suits you, using the principles outlined above. However, throw in some random stays of shorter duration so your dog doesn’t begin to perceive the “stay” command as an aversive (i.e., “Each time she asks me to stay, I have to sit here for longer and longer periods before getting a treat – forget that, I’m outta here!”)

Extend the distance of the stays gradually, as well. Remember to extend distance the way you want the real-life behavior to look: For example, don’t begin to increase distance by backing away from your dog; begin by turning away. A stay the length of several football fields doesn’t do you much good if you can’t turn away from the dog!

As usual, the click ends the behavior, which means the dog can get up after you click. Eventually you can replace the click with a release word. Toss the treat after you click, to get the dog in standing position for the next stay exercise.

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