Teaching Stay & Why this concept is more difficult for many working dogs!
This concept can be very confusing for people because we all have different needs and different expectations for our dogs ability to follow this cue. So before I talk about how I train a stay, I want to address some of the options or uses of this cue and similar cues.
The AKC basic Stay looks like this: You ask your dog to sit or down and walk to the end of your 20 ft longline, expecting your dog to hold position until you hit your desired spot and then call the dog to you. There are higher levels in AKC that call for more, but this is the basic understanding of how the dog demonstrates they know the behavior. This has become the standard of what people expect from working dogs such as Service Dogs (SD) and Therapy Dogs(TD). But this is also difficult for a SD to understand because we focus so much on their ability to move with us and follow us throughout the day, that this seems as though we are changing the rules suddenly asking them to stay while we walk away.
I use a variety of other cues similar to “stay” that have a slightly different meaning to make it easier for my dogs to understand what I want them to do. First I teach a strong “wait” cue. For me “wait” means, this is going to be a temporary pause so keep standing and watch me for signs of moving forward. I always start this training at a crosswalk because it's an easy environmental change the dog can figure out. With a younger or new dog, I will ask them to sit at the crosswalk then give them a “let's go” signal when it's safe to proceed. But as I trust my dog to actually wait, I slowly phase out the sit cue allowing the dog to choose to stand if they want to as long as they wait for my release cue. Then I eventually transition the release cue from the verbal “let's go” to the physical action of picking up my foot and taking a step. At this point in the training, I may also add in my “heel” cue that has been taught in other environments in place of “let's go” since I want my dogs to know that we only cross any road if we are in heel together. Eventually, I don't want to give any verbal cues in this situation but we also encounter new situations regularly where I use these cues often. Basically “wait” means stop and pay attention for some additional cue to be coming in the near future.
I also use a “settle” cue which sometimes is interchanged with an “under” or a “blanket” cue depending on the situation. Settle basically means the dog is to stay in this particular area until they are released. For example, if I want the dog to settle under a table I will give the cue “under” pointing to the table. The dog then is often asked to lay down initially, but in the “settle” situation the dog can get up, turn around, curl up, stretch out, or whatever else they want to do as long as they are calm and stay in the environment provided. I use “blanket” to define an area that doesn't have any natural boundaries for the dog to understand the assigned area. Places like under a table or chair, in a corner, between 2 chairs all provide natural boundaries that my dog can understand without a blanket or mat. If I'm using a self checkout, my dog knows the area is defined as settle near me. But if I'm in an open space such as teaching a dog training session, a blanket or mat allows me to define a space in an area that does not have defined spaces. So all these cues basically have the same meaning, but are used in difficult situations.
Getting back to teaching the AKC standard “stay” cue for anyone who wants to train this position. I like to start with my dog in a down position, mainly because it is easy to read their body language to know if they are about to break the stay by standing up, so I make sure my dogs understands and easily applies the “down” cue. Then once in a down, I start by taking one step back while facing my dog and only holding that for 1 second before returning to my dog and giving the reward. Each successful time, I will try adding 1 step so I quickly move from 1 step to 3-4 steps away from the dog, but still only holding it for a 1 second and returning to the dog. After about 3 minutes of practice, we get up and do something fun then may or may not return to more “stay” training depending on the mental alertness of the dog on that day. After I've made my way up to about 5 steps away successfully a handful of times, I will again go back to 1 step away to start building up the time from 1 second slowly adding up to 5 seconds. Depending on the dog in front of you, the rate at which you increase time or distance will vary. I always return to my dog to provide reinforcement for this training until my dog is solid on what the “stay” cue means. I want to help them to be successful so I teach “stay” completely before I add in the recall cue of “come.” Another tip, I only use “come” as a recall cue in this type of training! When I need to recall my dog in real life situations, I use a special recall cue that is just for me and my dogs. This saves my “come” cue for when I absolutely need a “stay” to be rock solid, which is very rare in my day to day life.